Paper: The Psychophysiology of James Bond

Written by Dan Buckstein

Taking care of some baddies in James Bond 007: Nightfire.

What do players feel when they take down a bad guy in a first person shooter, such as James Bond 007: Nightfire?

Citation

Ravaja, N., Turpeinen, M., Saari, T., Puttonen, S. & Keltikangas-Jarvinen, L. (2008). The psychophysiology of James Bond: phasic emotional responses to violent video game events. Emotion, 8(1), 114-120. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.1.114

Summary

In the exploratory nature of this paper, the authors describe a study designed to help better understand emotional responses to violent events in video games. The genre that is evaluated is the first person shooter (FPS) genre, using James Bond 007: Nightfire as the exemplary game. The authors state that little is known about the emotional responses that players experience when a violent event occurs in video games. As such, the goal was not to solve any specific problem, but rather to analyze players’ reactions when four specific events occur in Nightfire: the player wounds an enemy, the player kills an enemy, the player’s avatar (Bond) is wounded by an enemy, and Bond is killed by an enemy.

The authors conducted a study using facial electromyographic (EMG) activity and electrodermal activity (EDA) to index positively and negatively-valenced emotions. The authors identify several hypotheses that the results of the study present as plausible. First, upon wounding or killing an enemy, players exhibited negatively-valenced high-arousal emotions; against the original expectation that these events would trigger joyous feelings in response to the small ‘victory’ of defeating a bad guy, players felt anxious, possibly due to an ingrained moral code which states that injuring and killing is wrong. The second hypothesis was that participants that scored higher on a psychoticism survey taken before the study would feel less of the emotions explored in the first hypothesis; this was demonstrated as these participants still showed anxiety, but showed less of it. Finally, the counterintuitive hypothesis that players would experience some positively-valenced response to having their own avatar wounded or killed was demonstrated as well. This result has two plausible explanations: one is that the death of Bond acts as a “transient relief from engagement” (temporary reduction of stressful attention and behavioural engagement), and the other is that events that would, in reality, be perceived as threatening may present a positive challenge to players when they are actively participating in the game. An important point here is that the characteristics of the event, such as visual impressiveness and excitement may have more influence on the player’s state of mind than the apparent meaning of the event.

Discussion

There are many things I like about this paper. Structurally, it is well-written and the content is clear-cut. The intentions are clearly defined at the start, and the scope is small enough that the authors were able to focus their attention towards a scarcely-explored topic of general interest in the community of game user researchers and provide a specific example with which they determine educated hypotheses and prove them plausible. Furthermore, the authors connected the technical terms (that may be far more comprehensible and applicable to someone in the psychology department) to simpler explanations that are understood by the unspecialized mind, simply pertaining to the emotional responses that all of us have certainly felt at some point when playing video games. It’s a little difficult for me to expand on my opinion of this paper as it is; I have established that it is overall a successful work with a point. Plus, the psychophysiological nature of the paper is a bit beyond the scope of my expertise. It is the use of the FPS genre that had me thinking immediately about the authors’ game choice.

The authors identify that we know little about the emotional responses invoked by violent video game events with knowledge that such events may cause – yes, apparently not correlate with, but cause – aggressive behaviour. Other authors explore the topic as well (Carnagey & Anderson, 2004; Kirsh, 2002). The Bond paper identifies the limitations of other studies, which do not necessarily address that different events may be correlated with counterintuitive emotional responses, and most of these studies ignore the players’ responses on instantaneous, violent events. Thus, the paper addresses a problem and has some valid motivations and concerns with other solutions. The study focuses on the FPS genre: quite possibly perceived as the most violent game genre out there, depending on a few factors. The proposed study explores four pivotal events in any FPS game: wounding and killing baddies, and having the player’s character wounded or slain; the data gathered for these events happily confirm the authors’ hypotheses, most importantly the ones that identify the possible counterintuitive results: the areas which other authors failed to address. And so, with a problem, motivations, a carefully constructed and meaningful experiment, data to evaluate, and positive results, the paper must be a success with respect to the five research questions.

Depending on a few factors.

I especially like the fact that this paper identifies results that negate the expectations. The authors’ use of the FPS genre is definitely justified in evaluating the hot-topic of violence in games. However, due to the game selection, the defiance of expectations may be dependent on another factor. My main concern is, within the genre of FPS, how does ‘situational fidelity’ influence a player’s emotional response?

The first thought to hit me was how the fidelity of the gameplay and story might influence the player’s emotional response. I am not referring to the visual/graphical fidelity or seriousness of the simulation (all games, digital or not, are simulations), but rather an idea that I have come to describe as ‘situational fidelity.’ Ultimately, I have decided that the closer your fictional in-game activities relate to fictionalized real-world activities, the higher situational fidelity you have. Instead of hopelessly trying to expand on this and define it, let’s just look at Nightfire and another game.

James Bond

If I looked as good as Pierce Brosnan, I would never have any problems.

The storyline of Nightfire is meant to follow James Bond, secret agent extraordinaire, as he spies his way through countries around the world to stop a very bad man from doing very bad things… come to think of it, we’ve just described almost all the James Bond lore out there, but that’s okay. When we look at the character of James Bond, what do we see beyond the suit and the guns? He’s a guy with a job and a particular set of skills, who goes to work every day, sometimes travels and meets new people who help him or give him trouble (the latter, seemingly more often).

And so it comes to what gives James Bond the situational fidelity. Would it not be easier for us, as regular citizens, to simulate the character – the idea – of James Bond… sans license to kill? Guys throw on their best suits. Ladies can play the part, too; they can wear the best dresses. Everyone just speaks with their best British accent and the coolest, smoothest talk they can imagine and instantly becomes a badass. You get it. The idea of playing James Bond, or any secret agent, for that matter, I would classify as having higher situational fidelity. He’s similar to us, living in the same era, but what makes him more realistic is the fact that his character is not that far off. Even the events of the plot are based on things that might happen in such a diabolical plot; no alien spacecraft or dinosaurs, just guns and drugs.

Why is this relevant? Perhaps what makes players feel what they feel is the apparent similarity between themselves and James Bond. Their own moral code kicks in and causes anxiety when they do something that, in their own day-to-day activities, would be considered wrong or dangerous. Furthermore, the emotions that players feel are probably more reflective of what Bond would feel as he shoots his way through enemy territories. Personally, I doubt he would take even a second to think, “Yeah, I just pwned that n00b.” Despite being a dignified pro, he would probably be thinking something more like, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…”

So why should we care? Why might this whole idea influence the results of the study discussed in the paper? Let’s take a look at another FPS game. One of my personal favourites is TimeSplitters: Future Perfect – probably the only TimeSplitters game with a plot worthy of mention. The main character of this game is Sergeant Cortez. He, like James Bond, is a badass, but he hails to us from the year 2401. At the turn of the century, humanity’s existence is threatened (sound cliché yet?) by an evil race called the TimeSplitters. Weaponry is far more advanced than we have now (clichés?). Cortez must travel through time to find out where these vile creatures came from, challenged only by a psychotic scientist (how about now?).

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect cover art.

Sgt. Cortez jumping through a time portal like an ultra badass. When I grow up I want to be just like him.

Sure, the implementation is fantastic, but overall it’s a completely fictional story with elements common to many other games. The point of all this is that in a game like this one, which would be far more difficult to simulate in real life, how do we know that players will still yield to the rules and behaviours they currently abide by? The paper’s first hypothesis is that players would either feel joy for completing an objective (A) or anxiety for breaking moral code (B), the latter of which is deemed plausible in this case. In a game with lower situational fidelity (aliens, time-travel, lasers…), it could very well be that hypothesis 1A, the expected result, is the one that comes out because of the disconnection with reality as we know it. My ultimate suggestion is that a set of follow-up studies could determine if such fidelity influences the emotions that players feel in the FPS genre.

On another (brief) note, this situational fidelity thing has to do with another hot-topic in the realm of behavioural study: cartoon violence. There are literature reviews (Carnagey & Anderson, 2004; Kirsh, 2006) that explore the correlations between exposure to violence in a low-fidelity environment and aggressive behaviour. The Bond paper is certainly a step in the direction of linking the two. The question here is whether the generally violent FPS genre is sufficient to conclude where the authors have left off. An entirely low-fidelity, highly-violent game like Cel Damage could be used to capture players’ emotional responses in the events parallel to those explored in the Bond paper: wounding and/or killing enemy avatars, and the player’s avatar being wounded and/or killed. Studies could benefit by using games such as Cel Damage, exhibiting the same core events, only in a totally cartoony environment, with a completely different genre.

In conclusion, I am quite happy with the results of the paper, the methods and the explanations presented therein. I do feel as though there are more contexts to be investigated. How are our emotions affected by different kinds of situational fidelity, both within and outside of the FPS genre? What other game mechanisms and styles could be evaluated to acquire similar, significant results? I enjoy the thrill of being able to control an array of characters from different times and places, of different species and races, which is partially why I think of TimeSplitters as the ideal study material for this particular area of research. The effect of the game is not only dependent on the instantaneous events that occur in a game, but can also be influenced by the situations in which they are delivered. The emotions we feel when interacting with a video game are more dynamic and sometimes surprising than we know, and by making the right choices when preparing studies, we will continue to be surprised by the results. As such, our perception of violent games does not necessarily have to yield only negative things.

Depending on a few factors.

Additional Readings & References

Carnagey, N.L. & Anderson, C.A. (2004). Violent video game exposure and aggression. Minerva Psichiatrica, 45(1), 1-18.

Kirsh, S. (2002). The effects of violent video games on adolescents: the overlooked influence of development. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 8(4), 377-389. 10.1016/S1359-1789(02)00056-3

Kirsh, S. (2006). Cartoon violence and aggression in youth. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11(6), 547-557. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2005.10.002

Cover image (Nightfire) retrieved from here.
TimeSplitters image retrieved from here.
James Bond 007 image retrieved from here.

2 thoughts on “Paper: The Psychophysiology of James Bond

  1. Rina Wehbe

    Overall this blog was well written and had a very fresh perspective. The questions for further research presented were very interesting food-for-thought. It is said that good research generates more questions than it answers.

    The study itself is gender imbalanced. Personally, I liked the way the organized and presented their statistics but am unclear why the paper presents a t-test and not an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) especially when significance of the findings are high, many satisfying p< 0.001. ANOVA would provide more rigorous rejection criteria and allow for supporting tests. I would also find it interesting to compare across measures versus across events only. For example, look at skin conductance differences between events.

  2. Milad Ghaznavi

    I agree with Rina; this blog was written well, and your further questions are cool.
    There is another criticism not addressed here. The authors used the second game, “Super Monkey Ball 2″, which is a non-violent action game and compared the events in this game with two events, killing opponents and wounding opponents in James Bond 007: Nightfire game. First of all, authors discussed very little about this game, and why they chose this game. Another criticism is that is it really logical to compare picking up a banana in Super Monkey Ball 2 with killing opponents or wounding opponents?! Picking up bananas are bonus works, and I think they would be more related to for example picking up new guns or eating something that increases the avatar’s vitality rather than injuring or killing someone. I think it is not logical to compare these two kinds of unrelated events to each other.

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