Role Playing Games Desensitize To Real Experience
October 29, 2013

Role-Playing Games Desensitize Us To Real-World Experience, Says Study

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Role-playing video games (RPGs) can alter our experience of reality and desensitize us to valuable real-life experiences and important body signals, according to a study published this month in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany and Steve Loughan of Melbourne University in Australia studied what happens when gamers assume the role of and identify with a nonhuman character such as an avatar during immersive video gaming. Avatars are often depicted as having automaton-like, robotic characteristics such as mechanistic inertness, rigidity and a lack of emotion and warmth. The scientists were particularly interested in how these games influence the experience of pain.

In the first part of the study, participants were asked how long they spend each week playing video games. The responses were then correlated with a measure of pain tolerance by counting the number of paperclips that they could retrieve from ice-cold water. In a second experiment, participants played either an immersive or non-immersive computer game before taking part in the same pain-resistance task.

The results showed that the immersive video-game players exhibited a reduced sensitivity to pain, and removed significantly more paperclips from ice-cold water compared with the non-immersive players. They were also more indifferent to people depicted as experiencing displeasure.

Weger and Loughnan concluded that when acting from the perspective of an automaton-like avatar, individuals tended to become desensitized both to personal pain as well as that experienced by others. The perspective adopted during video gaming appears to have implications that extend beyond the virtual environment and into real life, the researchers said.

Dr. Weger points to what he sees as a misleading development – that the human-machine boundary is increasingly being blurred, either by humans entering virtual machines/robots, or by giving increasingly human qualities to animated figures and toys.

Machines are being programmed to adopt human inclinations, while virtual characters and robots have started to perform tasks or roles that were traditionally held by humans, such as that of robot counseling therapists. In such an environment it becomes increasingly easy and normal to regard artificial beings as analogous to humans, the researchers said.

“We see this blurring as a reality of our time but also as a confused and misleading development that has begun to shape society,” Weger said. “We believe this should be balanced by other developments, for example, by working on our awareness of what it really means to be human. We should also look into how we can best make use of the beneficial applications of robotic or artificial intelligence advances, so as to be able to use our freed up resources and individual potentials wisely rather than becoming enslaved by those advances.”