Using Games and Avatars to Change Learner Behavior

A recent article in Wired presented an interesting research finding. Flying around a virtual world as a superhero made subjects nicer in the physical world.

The study conducted by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab conducted a study where they took 30 male and 30 female participants and immersed them in a virtual world and assigned them either to play a superhero character who could fly or to become a passenger in a helicopter. The subjects were then directed to either join a tour of the city or to save a lost diabetic child in dire need of insulin. After the game was over, participants waited as the researcher then “accidently” spilled a cup of pens a few feet away. The results were interesting. Any participant who did NOT help had been in the virtual world as a passenger in the helicopter. No former virtual world helicopter passengers helped pick up the spilled pens. People who played superheros—from either scenario—took an average of just 2 seconds to respond and help while those in the helicopter scenario took between six and seven seconds to help. [1]

This is interesting by itself but when you combine it with the results of other similar studies, it becomes clear that pro-social games can and do influence behavior positively.

Other research has shown that pro-social games—games where the player is helping others—have a positive influence on pro-social behavior.

In a study led by Douglas A. Gentil from Iowa state university with researchers from around the world, the findings indicated that video games in which game characters help and support each other in nonviolent ways increase both short-term and long-term pro-social behaviors.[2] The research team reported on three studies conducted in three countries with three age groups.

In a correlational study, Singaporean middle-school students who played more pro-social games behaved more pro-socially. In two longitudinal samples of Japanese children and adolescents, pro-social game play predicted later increases in pro-social behavior. In an experimental study, U.S. undergraduates randomly assigned to play pro-social games behaved more pro-socially toward another student. These results across different methodologies, ages, and cultures provide robust evidence that pro-social games can positively impact pro-social behavior.

In another study, researchers wanted to see if a person’s empathic reactions to social issues could be influenced by playing an interactive digital game. The study focused on a game called “Darfur is Dying”. It is a narrative-based game where the player, from the perspective of a displaced refuge, negotiates forces that threaten the survival of his or her refugee camp. It is meant to highlight the plight of people who have been displaced by the fighting in the Sudan region of Africa. Two experiments were conducted.

The first experiment demonstrated that playing the “Darfur is Dying” game and resulted in greater willingness to help the Darfurian people than reading a text conveying the same information.

The second experiment added a game watching condition and results were found such that game playing resulted in greater role-taking and willingness to help than game watching and text reading. The study provides empirical evidence that interactive digital games are more effective than non-interactive presentation modes in influencing people’s empathic reactions to social issues.[3]

These positive effects pro-social games is just one more reason to consider using games for your training requirements. The results of using a game can be far larger than merely knowledge transfer, if designed properly, they can impact behavior in a positive manner.

Also see my article Can a Video Game Make Someone Nice? The Positive Impact of Pro-social Games for a discussion of an additional research study on this topic published at eLearn Magazine.


[1] Rosenberg, R.S. Baughman, S.L., Bailenson, J.N. (2013) Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior. PLOS One., 8(1), 1-9.

[1] Albert K. Liau, Angeline Khoo, Brad J. Bushman, L. Rowell Huesmann and Akira Sakamoto Douglas A. Gentile, Craig A. Anderson, Shintaro Yukawa, Nobuko Ihori, Muniba Saleem, Lim Kam Ming, Akiko Shibuya. (25, March, 2009) The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2009 35: 752.

[2] Peng, W., Lee, M., & Heeter. (2010) The Effects of a Serious Game on Role-Taking and Willingness to Help, Journal of Communication. 60 (2010) 723–742

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