Could “practicing” your firearms skills with violent video games that reward headshots adversely affect your performance with a real gun?
A new report on an experiment at Ohio State U. raises that question.
What are known as “first-person shooter games” (FPS) are “often used to train soldiers and police officers,” notes Dr. Brad Bushman, an OSU professor of communication and psychology who specializes in studying human aggression and violence.
But his recent findings about FPSs, he writes, “suggest that such games might train individuals to hit the wrong part of the body” in a real encounter.
His study, he says, is consistent with a behaviorist theory called “operant conditioning”—the fundamental idea that “people are more likely to repeat behavior that has been rewarded and less likely to repeat behavior that has been punished.”
Bushman’s research team individually tested nearly 300 college students. About half were male, nearly 90% had never owned a real gun, and a slim majority had never fired a real gun.
They were randomly assigned to learn and then play one of three video games:
- A violent FPS that rewards players for shooting and killing realistic human targets that have become zombies. Higher points are awarded for headshots since the most efficient way to kill zombies is to destroy their brains.
- A nonviolent shooting game in which players are rewarded for avoiding bull’s-eye targets that have human faces on them.
- A nonviolent, nonshooting game that “rewards players for collecting stars and completing challenging levels in a creative, animated world.” Participants were told to “score as many points as possible” in their game in a 20-minute period.
Immediately after playing, each volunteer was given a realistic training pistol to shoot 16 Velcro “bullets” at a life-size male mannequin positioned 20 feet down a narrow hallway. Participants were told to “hit the mannequin with as many bullets as possible, but they were not told where to aim.”
Some shooters struck the dummy every time and some missed every time, but overall about 75% of the rounds fired impacted the target.
“Based on operant conditioning theory,” Bushman explains, “participants who played [the] violent shooting game that rewarded headshots were expected to have the greatest number of hits to the mannequin’s head.”
And indeed that did prove to be the case. Those who played the violent game that rewarded headshots had “26% more hits to the mannequin’s head than did participants who played the other two video games,” Bushman writes.
Thus, he believes, “the behavior that was rewarded within the game ‘bled over’ ” into shooting a realistic gun after the game was turned off,” even after just 20 minutes of gameplay.
Men had more mannequin head hits than women. And “participants whose favorite video games [in real life] were violent shooting games also had the most hits to the mannequin’s head,” suggesting a long-term effect of playing violent games that reward headshots, Bushman says.
How many guns the volunteers had owned or fired previously, as well as their general attitude toward firearms, did not prove to be “significantly related” to where on the mannequin they aimed, Bushman says.
Interactive video games can be “excellent teachers,” Bushman states. But, he suggests, “FPS games also have a serious drawback when it comes to training people to shoot a gun. Namely, FPS games train people to aim for the head, which is a poor strategy if you want to hit your target.
“The head is the smallest lethal target on the human body, and if you miss the head you are likely to just hit air…. The torso is the largest lethal target on the human body, and if you miss the torso you might hit another body part rather than just hitting air.
“Thus, it is best to aim for the torso when firing a gun in the real world. If violent shooting games are going to be used to train soldiers and police officers, it would be better to use violent shooting games that reward torso shots rather than headshots.” Some FPSs can be easily modified accordingly, he says.
Bushman acknowledges limitations in his study. Also, he points out, exposure to violent video games “is just one factor among many that can influence” where a shooter aims when firing a gun for real.
More research is needed in this under-studied area, he says, to better define “the long-term, cumulative effects of playing violent shooting video games on the use of real guns” by police officers and offenders alike.
A paper on Bushman’s study, titled “ ‘Boom, Headshot!’: Violent First-Person Shooter Video Games that Reward Headshots Train Individuals to Aim for the Head When shooting a Realistic Firearm,” has been accepted by the journal Aggressive Behavior. At this writing, the publication date has not been announced
Our thanks to Dr. Dawn O’Neill, a behavioral scientist with the Force Science Institute’s Division of Research, for helping to facilitate this report.