URJHS Volume 8


Xbox as Therapy?
An Experimental Investigation into Persuasion, Catharsis and Violent Video Games

David S. Chester
Kathryn A.P. Burleson*
Warren Wilson College


The hypothesis that persuasive articles that either endorse/oppose cathartic aggression (releasing psychological stress through aggressive behavior) would affect the preference to play violent video games was tested on 37 undergraduates. Participants who read articles that endorsed cathartic aggression indicated a greater preference for playing a violent video game than participants who read articles that opposed cathartic aggression. Our findings suggest that an individual’s motivation to play violent video games is moderated by their belief in the efficacy of catharsis.


“When the world pisses you off and you need a place to vent, Quake [a violent video game] is a great place for it. You can kill somebody and watch the blood run down the walls, and it feels good.” – Anonymous blog submission

In 2007, $9.5 billion in video games were purchased by the American populace (Entertainment Software Association, 2008). This is triple the sales of the electronic gaming industry 10 years prior. In the same year, 67 percent of American heads-of-households described themselves as video game players. Not only are video games incredibly popular but it seems that they will become more so as 53 percent of current gamers reported that they would maintain or even increase their level of video game playing over the next 10 years. Interestingly, most of the top-selling video games include violent content. The child-advocacy organization ChildrenNow (2001) analyzed the 70 top-selling video games and found that 89 percent contained violent content and 41 percent of these games required violent acts to complete the game. Violent video games constitute a large portion of this burgeoning media format, but the underlying causes behind this phenomenon remain unclear.

Video Games and Aggression

Video game research has been necessitated by the prevailing accusation that violent electronic media causes real-world violence, mainly in impressionable and deviant youths (Sternheimer, 2007). Over the past couple of decades, a significant amount of research on violent video games has been accumulated (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). However, most of the research has centered on after-effects of exposure to violent video games and neglected the important topic of why individuals choose to engage in this activity in the first place.

Cathartic Aggression

A possible reason individuals opt to play a video game with violent content over other activities may be due to the games’ perceived cathartic qualities. The concept of catharsis remains a largely psychodynamic construct, championed by Sigmund Freud that can trace its origin back to Aristotle (Scheele & DuBois, 2006). In its Grecian context, catharsis was generalized to be a purging of an individual’s mind to achieve spiritual purity. Modern proponents of cathartic aggression suggest that releasing pent-up emotional energy onto inanimate and socially-acceptable objects relieves mental tension and anxiety and evokes an improved psychological state.

In the mid-20 th century, researchers began to put cathartic aggression to the empirical test through a variety of research designs (Bushman, Baumeister, & Philips, 2001). Decades of experimental findings discovered that attempting to moderate one’s anger/aggression through supposedly “cathartic” activities produces antithetical results. Participants placed in many different aggression-releasing settings actually became more aggressive and angry after venting their anger (see Berkowitz, 1989). Because the only supposed purpose for engaging in cathartic activities is to decrease the amount of psychological stress, aggression, and anger an individual is experiencing, the increased aggression found by social scientists has brought Freud’s Catharsis Theory crashing to the ground.

Despite the repeated conclusion that cathartic aggression operates only to further antagonize the individual, it remains a popular concept. Although the reasons for this remain unclear, researchers have tested the effects that proponents of cathartic aggression have on human behavior. Bushman, Baumeister and Stack (1999) conducted an experiment on the effect that persuasive media messages had on cathartic aggression. The researchers constructed two articles that either promoted cathartic aggression as an effective mode of therapy or opposed it. Participants who had received a pro-catharsis article had the highest desire to engage in aggressive behavior (e.g., hit a punching bag), whereas participants who had read the anti-catharsis article reported the lowest desire to hit the punching bag. This study demonstrated the ability of media messages and the belief in the efficacy of catharsis to alter an individual’s desire to engage in typical cathartic activities.

An activity that has been long perceived as a cathartic outlet for aggression is violent electronic media (Calvert & Tan, 1994). Violent video games may be expected to deliver such a therapeutic diffusion of psychological stress through catharsis. Just as reading persuasive media messages have been shown to increase an individual’s desire to hit a punching bag, we expected that the same effect would occur for violent video games. Specifically, we hypothesized that articles endorsing the efficacy of cathartic aggression would increase the preference to engage in violent video game play and that articles opposing cathartic aggression would decrease the preference to play a violent video game.



Participants were 37 undergraduate students (35 percent male, M age= 19) who received extra course credit for their participation.


Persuasive articles. Perceptions of catharsis were manipulated by two fictitious articles (Appendix A) that were judged to be authoritative and credible, (Bushman, Baumeister & Stack, 1999). The title of the pro-catharsis article was “Research Shows That Hitting Inanimate Objects Is an Effective Way to Vent Anger.” The article reports findings from a study supposedly conducted at Harvard University and published in Science. The two-year longitudinal study reports that individuals who engaged in hitting a punching bag displayed lower levels of aggression afterwards. The anti-catharsis article was the same as the pro-catharsis article, except keywords such as “effective” were replaced with antonyms such as “ineffective.”

The control article (Appendix B) was entitled Cow Gene May Hold Human Infertility Clues and was chosen because it was similar in length and formal structure to the other articles and its content was fairly neutral.

Serial subtraction task. Participants were psychologically stressed using the Serial Subtraction Task. Participants verbally subtracted from 1,579 by intervals of seven (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey, & Leitten, 1993). Trials of this task were one minute in length. During the trial, the experimenter vocally encouraged the participant to perform as accurately and rapidly as possible and reminded them that they were being timed and their performance was being recorded. If the participant lost their count, the experimenter encouraged them to guess and continue the task. This induction has been used in over 100 peer-reviewed articles to induce physiological and psychological symptoms of stress, anger and frustration (Ritter, Schoelles, Klein, & Kase, 2007).

Concentration questionnaire. Participants were given a 20-item questionnaire (Appendix C) that focused on how able an individual was to attenuate to a task despite conflicting factors such as fatigue and distraction (Concentration Test, 2003-2007). This measure was included to further the deception of the topic of this study.

Activity preference questionnaire . The activity preference questionnaire (Appendix D) contained our dependent variable and consisted of a list of eight activities that the participant was instructed to rate on a 10-point scale how much they wanted to perform each task. In addition, they were instructed to circle the activity they most wanted to perform. They were told that one of the activities on the list would be performed next. Within the list was “Play a violent video game,” as well as “Play a non-violent video game” and other opposite pairs for counter-balancing.


After informed consent (Appendix E) was obtained, participants were informed that the researchers were studying the effects of caffeine on cognitive performance, in order to disguise our hypotheses. Participants were asked if they had ingested any caffeine in the past 24 hours. Participants were then randomly assigned to read either a pro-catharsis, anti-catharsis, or control article. The experimenter was blind to the condition of the participant.

Participants then performed the Serial Subtraction Task (SST). Meanwhile, the experimenter appeared to record their performance. After one minute the SST was terminated and participants were given the Concentration Test (CT), which was included to maintain the deceptive topic of caffeine effects on cognitive performance. Once finished, the participants were given the Activity Preference Questionnaire (APQ) and informed that whatever activity they selected as their most preferred would be performed next. However once they had finished, the experiment was terminated, and the participant was fully debriefed and probed for suspicion (Appendices F & G) .


Analyses were performed on the preference to play a violent video game reported on the APQ. A Shapiro-Wilk normality test indicated that these scores were not normally distributed (W = 0.87, p < .01). Subsequently, non-parametric statistical tests were adopted. A Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA resulted in a significant effect for article condition ( c 2 = 7.97, df = 2, p = .018). Means are summarized in Table 1. As we hypothesized, violent video game preference was manipulated by the content of the articles.

Table 1

Preference to ‘Play a Violent Video Game’ by Condition


Sample size


Standard deviation


















Furthermore, participants who read the pro-catharsis article showed significantly more preference to play a violent video game than participants who read the anti-catharsis article (U = 25, p < .01). See Figure 1. However, there was not a significant difference between the pro-catharsis group and the control group (U = 56, p > .23). The difference between the anti-catharsis group and the control group only approached significance (U = 47, p > .09). Males reported significantly higher preference towards playing a violent video game than females across all conditions (U = 55, p = .001).

Figure 1: Frequency of Ratings Recorded Towards ‘Play a Violent Video Game’



The results of this experiment strongly support our hypotheses. The content of the article produced a strong effect for the preference to play violent video games. Furthermore, those who read the pro-catharsis article reported more preference than those who read the anti-catharsis article. These findings are consistent with those of Bushman and colleagues (1999), in that these persuasive articles were able to elicit strong changes in individuals’ preferences for activities. This experiment implicates persuasive articles as a moderator of preference for violent video games. If the simple articles utilized by this experiment were able to affect such choices, then the baseless support that cathartic aggression has found in popular media may be a driving force behind the exponentially increasing popularity of violent video games.

Our study also suggests that violent video games are perceived as a cathartic outlet. Support comes from our finding that individuals who were assured of the efficacy of catharsis were more likely to play violent video games. Upon observation, violent video games exude many qualities of typical activities perceived as cathartic; they are often socially acceptable, safe, and reinforcing. Due to these characteristics, individuals who believe that catharsis is effective may be turning to their Xbox for psychological relief and popular media could be encouraging it.


Our study did not include a non-stressed condition to control for levels of arousal and various other possible confounds. Furthermore, we relied on self-report, which is prone to many biases, to test if our stress induction was effective. A physiological measure would have been more reliable. Our generalizability is diminished by our population sample, which was of convenience and relatively small. Also, the deceptive aspects of the study such as the Concentration Test and the topic of caffeine effects may have unintentionally primed various concepts or affective states. However, our debriefing interviews did not implicate any of these limitations as serious issues or threats to validity.

Future Directions

Upcoming research should use this experimental paradigm to explore whether the effect we found is fungible to other domains. Other media formats such as commercials and music may also be able to endorse or oppose catharsis in meaningful ways. In addition, other supposedly cathartic activities such as “shouting therapy” may also be preferred based on the exposure individuals have had to support for catharsis.

The perceptions that avid video-gamers have of violent video gaming and any cathartic benefits it offers should be further elucidated. The animosity that many violent video game enthusiasts have directed towards research on the subject may be due to their exclusion from it. Reconciliation between the two groups could result in new research opportunities and increased applicability for research findings. Most importantly, due to the large body of evidence linking violent media to real-world aggression, the potentially dangerous effects pro-catharsis articles could have should be investigated. Although the American Psychological Association and other organizations have advertised the findings that cathartic aggression is harmful, more needs to be done to stop misinformed individuals from compounding their aggression. Perceived cathartic activities promise only to pay violent dividends.


Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12(5), 353-359.

Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106(1), 59-73.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Phillips, C. M. (2001). Do people aggress to improve their mood? Catharsis beliefs, affect regulation and aggressive responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 17-32.

Bushman, B. J, Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression and persuasive influences: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 367-376.

Children Now. (2001, December). Fair play: Violence, gender and race in video games. Oakland, CA. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from http://publications.childrennow.org/publications/media/fairplay_2001.cfm

Concentration test. (2003) Psych Tests: Test Yourself. Retrieved November 16, 2007, from http://psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com

Cow gene may hold human infertility clues. (2006, October 30). Political Gateway. Retrieved November 12, 2007, from http://www.politicalgateway.com/news/

Entertainment Software Association. (2006). Facts and research. Washington, D.C. Retrieved September 13, 2007, from http://www.theesa.com/facts

Foong, A. (2007, April 25). Free anger management: The techniques of counselling revealed. EzineArticles. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from http://ezinearticles.com/?Free-Anger-Management---The-Techniques-Of-Counselling-Revealed

Kestenbaum, G. I., & Weinstein, L. (1985). Personality, psychopathology, and developmental issues in male adolescent video game use. The Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 24(3), 329-333.

Ritter, F. E., Schoelles, M., Klein, L. C., & Kase, S. E. (2007). Modeling the range of performance on the Serial Subtraction Task. In Proceedings of International Conference of Cognitive Modeling (pp.294-304). Oxford: Taylor & Francis/Psychology Press.

Sternheimer, K. (2007). Do video games kill? Contexts, 6(1), 13-17.

Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 248-260.

Appendix A: Pro- and Anti-Catharsis Articles

(This is the content of the pro-catharsis article. The anti-catharsis article is identical except for the words in brackets, which replace the words they are adjacent to.)

Research Shows That Hitting Inanimate Objects Is an
Effective [Ineffective] Way to Vent Anger

Cambridge, Mass. (AP) Do you believe that you can vent anger by hitting a punching bag? According to the results of a study published this week in Science, you could not be more right [wrong].

The study confirms a long history of research on the effectiveness [ineffectiveness] of displacing anger to inanimate objects. The study was conducted by Dr. Elias Boran, a psychological researcher at Harvard University. Boran says that his results provide direct confirmation of the idea that anger can[not] be vented harmlessly when people can displace their anger to an inanimate object.

The findings are the results of a 2-year study involving 1,000 university students living in the university's residence halls. Participants in the study were randomly divided into one of two groups. One group hit a punching bag (a portable floor model provided by the experimenter) when they were angry. The other group tried to relax when they were angry. Boran found that students who hit a punching bag when angry were 4 times less [more] likely to have complaints filed against them by other students in the residence hall and were 2 times less [more] likely to have been reported to campus police for aggressive incidents than were students who tried to relax.

Boran says that his study is consistent with the results of scores of studies showing that people can[not] effectively vent anger to inanimate objects. According to Boran, "When you are angry, the best [worst] thing that you can do is to find something inanimate to hit or kick to vent your anger."

Received June 25, 1997
Revision received October 19, 1998
Accepted October 26, 1998


Appendix B: Control Article
Cow gene may hold human infertility clues

EAST LANSING, Mich., Oct. 30 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists have identified a gene that controls embryo development in cows and that might provide clues as to the cause of human female infertility. Michigan State University researchers led by Associate Professor George Smith discovered the new egg-specific gene, JY-1, is necessary for embryonic development in dairy cows.

Aside from potentially offering the dairy industry more solutions for its infertility problem, the new gene provides clues into the egg's role in embryonic development. Ultimately, it could lead to new options for the more than 9.3 million women treated annually for fertility problems.

Cows, said Smith, are good models for human fertility research since, as do women, they usually release a single egg and give birth to one offspring at a time.

The researchers know the JY-1 gene is located at a certain location on the bovine chromosome. They also know a similar gene is located on the matching chromosome in humans, but does not appear to be functional.

Smith and his team, including former students Anilkumar Bettegowda and Jianbo Yao, reported their findings in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Appendix C: Concentration Test

The ability to concentrate despite distraction, boredom or fatigue is a skill that requires a lot of self-discipline. Can you focus on a task no matter what is going on around you or do you find your mind wandering away? Do you know how to deal effectively with intrusive thoughts? Although the amount of time a person can concentrate on a specific task will vary, there are ways to lengthen this span. This test will assess how well you are able to concentrate on a task and whether you have a well-developed repertoire of strategies to apply yourself when you really need to. Examine the following statements and indicate how often or to what degree you agree with the statement. In order to receive the most accurate results, please answer each question.


Quite Often








Almost Never

1.  My mind tends to drift away when I’m working on something.






2.  I find irrelevant information or thoughts popping into my head when I’m trying to focus on a task.






3.  I employ motivational techniques (e.g. rewards) to get me through boring or difficult tasks.






4.  When I really need to concentrate, I can tune out my environment.






5.  I arrange my schedule so that I can work on tasks that require the most concentration during the time of day when I am most alert.






6.  When I begin a task, I set specific objectives for what I want to accomplish.






7.  I try to create an optimal environment when I really need to concentrate (e.g. close the door, put up a do-not-disturb sign).






8.  I find myself trying to remember what I was about to do next.






9. I find myself daydreaming.






10.  I find myself doing the same thing
over and over because I have lost track
of what I’ve done (e.g., re-reading the
same paragraph).






11.  When I start to lose focus on my
work, I take a short break.






12.  If I start to lose focus on a task,
I’ll switch to something else for a
little while.






13.  When I try to focus intensely, I
find my mind wandering to unrelated






14.  If someone is having a conversation
nearby while I’m working on a task, it
breaks my concentration.






15.  Before beginning a task, I set an
approximate time limit as to how long I
will work on it.






16.  I take regular breaks when I’m
working intently on something.






17.  I tend to take on more tasks than
is reasonable.






18.  I get bored easily.






19.  I can motivate myself to stay
focused on something that I’m not
completely interested in (lecture,
movie, etc.).






20.  When I’m bored, I can’t help but
zone out.








Appendix D: Activity Preference Questionnaire

2. Please rate how much you would like to do each of the activities on this list right now. Just write a number from 1 to 10 in the blank next to each item. Also please circle the activity you would most like to perform. You will get to perform one of the activities on this list.



Right now, I would like to:

_____ Play solitaire.                           _____ Read a short story.

_____ Watch a horror film clip.           _____ Play a non-violent video game

_____ Listen to a relaxation tape.      _____ Work a crossword puzzle.

_____ Play a violent video game.        _____ Watch a comedy film clip.

Appendix E:


Warren Wilson College
Swannanoa, North Carolina


Effects of Caffeine on Cognitive Task Performance


Name: David Chester Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Kathryn Burleson

Telephone Number: (517) 256-3054 Telephone Number: (828) 771-2093


The purpose of this research is to assess how individuals’ amount of caffeine intake influences their performance on tasks involving cognitive abilities.


I will be asked to read an article, fill out two questionnaires, and perform a verbal, counting task and a final activity that I will choose from a list. I will be asked to perform these tasks to the best of my ability. The procedures will last a total of about 10-20 minutes. I may refuse to perform any of the requested tasks for any reason with no adverse consequences and no explanations necessary. All information will be kept safely confidential and data will not be recorded in any way that I could be identified.


I shall experience no physical harm from this study. However, it is possible that I may experience some mental stress and/or frustration by the end of this study. If I wish to discuss these or any other discomforts I may experience, I may call the investigator David Chester and/or the Faculty Supervisor, Dr. Kathryn Burleson at the telephone numbers listed in Section 2 of the form.


This experiment may provide new knowledge on how caffeine affects mental processes in humans. This information may be used to help individuals structure their diet and their mental strategies to produce better cognitive performance on practical activities such as number processing and concentration.


  • I am at least 18 years of age
  • I understand that I will not receive compensation for my participation in this study.
  • I understand that I will not be charged additional expenses for my participation in this study.
  • I understand that I am free to decline to participate or withdraw my consent and discontinue participation in this research project at any time without adverse consequences.
  • All information collected will remain confidential except as may be required by federal, state, or local law.


I have fully explained to _______________________________________ the nature and purpose of the above-described procedure and the benefits and risks that are involved in participating in this study. I have answered and will answer all questions to the best of my ability. I may be contacted at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.

_____________________________________ ____________

Signature of Principal Investigator                      Date

I have been fully informed of the above-described procedure and the benefits and risks that are involved in participating in this study. I have received a copy of this entire document. I have voluntarily given permission for my participation in this study.

Appendix F: Debriefing Interview for Suspicion

Below are general questions that the researcher should ask of the participant in the format they are written in, without exception. However, the interviewer should elaborate or informally ask relevant questions if deemed necessary. The participant’s responses will be recorded by the researcher on paper and used for further refinement of this study and its’ discussion.

  • Thank you very much for your participation in this study. I/We greatly appreciate your interest, time and the contributions you have made to this research project.
  • What do you think the topic of this experiment was? What made you think that?
  • Did you at any point in the experiment feel as if you were being deceived? Why?
  • Did you try your best to answer all the questions as honestly and accurately as possible?
  • Did you feel stressed, anxious, frustrated or angry due to any of the aspects of this experiment? If so, which aspects? Why?
  • Do you feel more stressed or upset now, as opposed to before you began the experiment?
  • Were there any confusing or unclear elements of this study?
  • Do you have any suggestions or comments about the design of this experiment that you would like to share?
Appendix G: Debriefing Discussion and Resources

Xbox as Therapy?
An Experimental Investigation into Persuasion, Catharsis and Violent Video Games

Despite what you were informed of in the prior experiment, the purpose of this study is not to study the effects of caffeine on cognitive performance. The actual purpose of this study was to look at the effects that persuasive media messages can have on an individual’s desire to play violent video games, as well as how perception of the effectiveness of “venting” adverse emotions has on an individual’s preference to play violent video games.

In this study, you were told that this was an experiment on the effects of caffeine on cognitive performance and it was not. No data on your caffeine intake were recorded or measured. This deception existed to reduce your suspicion of the subject of this study, which was kept undisclosed to avoid biased results. You were told that the article you read might be discussed later, but that was never the intention of this study. Also, you were given a questionnaire that analyzed your ability to concentrate. The Concentration Test existed solely to facilitate your belief that this experiment was analyzing cognitive performance. In addition, you were told that your performance on the counting task was very important and being recorded. However, your performance was at no time recorded nor did it impact the results of this study. This was done to ensure you were trying hard to perform the counting task well. Otherwise, if a mediocre level of effort was exerted on your behalf, the stressful condition we were trying to induce would not occur. This experiment required your inability to judge the actual variables of the study, your increased motivation to perform several tasks and that you were psychologically stressed in order to record valid information.

What this study did measure was what rating you gave to the activity ‘Play a violent video game’ as opposed to the other activities on one of the worksheets (the dependent variable). This experiment sought to influence the rating that you gave to that activity by assigning you to an article that promoted releasing one’s anger onto an inanimate object, opposed it or had no relevance to the subject whatsoever. It was hypothesized that participants who read the promotional article would rate ‘Play a violent video game’ higher (on average), than those who read the other articles and further, that individuals who read the oppositional article would rate ‘Play a violent video game’ lower than those who read the other articles.

It is strongly requested that you maintain confidentiality about all aspects of this experiment until after the results are presented in spring 2008 (to which you are cordially invited). Any future participants must not be aware of the design/purpose of this study. If even one person was informed, the data from this experiment could be significantly maligned.

If you are further interested in this area of research, references of relevant literature will be provided upon request.



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