Lindsay Hahn (center) and assistants Madeline Taggart (left) and Irina Andreeva (right) prepare the hot sauce drinks.
Students also took part in a word completion task that measured aggression. Research assistants Soyeon Heo (standing, left) and Kyle Terragnoli (standing left) help Hahn (standing center) monitor the self assessment and word-completion task.
By BERT GAMBINI
Published October 26, 2022
Are media ruining our lives?
UB faculty member Lindsay Hahn asked that question Monday afternoon to students in her innovative, first-year seminar, “Media and Moral Panic,” presented by the University Honors College.
The Honors Seminars provide students with opportunities to learn from distinguished faculty members in small classes centered on critical thinking, ethical reasoning and reflective discussion. The first-year seminars pivot on one big question, with the response serving as an introduction to the instructor’s area of expertise and the nature of research within that discipline.
Hahn, assistant professor in the Department of Communication, is an expert on media psychology and media effects. She has lectured extensively in the classroom on the effects of violent media content, but her seminar, held in LevelUp, a state-of-the-art media lab in Lockwood Memorial Library, was an interactive session that included the games under discussion, an explanation of existing research methods and measures, and alternative means of drawing research conclusions through new questions and novel methods.
LevelUp is a recreational room, but it’s also an academic space that offers unique learning opportunities. It’s an environment equipped with the tools for an experiential lecture and an atmosphere that reflected the topics Hahn developed for her seminar.
“I’ve discovered that a lot of students don’t play violent video games,” said Hahn. “There might be a core group familiar with popular titles, but most students are unfamiliar with the games and their content, making it difficult to discuss the types of effects experienced and the level of violence that appears in these games.”
Monday’s seminar not only removed those constraints, but provided students with a class that felt like a participatory research and learning event.
“This seminar was a great way for first-year students to get hands-on experience with typical methods media psychologists use to study the effects of violent video games,” said Hahn. “By experiencing the methods typically used to assess gamers’ aggression and altruistic behavior after gameplay, students will hopefully become more critical consumers of media effects research and understand the benefits and limitations of existing methods for assessing violent games’ effects on important social outcomes.”
But Hahn explained to her students that some of the methods used to access the effects of violent video games, like self-reporting, have limitations. She said participants usually respond “no” when asked in a violent game study if they think playing a violent game will make them violent.
It’s also difficult to follow participants beyond the research lab to measure whether a game’s content has them behaving like “Moby Dick’s” Ishmael, “methodically knocking people’s hats off.”
So for her seminar, Hahn used a hot sauce test. Students tasted water with a drop of hot sauce, but after playing a game, then responded to how much hot sauce they would put in the next person’s drink. The idea being the more aggressive someone feels, the more hot sauce they’ll give the next participant.
The class also imaginatively included a couple of moles. Unknown to students as the seminar progressed was the presence of an undercover annoyance who “accidentally” bumped into students and measured the students’ reactions to their bumbling behavior. A secret bystander, meantime, dropped things on the floor. Previous research suggests that violent video games make us less prosocial, and in the case of the seminar, less likely to assist the bystander.
Hahn did use some self-report measures as well, and a word completion task that measured aggression by how participants spelled out partial words. For instance, “coffin” suggests aggression more than “coffee,” if participants are given only the first four letters.
These same measures were used for the seminar’s violent game “Mortal Kombat 11” and its non-violent game, “Overcooked! 2.”
“One of the things researchers have found in this area is that it’s not necessarily the level of violence in these games, it’s more about the levels of certain elements, like competitiveness,” she said. “A non-violent, highly competitive game can have the same type of effects as a violent video game, such as feeling aggressive afterwards.”
All of the data collection at the seminar was done strictly for the purposes of discussion.
“I wanted to get students to see the types of decisions researchers make when they try to tackle a research question,” said Hahn. “This format, distinct from a classroom or traditional research lab, had so many advantages for talking about research and demonstrating to students, who are just starting to dip their toes in the university experience, how scientists think about answering questions in systematic ways.
“It was a great experience that fostered media literacy skills that will benefit students throughout their college years and future careers.”