A scene from Grand Theft Auto V.

London - From Grand Theft Auto V to Saints Row 2 and Fight Night, many games let players choose between characters of different races.

However, researchers have found that when white people play as black characters in videogames classified as violent, the players were more threatening, offensive and racist in real life.

Scientists described the findings as “disturbing” because it is the first time the race of a computer alter ego, or avatar, has been linked to this change in behaviour.

Psychologist Professor Brad Bushman, of Ohio State University, said it raises the troubling impact violent videogames can have on players.

“Playing a violent videogame as a black character reinforces harmful stereotypes that blacks are violent. We found there are real consequences to having these stereotypes. It can lead to more aggressive behaviour.”

Bushman added: “The media has the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in videogames. This violent stereotype may be more prevalent in videogames than in any other form of media because being a black character in a videogame is almost synonymous with being a violent character.”

The experiments for the study targeted white university students playing three different videogames: Saints Row 2, a brutal interactive landscape of crime and gangs; the wrestling focused WWE Smackdown vs RAW 2010; and the boxing challenge Fight Night Round 4.

In the first test, 126 white university students, 60 percent of whom were male, played Saints Row 2 after being randomly assigned to either a black or white avatar. Afterwards, those given the goal of breaking out of a prison as the black man showed stronger explicit negative attitudes towards black people than others who played as a white person.

For example, they were more likely to agree with the statement, “It is really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites”.

A test designed to reveal unconscious bias also found black avatar players were more likely to link a black face to bad words like “terrible”, “horrible” and “evil” than good ones such as “joy”, “love” and “peace”. The reverse was true for those who played as a white avatar.

In a second study, 141 white college students, 65 percent of whom were girls, played one of two games – either WWE Smackdown vs RAW 2010, or Fight Night Round 4. They equally played as either a black or white avatar. The former group were more likely to link the photos of black faces they were shown after their game with weapons, while the latter tended to link images of white people with harmless objects, such as mobile phones.

Participants who played as a black character also acted more aggressively against an unseen partner, who did not actually exist, by forcing them to eat something they didn’t like. They gave them more than double the amount of chilli sauce compared to the participants who had played as a white character, after being told the person hated spicy food.

In a statistical analysis, Bushman found his volunteers’ implicit attitude that black people are violent was linked to their actual aggressive behaviour once the game was turned off.

“This suggests playing a violent videogame as a black avatar strengthens players’ attitudes that blacks are violent, which then influences them to behave more aggressively afterward.”

Bushman noted the findings, published online by the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows it does not always help white people to take the perspective of a black person.

He added: “Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy. But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they do not have a realistic view of black people. It is not good to put yourself in the shoes of a murderer, as you do in many of these violent games.” – Daily Mail