Even though I’m hardly a gamer, I couldn’t miss the fact that the highly-anticipated new game Diablo III was released this week. It’s difficult not to notice when half of your friends suddenly decide not to leave home for a few days. As they sit in their apartments, blissfully wrapped up in…whatever the levels or characters are called (as I said before, I’m not exactly a gamer), it’s difficult to really blame them for doing this. After all, what’s really the harm in claiming a few summer days for a well-earned gaming break?
Well, naysayers love to hate on video games for all sorts of things. Usually the complaints tend to fall on two different ends of the “activity” spectrum; either people are bemoaning the idea that video gaming activity encourages violence, or they’re claiming that gaming’s sedentary nature encourages laziness.
But what about other, healthier activities — like exercise? If video games encourage violence, do they also encourage positive physical activity, like exercise? Or, if video games make people lazy, are gamers less motivated to go for a jog?
Should my friends be thinking about their waistlines while they’re tied to their computers?
Before we answer this question, it’s important to understand something about “goals.” When we think about our goals, we often think about specific things, like “jogging once a week” or “getting straight A’s.” But people often hold overarching goals to either “be active” or “be inactive,” and these goals have a strong influence on our everyday behaviors. Sometimes, we’re just motivated by the goal to “do something” — regardless of what that something happens to be.
Based on this logic, participants in a recent study at the University of Illinois were primed to have either an “action” or an “inaction” goal by filling in the blanks for a series of 24 words with missing letters. Critically, in the “action goal” condition, half of the words had to do with action (e.g. “g _,” which would be completed as “go”). In the “inaction goal” condition, half of the words had to do with inaction (e.g. “sto_,” which would be completed as “stop”). This effectively activates the goal to either “do something” or “not do something” in participants’ minds. Before this happened, however, the participants in both goal conditions had been randomly assigned to either play a video game (the activity) or watch someone else play the video game (the inactivity). Finally, all of the participants were given a description of several exercises that they could easily perform in the lab, and told that they could spend as much time as they wanted doing the exercises.
The experimenters then measured one, simple thing: How long do the participants spend exercising?
First of all, the action/inaction goal manipulation had an effect. Participants who were primed with the goal to be active exercised for significantly longer than the participants primed with the goal to be inactive (about 33 seconds longer, on average).
But here’s where it gets interesting: When people had a goal to be active and hadn’t played the video game, they exercised for about 1 minute and 5 seconds longer than those who had the goal to be inactive — a significant difference in exercise times, meaning that having the goal to “do something” encouraged those participants to exercise more. However, when participants had already played the video game, there was no difference in exercise times between the two goal conditions – for people who had spent time playing the video game, adopting a goal to “be active” didn’t make any difference in increasing exercise time. 1
What does this mean, in plain English? It’s pretty simple — when you’ve done something active, like playing a video game, subsequently adopting a goal to “be active” might not actually lead you to be more active, since you’ve already satisfied that goal…so, playing video games essentially might decrease your motivation to perform a healthier activity (like exercise). When you don’t play the video game, you can effectively adopt the goal to be active — so you may be more likely to exercise.
However, even though this may seem dismal, there’s another side of the coin.
Past research on action and inaction hasn’t exactly limited itself to the distinction between exercising and being a couch potato. In fact, people who hold goals to be “active” might satisfy that goal by choosing whatever type of activity is the easiest and most accessible. If you’re comparing video gaming to the alternative of running 5 miles, then video games come across as the villain.
But all activity may not be as healthy as a 5-mile jog. In fact, in countries and U.S. states where there are higher rates of exercise and political turnout, there also tend to be higher rates of different kinds of activities — like, for example, methamphetamine abuse.
When it comes to general goals to be active or inactive, sometimes people just have a need for speed — whether that means a half-marathon, a Diablo III marathon, or… well… speed.
So, video games might not be great for fighting the obesity epidemic. But what about the crime epidemic? What about the drug epidemic?
After all, if someone’s general goal to be active could end up being manifested as drug abuse…doesn’t a day of Diablo III seem like the healthier alternative?
1. Even though differences like 30 or so seconds may not seem that huge when you think about exercising in everyday life, it’s important to remember that this was a quick study that took place within the lab. For the purpose of this task, the average amount of time spent exercising overall was only about 2 minutes. With this in mind, a 30 second difference actually becomes quite significant.
Hepler, J., Wang, W., & Albarracin, D. (in press). Motivating exercise: The interactive effect of general action goals and past behavior on physical activity. Motivation and Emotion. DOI: 10.1007/s11031-011-9267-0
Albarracin, D., Hepler, J., & Tannenbaum, M. (2011). General Action and Inaction Goals: Their Behavioral, Cognitive, and Affective Origins and Influences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (2), 119-123 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411402666
Noguchi, K., Handley, I., & Albarracin, D. (2010). Participating in Politics Resembles Physical Activity: General Action Patterns in International Archives, United States Archives, and Experiments. Psychological Science, 22 (2), 235-242 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610393746
Note: This work was conducted in my lab at the University of Illinois. I am not an author on the main study discussed in this post, but I am a co-author on a recent review paper of general action and inaction goals [see citation above].