The debate on whether video games influence behavior in real life has raged on for some time. Now, a new study involving college students demonstrates that playing a villain in a virtual environment encourages individuals to punish anonymous strangers.

Results of the study were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Some studies have suggested negative side effects associated with video games. Recent research suggested violent video games reduce self-control in teens.

Meanwhile, another found that taking away video games does not actually improve children’s activity levels, and one study suggested active video games provide an alternative type of exercise, which could prevent sedentary behavior in children.

But this latest study investigates the more nefarious effects of video games.

Gunwoo Yoon, lead author from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says:

“Our results indicate that just 5 minutes of role-play in virtual environments as either a hero or villain can easily cause people to reward or punish anonymous strangers.”

He and co-author Patrick Vargas suggest virtual environments, like those in video games, give individuals the chance to assume identities and encounter situations they would not be able to in the real world. They say it provides “a vehicle for observation, imitation and modeling.”

Curious about how taking on heroic or villainous avatars in the virtual world would affect real-life behavior, the team recruited 194 undergraduates to take part in two studies that were supposedly unrelated.

In the first study, the researchers randomly assigned participants to play a game for 5 minutes as either a heroic avatar (the DC Comics hero Superman), a villainous avatar (Voldemort from the Harry Potter series of children’s fantasy books) or a neutral avatar (a circle). The game involved fighting enemies.

In the second – supposedly unrelated – study, the participants took part in a blind taste test. During this activity, they were asked to taste either chocolate or spicy chili sauce and were then instructed to give a future participant either the chocolate or chili sauce to taste.

The interesting detail is that they were told to pour their chosen food into a plastic dish in whatever amount they desired. They were told that the future participant would have to consume all of the food in the dish.

The students who played as the heroic avatar poured nearly twice as much chocolate as chili sauce for the next participant, and the researchers observed that they poured more chocolate than participants who played as either the villain or the neutral avatar.

Students who played as the villainous avatar, meanwhile, poured nearly twice as much of the chili sauce than chocolate, and compared with the other participants, they poured significantly more chili sauce than the other players.

Another subsequent study with 125 undergraduates confirmed these findings, the researchers say, and it revealed that playing as an avatar produced stronger effects on real-world behavior than simply watching someone else play.

Another finding from the study showed that identification with the avatar did not seem to affect results for behavior in real life.

Yoon and Vargas say that the behaviors “occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars,” adding that individuals “are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioral responses.”

They do note, however, that the degree to which partipants are “keyed into” the game may be an important element that drives the behaviors they observed.

Yoon comments that their findings could have important implications for social behavior:

In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt into or opt out of a certain entity, group or situation.

Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks.”

But video games are not all bad. Medical News Today recently reported on a video game-based training strategy, which scientists say could help combat cognitive decline in older populations.