An article in the February issue of the journal Emotion presents some strange findings regarding players' emotional reactions to killing and being killed in a first-person shooter (FPS). In the experiment, a group of students played James Bond 007: Nightfire (Super Monkey Ball II was used as a control) while their facial expressions and physiological activity were tracked and recorded moment-to-moment via electrodes and various other monitoring equipment. Conventional FPS wisdom would suggest that players like shooting enemies and dislike getting shot. The research findings, however, paint a different picture.
From the article: "instead of joy resulting from victory and success, wounding and killing the opponent elicited anxiety, anger, or both." In addition, "death of the player's own character...appear[s] to increase some aspects of positive emotion." This latter finding the authors believe may result from the temporary "relief from engagement" brought about by character death. Whatever the underlying basis, however, the results seem highly counterintuitive.
My first reaction to the article was that something must have been wrong with the experiment. From what I recall playing Call of Duty 4, I most certainly did not enjoy being wounded and killed and I usually felt pretty satisfied after shooting an enemy. I don't entirely understand the researchers' method for measuring positive and negative emotions, and so I can't pass judgment on it. But suppose for a moment that their methodology is sound? Am I actually experiencing negative feelings on some level when I shoot an enemy in Call of Duty 4? I guess that would speak well for my morals.
The researchers also found that: 1) Players showed no signs of desensitization over the course of multiple play sessions; and 2) Subjects who tested higher for psychoticism (based on a pre-trial psychoticism questionnaire) experienced less anxiety from killing enemies. That higher psychoticism would correlate with lower negative feelings about violence is not surprising. It is interesting, however, that players showed no signs of physiological or emotional desensitization. While this doesn't necessarily disprove that desensitization to videogame violence can occur over long periods of time, it does suggest that brief exposure has little or no desensitizing effect.
Of course, more research would be needed to confirm these findings. This was a small study and the authors' conclusions are mostly tentative. But on the whole, an interesting read.