The Science of Why Elders React to (and Love) GTA V

 

 

Grand Theft Auto V is the fifth installment of a popular video game franchise, where players assume the roles of crooks and criminals, advancing their careers and performing illegal activities.  Some of the press surrounding the game has been quite critical, which is understandable given the subject matter, especially when you consider young impressionable minds playing it.  The React Channel filmmakers on YouTube saw an opportunity to explore the nature of play with GTA V, especially with a group of people who may have a strong aversion to this kind of entertainment.

When asked what their opinions were of this notoriously naughty video game, a selection of elderly individuals were quick to negatively judge it, saying they have heard of it and thought it was a bad influence and game overall.  When given the opportunity to play the game for a half an hour, some were curious and eager, while others didn’t have any interest at all.  While playing the game, there were observable, telltale signs that these elderly individuals were actually enjoying themselves! Whether they were actively aware of it or not, there was a noticeable motivation to play, to try out actions in the game (most very violent) and the end result was a recognition from most of them that this was essentially an amusing experience that they might want to try again.

Was this a case of people judging a book by its cover?  Is there a cognitive bias at play?  What were the psychological reasons these elderly individuals had a positive, fun experience playing GTA V?  The elderly generation didn’t grow up playing video games, so they don’t understand them as well as the younger generations.  This may result in negative or suspicious feelings about them.  The same thing happened with new technology that arrived in the 1940s – the television.  Some thought it would ruin kids’ brains if they just stared at a screen all day.  Also, the media loves to push huge generalizations about games and gamers, because it provides tangible reasons for unreasonable, violent behavior.  These superficial reasons to dislike video games in general can be considered a cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input.   An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.  That is why when asked what they think about these kinds of games, the responses are largely similarly negative without any firsthand experience.

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Here are some observations from the video.  The players clearly had the drive to figure out how to get their character to perform the required actions.  Beyond the morally reprehensible behavior, actually functioning in the game the right way was a priority for the players.  Some people were so closed minded that they openly criticized it the whole time. Some of them stopped at stop signs and waited for lights to change even though there are no “real” rules at play in this universe.  Some are completely open to exploring and are excited to be in the environment – and even discover some secret gems about the game that traditional players might overlook.  Nearly all of them got excited to find the ammunition.  It would seem that materialism and freedom are alluring qualities to just about anyone.  There were some real surprises here, mainly the desire across the board to shoot innocent civilians in the game.  The players understood its just a game, but really wanted to shoot em up!

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Many people view games as a safe form of release.  A safe way to experience stress, and to generally, just play.   Perhaps that comes from the stress hormones released during game play – cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).  Playing the game creates a heightened sense of stress and this can actually be an enjoyable experience, especially for those who have never had that kind of “safe stress” experience before.   Why is it fun to play games?  Recent research has found that gaming can be an ideal platform for people to try on different hats and take on a characteristic they would like to have. Giving players the chance to adopt a new identity during the game and acting through that new identity – be it a different gender, hero, villain – can make them feel better about themselves and less negative.

What Grand Theft Auto games provide can be thought of as the essence of play.  What is play if it isn’t breaking reality’s boundaries, taking on a role, experiencing the feelings, emotions, problem solving with a different set of circumstances from our own usual day to day life?  Play in its purest form creates a sense of release through experimentation.  GTA can provide that.  For the elderly people who may not actively take the time to participate in these kinds of activities, it can be a real thrill.

Media

Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

Learning Objective:  Students will investigate the psychological factors of “play” and video games.  Students will practice research methods in order to formulate a hypothesis.

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Lesson tags: Elders React, Eleventh, Featured, GTA, Ninth, Science, Tenth, Video Games

Melissa Pelletier

Melissa has a Masters in Educational Communication and Technology from NYU. She has worked in academic publishing, games, and the educational toys industries.