Brad Bushman, a communication and psychology professor at Ohio State University, has conducted many studies demonstrating the negative effects violent video games can have on teens and young people.
He wasn't investigating the possible effects of "relaxing" games because, he says, "Until recently...such games didn't exist. Most video games try to rev people up rather than calm them down."
But the researcher says a growing genre of relaxing games has enabled him to investigate whether, just as violent games can lead to aggressive behavior, nonviolent games can promote positive behaviors.
Bushman and doctoral student Jodi Whitaker are now reporting their findings: that these games not only relax players, but they can lead to, in their words, "kindness." Their research will be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The relaxing game they chose was Endless Ocean, in which players are Scuba divers exploring sea life and sunken treasure, a tranquil world where even shark encounters are of the nonviolent variety. The violent game was Resident Evil 4, and the neutral one was Super Mario Galaxy.
In the first study, they recruited 150 college students to play one of the three games on the Nintendo Wii for 20 minutes. They then took a reaction time test, and while they were told they were competing against an unseen foe, the test involved no actual competitors.
Subjects were told their goal in the time trial was to push a button faster than their opponent when prompted. They were told the winner of the race would receive money, and the loser would be blasted with noise via headphones. Each subject got to choose how much money their opponent should be awarded for a win, and how long and loud the noise blast should be for a loss.
The students who'd just played a violent game chose the greatest punishment for the loser of the timed matchup, those who played a neutral one chose the next greatest, and those who played a relaxing one chose the least. The reverse was also true, with those playing such games as Endless Ocean choosing the highest reward for the winning opponent.
In the second study, conducted almost identically, 116 college students played randomly assigned games for 20 minutes but then completed a questionnaire about their moods. Those who played a relaxing game reported feeling more happiness, love, joy, and other positive emotions than those who played a violent game.
But the researchers took their experiment one step further: When each student completed the questionnaire, the researcher asked if they wouldn't mind helping sharpen pencils for the next study before leaving. It turns out that those who'd just played a relaxing game sharpened more pencils than those who had not.
"These findings aren't the result of some video games being less entertaining or enjoyable than others--we were very careful to choose games that were similar in these ratings," Bushman said. "Relaxing video games put people in a good mood. And when people are in a good mood, they are more inclined to help others."
Whether these "relaxing" video games have any long-term effect on behavior remains to be seen.