SCIENCE
03/25/2014 08:29 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

Video Games Promote Racist Thoughts & Behavior, Study Of White Gamers Suggests

Fairly or unfairly, video games have been blamed for all sorts of physical and emotional ills -- from eyestrain and headaches to obesity and aggression. And now a controversial new study has linked violent video games to racism.

The study, led by an Ohio State University researcher, shows that white gamers who use black avatars when playing violent video games are more likely to hold negative views of and exhibit aggressive behavior toward blacks afterward.

"Playing a violent video game as a black character reinforces harmful stereotypes that blacks are violent," study co-author Dr. Brad J. Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the university, said in a written statement. "We found there are real consequences to having these stereotypes -- it can lead to more aggressive behavior."

But not everyone is playing along with Bushman.

"It's really just not a very good study," Dr. Chris Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. and a leading expert on the psychological and behavioral effects of video game playing, told The Huffington Post in an email. He criticized the researchers' methodology and their interpretation of the results, saying "It's really quite irresponsible for the scholars here to try to generalize their results to the degree that they do."

Previous research has suggested that playing video games -- even violent ones -- can boost gamers' health, learning, and social skills. There's even evidence that video games can help curb bullying, Ferguson said.

For the new study, which was published online in the journal "Social Psychological and Personality Science," Bushman and his collaborators performed two related experiments. In the first, 126 white undergraduate students (60 percent male) were randomly assigned to play the game "Saints Row 2" as either a white or a black avatar. (Screens were arranged so that the players could see the avatar at the start of play.) Some of the players were given a violent goal (to break out of prison). Others were given a nonviolent goal (finding a chapel without harming anyone).

When tested afterward, the players who used a black avatar toward the violent goal showed stronger negative attitudes toward blacks. For example, they were more likely to agree with the statement "If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites."

A second experiment in which 141 white students (65 percent female) played either "WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010" or "Fight Night Round Four" yielded similar results, according to the statement. It showed that the participants who played a violent game as a black avatar acted more aggressively against a fictional partner than did those who played as a white avatar.

"This suggests that playing a violent video game as a black avatar strengthens players' attitudes that blacks are violent, which then influences them to behave more aggressively afterward," Bushman said.

Just how common is it for white video gamers to pick a black avatar? Dr. Bushman said in an email to HuffPost Science that he didn't know. But he said he was convinced that it was time for games to change.

"I would like to see Black characters in prosocial roles, such as doctors helping heal people instead of gang members trying to kill people," he said in the email.

What do you think? Please let us know in the comments.

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