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Researchers: Playing shooters with gun controllers can help real-world aim

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Resident Evil 4 (Capcom)

Gamers who are great shots in Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 might be surprised to find themselves accurate shooters at the local firing range.

New research from the Ohio State University School of Communication finds that extensively playing shooters with gun controllers can have a direct impact on shooting actual weapons in the real world.

Authors Jodi L. Whitaker and Brad J. Bushman tested 151 male college students between 18 and 25 at OSU by having them play different types of games, including the violent shooter Resident Evil 4, the non-violent target practice mode in Wii Play, and the non-violent adventure game Super Mario Galaxy. The group with the two shooting games played with a pistol-shaped controller, while the others used the traditional Wii remote controller.

Whitaker said that each student, most of whom were gamers, played the game for 20 minutes on the Wii and then was handed a paintball gun that looks and feels like a real pistol (not unlike the much lighter version created by game manufacturer Nyko for the game). Each participant was able to shoot 16 rubber balls covered with Velcro at a life-sized mannequin approximately 20 feet away.

"What stood out from this research was that gamers who played the violent shooter with the gun controller had 99% more headshots than other participants," said Bushman. "If you take a firearms training course, they tell you to shoot for the center of mass or torso because if you miss you'll still hit the shoulder or stomach. If you shoot for the head, which is such a small target, and miss, you hit air. We didn't tell participants where to shoot, they could aim anywhere they want. But the game rewarded players for headshots and that notion carried through with the real gun."

The gamers who played Super Mario Galaxy and Wii Play aimed for the torso. In addition, participants who played Resident Evil 4 using the gun controller hit the mannequin 33% more often than did other participants. Researchers believe this demonstrates a correlation between violent video games and real-world ability.

It's a controversial issue, particularly in light of recent statements by Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people last year in the Norway massacre. Breivik said in court that he used Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as a training tool.

"We began this research before he went on a shooting spree, but if he used Modern Warfare 2 as a training simulator maybe he did pick up tricks on how to fire a gun and where to aim at a real body," said Whitaker. "I think our research shows that he could have learned from playing the game."

"It's impossible to say for an individual case," said Bushman. "We'll never know if Modern Warfare 2 helped or caused him to engage in that behavior. He claims it did. I'm not sure. We do know that people who play violent shooting games are more accurate shots and they're more likely to aim for the head."

Whitaker said it's important to realize that playing games isn't passive, and that gamers are learning skills in the virtual world that can be applied to real-world situations.

"It's been well documented that the mere presence of a weapon can increase aggressive behavior -- it's called the weapons effect," said Bushman. "Video games are great trainers, which is why the military and police academies use them. But I'm not sure we want to train teens how to become better shots. If I'm a parent, this is another red flag for potentially harmful effects of games."

Bushman refers to 2010 study he did for the American Psychological Association, "Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review" that was a comprehensive review of over 381 statistical tests from 136 articles. That research found that violent games increase aggressive thoughts and angry feelings, decrease feelings of empathy and decrease helping behavior.

He said coupling those findings with the new gun findings could be troublesome for kids who play shooters.

"Parents should be aware that as targets become more realistic and controllers more closely resemble real guns, kids can more easily learn how to fire a real gun," said Whitaker.

Of course, the debate as to whether or not violent gaming leads to violent behavior is still very much alive. For every study that seems to prove the connection, another study seems to contradict the findings.

Moving forward, Whitaker would like to explore the impact of the high-definition graphics that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 add to shooter experiences. She believes that as targets get more human-like, players learn more and transfer skills more easily to the real world.

"I think the next step is to look for longitudinal effects to see if people who constantly play shooting games over a number of years if their accuracy when firing improves," added Whitaker. "In this study participants only played for 20 minutes. I'd like to look at people who come to lab every day for a long time and see how much aim improves."

The shooter genre is as popular as ever, with games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Halo 4 and others expecting to make a big splash at the upcoming E3 game expo in Los Angeles.

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