Friday, March 03, 2006

Virtue is a matter of habit

Aristotle believed that virtue and vice were functions of habit. If you habituate a child to do the right thing, after a while it becomes habit and the child does the right thing reflexively.

I think Aristotle's views make an interesting contrast with a recent post at Terra Nova on cultivation theory.

Essentially, cultivation theory says that immersing yourself in representations of reality affects your view of reality.

This seems reasonable for children who have trouble telling the difference between cartoons and commercials. And there are plenty of cases of juveniles injuring themselves when trying to replicate one of the stunts performed on Jackass.

If cultivation theory is correct, can we cultivate virtue as well vice?
The idea behind cultivation is that if you see a lot of something and it's fairly consistent, it's easy to remember. TV has always been awful for this research because it has a lot of variety. I think that in comparison, a gamer's [Massive Multiplayer Online Game or MMO] diet is probably a lot more consistent: one thing, played a lot, over a long time.

So what exactly did I find? I had people playing an MMO (Asheron's Call 2, we hardly knew ya) for one month. At the same time I had a group not playing an MMO. I asked both groups about the likelihood of violence in the real world along four dimensions: assault with a weapon, murder, rape, robbery. As it turns out, only one of those occurs in AC2, and that's assault with a weapon. I think it's no stretch to claim that weapons are a central focus in that and many MMOs. So what's wild is that after the study ended, the people who played AC2 thought that getting assaulted with a weapon in real life was much more likely than those who didn't play.

Think about that. Playing the MMO actually changed the players' perceptions of reality.

Now I know what your reaction is right now. It's Wait a minute, wait a minute, let's not have any more of this crazy effects nonsense and let's not hear about why games are bad anymore. Only I think that's wrong on both points. The study is pretty solid. Control group, strong statistics, the works. No other possible explanations for the findings.

Now as for the good vs. bad, here's where I think it gets interesting. Let's say you are with me and you buy the findings....consider that the thing that generated cultivation could be good or bad.

What if a game generated trust? Do we want people to become more trusting from playing MMOs? The answer depends on whether they were overly or under-trusting beforehand. I think. And of course the kinds of cultivation could vary quite a bit from title to title....

Perhaps virtual cultivation could improve human relations. Lai (2003) has shown how American MMRPGs stress racial diversity. Could spending time in diverse worlds improve real-world perceptions of other racial groups or lead to ethnic tolerance? Or could it foster stereotypes (Nakamura, 2001)?

["]Can time spent in a prosocial environment featuring sharing, altruism, and generosity improve our perceptions of others offline? Many games make a point of rewarding virtuous behavior, although a handful, like the Grand Theft Auto series, glorify antisocial behavior."|Terra Nova|

While interesting, I think the study is probably flawed b/c of self-selection by gamers. I used to play a lot of Grand Theft Auto, but I was (mildly) paranoid and really into guns long before I picked up the game. That's why I enjoy the game...


Jason said...

If there was self-selection, that's a truly crappy experiment. But was it? Is the answer beyond the link that I am too lazy to click? Hopefully he randomly assigned his subjects to the play game group or the not play game group.

Safety Neal said...

If you go read the paper itself, at the Journal of Communication, it says:

Design and procedures
A two-wave, field-based panel study with a control group was used to test the hypotheses
and research questions. Participants were first-time MMRPG players. They were
recruited and assigned randomly to a treatment group that received the game or to
a control group that did not. Participants in the treatment condition were mailed
a copy of the game, along with instructions and time diaries to record their playing
time. Game play then lasted for 1 month. The number of hours played by participants
in the treatment condition ranged from 5 to 275, with a mean of 56 or about 14 hours
per week. Even for the participants who dropped out early, this was by far the longest
exposure to a video game in any experiment to date. The same measures in the preand
posttests were repeated 1 month apart. All pre- and posttest measures were
collected within 1 week of the beginning and end of the stimulus period.

Participants were solicited via online message boards on both game and general
interest Web sites, with language that asked for first-time players. As incentives,
members of the treatment group were given a free copy of the game (retail value
$50), and members of the control group were promised entry into a generous raffle
for other free copies and prizes....

Neal's Comment
My interpretation is that many of the patrons were picked up on game sites and enticed to participate with a free copy of the game. Maybe it's a simple random sample...

Safety Neal said...

I'm willing to admit that I might be wrong. Maybe the methodology is perfectly sound.

I'm not sure what a two-wave, field-based panel study is. It sure sounds impressive, but I would like to know more about the methodology to interpret the results. Although the lack of detail about methodology is commonplace and I'm not singling this author out.