Abstract

Video games are one of the most popular media forms in today's society, but are often criticized for various reasons. For instance, mainstream video games do not incorporate enough racially diverse game characters or are often connected to adolescents’ levels of aggression and have thus been the focus of many debates. While the negative consequences of video games have been analyzed by many academic studies, research on the prosocial effects of video games is scarce. To address this research gap and support the ongoing call for more diverse video game characters, this study used a 3 × 1 between-subjects design (N = 86) to test the impact of racially diverse non-playable characters (NPCs). The parasocial contact hypothesis was used as the theoretical foundation, incorporating virtual reality technology as an intensifier of effects. The results showed that helping a Black NPC did not reduce implicit bias, but reduced explicit bias towards Black people. This improvement was stronger when the video game was played using virtual reality technology than when using a traditional two-dimensional gaming device.

1 Introduction

The success of video games seems unstoppable. No other entertainment medium has experienced a similar rise during the last decade and further growth is projected (WePC.com, 2019). More than 2.5 billion people worldwide play video games and the market size is expected to reach $180.1 billion by 2021 (Dobrilova, 2019). Popular video games are diverse, ranging from controversial shooting games (Jagneaux, 2018) to smartphone augmented reality (AR) apps, such as Pokémon Go (Entertainment Software Association, 2019). The gaming market is especially relevant for technological companies because gamers eagerly accept innovations, such as Virtual Reality (VR) or AR technology. For instance, the PlayStation VR has been sold over 4.2 million times (as of March 2019) and has a lead in the premium VR headset market (Grubb, 2019). Several games have been adapted for the VR headset, suchas Skyrim (Metacritic.com, 2018) or Resident Evil 7 (Schilling, 2017). The VR market is expected to grow even further, with the gaming community as pioneers (Statista.com, 2019). However, due to the highly realistic game experience, critics are apprehensive of possible antisocial effects of VR gaming. Spiegel (2018, p. 1542), for instance, claims that “we have reason to be concerned, then, about the potential connection between violent behavior in VR worlds and actual violence in the real world.” The notion that gaming can enhance aggressive feelings and actions has been the subject of many debates. However, while meta-analyses do report an antisocial effect of gaming, they also indicate prosocial effects (Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2014). Therefore, studies should not only focus on the negative consequences of realistic VR games, but also analyze positive consequences.

2 Antisocial and Prosocial Effects of Gaming

With the rising popularity of video games, the public has started to worry about the possible antisocial effects of violent games (e.g., Nauroth, Gollwitzer, Bender, & Rothmund, 2014), leading to various research streams and divergent opinions on the impact of violent games and gaming in general (e.g., Bensley & van Eenwyk, 2001; Dominick, 1984; Konijn, Nije Bijvank, & Bushman, 2007). It is only recently that the positive effects of video games on prosocial behavior have been tentatively discussed (e.g., Ferguson, 2007), heralding the start of research on positive gaming effects (e.g., Gentile et al., 2009; Greitemeyer & Osswald, 2010). A meta-analysis of 98 independent studies by Greitemeyer and Mügge (2014) showed that violent video games increased aggression and aggression-related variables (e.g., accessibility of aggressive thoughts), but reduced prosocial behavior. Prosocial games (i.e., games in which the goal is to benefit another game character), meanwhile, had the opposite effect. For instance, playing a prosocial game was found to decrease aggression (Greitemeyer, Agthe, Turner, & Gschwendtner, 2012) and to increase the accessibility of prosocial thoughts (Greitemeyer & Osswald, 2011). Despite the seemingly promising results, studies covering the positive effects of gaming on society are scarce. Some primary studies however, analyzed the impact of gaming on prominent and pressing social issues, such as discrimination (e.g., Stiff & Bowen, 2016; Stiff & Kedra, 2018). Even nowadays, prejudices are still responsible for social exclusion, iniquity, and antisocial actions, such as workplace discrimination, health care disparities, and even verbal or physical assault (e.g., European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2017; Lancee, Soiné, Reino, & Veit, 2017; McConnell & Leibold, 2001).

Consequently, the next paragraphs will incorporate theories and research on prosocial effects of video games concerning the reduction of prejudice, before introducing relevant research gaps. This study will further include specifications of VR video games, as these innovations seem to have a promising future and might strengthen the prosocial impact of video games.

3 Virtual Characters and Prejudice Reduction

The indiscriminate use of stereotypes when assessing members of an outgroup is often labeled prejudice or bias (Crawford, Sherman, & Hamiltom, 2002). Based on perceived dissimilarities (e.g., skin color, age group, social class), another person might be categorized as a member of the outgroup (i.e., a person we consider unlike ourselves) (Gaertner, Dovidio, Anastasio, Bachmann, & Rust, 1993; Tajfel, 1978). Compared to ingroup members (i.e., people who are like ourselves), outgroup members are often perceived more negatively (intergroup bias). The tendency to perceive outgroups as homogenous and attribute a common set of mostly negative traits and behaviors to group members is explained by social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Individuals are inclined to enhance their perception of the groups they belong to and to denigrate those they do not feel part of (outgroups) to boost and maximize their self-esteem. Whereas explicit bias is deliberative, controllable, and conscious, implicit bias is often unintentionally activated (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002). Consequently, explicit and implicit bias can influence different types of behavior (e.g., Daumeyer, Onyeador, Brown, & Richeson, 2019; Dovidio et al., 2002). For instance, Dovidio et al. (2002) reported that explicit bias predicted deliberate verbal behavior towards outgroup members, while implicit bias predicted nonverbal friendliness. Therefore, implicit and explicit bias towards members of the outgroup is not always consistent and should be analyzed individually (Hofmann, Gawronski, Gschwendner, Le, & Schmitt, 2005). Explicit bias is usually captured by traditional self-report measures, while implicit bias is more difficult to assess and mostly inferred by reaction time measures (e.g., implicit association test) (Turner, Hewstone, & Voci, 2007).

Prejudice, bias, and stereotypes can be damaging to intergroup relations and are difficult to dissipate (e.g., Richeson & Shelton, 2007). Nonetheless, several studies have used characters in video games to reduce intergroup bias and have reported promising results using either primary avatars (avatars that are played by the player) or non-primary avatars (avatars that are part of the game world). Noticeably, both non-playable characters (NPCs) as well as avatars that are played by fellow game players (e.g., secondary avatars in online multiplayer games) can be categorized as non-primary avatars (Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory, 2009). Interactions with NPCs differ from those with fellow players in that contact is rather limited and based mainly on short interactions (e.g., receiving quests or buying equipment).

3.1 Effects of Primary Avatars

3.1.1 The Proteus Effect

The phenomenon whereby inhabiting an avatar changes a player's attitudes and behavior in the real world has been labeled the proteus effect (Yee & Bailenson, 2007; Yee, Bailenson, & Ducheneaut, 2009). Yee and Bailenson (2007) explain that while inhabiting another body, the avatar is “[…] not simply a uniform that is worn, [but] the avatar is our entire self-representation” (p. 274). The sense of deindividuation causes media users to shift their self-perception, adhere to the new identity, and change their behavior and attitudes. The changes can be diverse and transfer to the real world; for instance, the user might feel more confident after embodying a taller avatar (Yee & Bailenson, 2007) or express less prejudice after embodying a Black avatar (e.g., Banakou, Hanumanthu, & Slater, 2016; Peck, Seinfeld, Aglioti, & Slater, 2013). A recent meta-analysis reported a small-to-medium size effect of avatar characteristics on attitudes and behavior, suggesting that the proteus effect can be considered a reliable phenomenon (Ratan, Beyea, Li, & Graciano, 2019).

3.1.2 Embodiment and Perspective Taking

Feelings of embodiment and the willingness to take the perspective of the respective avatar can enhance the proteus effect. Several studies have examined divergent forms of virtual simulations and compared the effects of the technologies on behavior, attitudes, and prejudice (e.g., Ahn, Le, & Bailenson, 2013; Banakou et al., 2016; Oh, Bailenson, Weisz, & Zaki, 2016; Peck et al., 2013; Yee & Bailenson, 2006). The participants in the experiments embodied a member of an outgroup (e.g., an older person or someone of a different ethnicity) and had various opportunities to watch themselves move and act as the avatar (e.g., while looking in a virtual mirror; e.g., Peck et al., 2013). These studies analyzed various forms of prejudice such as ageism and racism and consistently reported promising results. Several times, higher levels of embodiment and perspective taking that were elicited by the immersive simulations were used as explanation for the positive effects.

While the reported effects of such simulations on reducing prejudice are relevant and promising, most of the simulations used were not commercially available but were created specifically for the studies (e.g., Peck et al., 2013). Even if they were available to the gaming community, interest might be limited. In some cases, the simulations only incorporated the act of embodying an outgroup avatar, with no story or game play (e.g., Oh et al., 2016); thus, these simulations should not be as entertaining and popular as regular video games. Consequently, apart from the study participants, few media users will profit from the simulations. One might assume that game producers could just apply the promising results to their video games and create more diverse primary characters (e.g., by using an older Black woman as a video game protagonist). Unfortunately, producers might hesitate to do so because identification with and personalization of the avatar is an important part of the enjoyment of the game, so constraining gamers to use avatars that differ markedly from themselves might reduce identification and enjoyment (Passmore, Birk, & Mandryk, 2018; Passmore, Yates, Birk, & Mandryk, 2017). Consequently, because video gamers are less likely to choose or create a character that could be categorized as an outgroup member as their avatar, it may be more viable to diversify non-primary characters to reduce prejudice.

3.2 Effects of Non-Primary Avatars

Several content analyses have verified that primary as well as non-primary video game characters tend to be young, white, and male (e.g., Dietrich, 2013; Passmore et al., 2017; Williams et al., 2009). While this tendency is heavily criticized, only a few studies have analyzed the psychological impact of diverse non-primary characters (e.g., Adachi, Hodson, & Hoffarth, 2015; Adachi, Hodson, Willoughby, Blank, & Ha, 2016; Stiff & Kedra, 2018). The majority examined the effect of diverse fellow players (often labeled secondary avatars) in online games and used the parasocial contact hypothesis to predict and explain their findings.

3.2.1 Parasocial Contact Hypothesis

The parasocial contact hypothesis proposed by Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes (2005) adapted the well-established social contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954; Dovidio, Love, Schellhaas, & Hewstone, 2017) to mediated mass communication. The original theory assumed that under appropriate conditions, the most effective way to reduce prejudice between groups is interpersonal contact. The premise for this assumption is that interpersonal contact with an outgroup member allows an individual to learn more about that particular member and consequently modify her beliefs about the outgroup as a whole. To reduce prejudice effectively, the intergroup contact must fulfill several requirements; it must be non-superficial and sustained, both parties must feel of equal status, not be opposed by a salient authority, and share common goals (Allport, 1954). The quality of the intergroup contact can vary, reaching from simple and short interactions to long-term cooperative behavior. Thus, while we speak of intergroup contact in a general matter throughout the manuscript, the quality of the contact that was employed in former studies might differ.

Schiappa et al. (2005) conducted three studies using different TV shows to verify their theoretical application of the social contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954) to mediated, parasocial contact (representing the non-reciprocal interactions of media users with the media personality; Horton & Wohl, 1956). They found that prejudice (in these studies, towards gay men and male cross-dressers) were reduced after social contact with these outgroup members. Several subsequent studies have utilized the parasocial contact hypothesis in different media settings and with different additional variables. The following overview is not exhaustive, but introduces some exemplary studies that have been conducted in the field of audiovisual media. Most studies did not use experimental settings but reported correlational data. For instance, Ortiz and Harwood (2007) examined the impact of TV exposure, in-group character identification, and group typicality on group anxiety and attitudes towards the outgroup (gay–straight and Black–White interactions). While they found correlations between some of the variables, causality could not be assumed because they used a survey design without manipulating the independent variables. Similar correlational results were reported concerning the bias towards and the desired social distance from people with mental illnesses (Hoffner & Cohen, 2012, 2015) and gay people (Bond & Compton, 2015). Joyce and Harwood's (2014) experimental study portrayed either a positive or a negative interaction between an ingroup and an outgroup member (undocumented immigrant). The results indicated that the valence of the interaction influenced attitudes towards the outgroup, which were also affected by the participant's level of identification with the ingroup member and the perceived typicality of the outgroup member. Murrar and Brauer (2018) also used an experimental design and validated that both explicit and implicit prejudice were reduced by interaction with an outgroup member. Furthermore, the effects persisted four weeks after exposure. Thus, parasocial interpersonal contact seems to be a suitable means of reducing prejudice, as parasocial contact with outgroup members might be more likely and feasible than actual contact.

3.2.2 Parasocial Contact with Secondary Avatars

While most studies on parasocial contact and prejudice reduction have used TV series as their stimulus materials (e.g., Bond & Compton, 2015; Hoffner & Cohen, 2015; Joyce & Harwood, 2014; Murrar & Brauer, 2018), some scholars have also applied the parasocial contact hypothesis to video games and analyzed collaborative intergroup play. Because video games can achieve a more interactive scenario (e.g., talking to or working with the outgroup member) than typical audio-visual media (e.g., television), they might be an especially well-suited means to reduce prejudice and bias through mediated social contact (Lemmer & Wagner, 2015). An explanation for this assumption is the fact that the media user needs to be motivated to engage in the interaction to reduce prejudice through mediated contact (e.g., Cernat, 2011; Halperin et al., 2012; Ron, Solomon, Halperin, & Saguy, 2017). Interactive video games might be better able to achieve this because they are designed to be enjoyable and engaging (Stiff & Kedra, 2018).

Although Saleem and Anderson (2013) analyzed violent and negative interactions towards an outgroup member during a video game and reported increased negative bias afterwards, the majority of studies have analyzed the favorable effects of interpersonal interactions in video games. Vang and Fox (2014) compared the impact of cooperative and competitive actions in a non-violent video game on perceptions of either a fellow or opponent player, who was part of the outgroup. Assessments of the outgroup member were improved in both conditions, but the effects did not transfer to the overall outgroup. Subsequent studies, however, found that cooperation with an outgroup member during a video game significantly enhanced the perception of the outgroup (Adachi et al., 2016; Adachi, Hodson, Willoughby, & Zanette, 2015; Stiff & Bowen, 2016). Stiff and Kedra (2018) compared the impact of playing a game alone or collaboratively with an outgroup member who was introduced either as controlled by a computer or by another person. Collaborative play increased attitudes towards outgroup members and the non-primary avatar did not necessarily have to be controlled by another person to elicit positive effects.

3.2.3 Parasocial Contact with NPCs

This finding has an interesting practical implication: if NPCs can reduce prejudice and bias against outgroups, these characters could be readily integrated into divergent games. This would make it unnecessary to find a fellow human player who is a member of the outgroup to elicit favorable and prosocial effects. Instead, diverse NPCs can be implemented in single player games that do not offer online collaborative gameplay, as well as in multiplayer games that use them as computer-controlled characters. NPCs furthermore can be programmed with particular specifications and can be more easily controlled, compared to secondary avatars. Consequently, incorporating NPCs instead of secondary avatars might be a much more efficient method of using this intervention (Stiff & Kedra, 2018).

Nonetheless, a significant obstacle could be that the parasocial contact between the NPC and the primary avatar is not sufficient to elicit an effect. The reported gaming studies analyzed the effects of prolonged cooperative behavior, which might not occur in interactions with NPCs. These interactions generally consist of just a few sentences before focusing on the actual purpose of the NPC (e.g., merchant or presenter of a quest). Consequently, it might be necessary to enhance the parasocial interaction (Horton & Wohl, 1956) between the NPC and the player's avatar. The feeling of presence (e.g., Lombard & Ditton, 1997) has repeatedly been connected to more intense levels of parasocial interactions (Jin, 2010; Liebers & Schramm, 2017; Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Shin, Song, Kim, & Biocca, 2019) and thus might be an adequate amplifier of the intensity of parasocial interactions. Since VR technology has been successfully introduced to the gaming market, and has been shown to facilitate spatial presence (e.g., Roettl & Terlutter, 2018), we decided to incorporate VR and spatial presence into our research design.

4 Virtual Reality Gaming

VR is a technological application that enables interaction with and navigation through a three-dimensional computer-generated environment in real time (Burdea & Coiffet, 2003; Pallavicini, Pepe, & Minissi, 2019). Although interest in VR has risen over the last few years, the expected breakthrough as a down-market product has not yet been achieved.

The gaming industry, however, has shown considerable interest (e.g., Grubb, 2019). Even before the recent introduction of the PlayStation VR, the HTC Vive, and the Oculus Rift to the mass market and gaming community, researchers conducted experiments that compared immersive virtual gaming environments with traditional gaming devices. Some researchers have reported elevated feelings of spatial presence and a consequent rise in aggressive feelings and behavior among participants who played violent games in an immersive virtual environment (IVE) compared with classical gaming technology (e.g., Persky & Blascovich, 2007, 2008). More recent studies have utilized commercially available gaming technology and analyzed several variables, such as arousal, enjoyment, cognitive load, and feelings of spatial presence (Pallavicini et al., 2019; Roettl & Terlutter, 2018; Wilson & McGill, 2018).

Spatial presence is a psychological construct that is closely linked to VR and defined as the perception of non-mediation (Lombard & Ditton, 1997) and the sense of being there (Wirth et al., 2007); that is, it describes the subjective feeling of being in the media environment, in contrast to the recipient's actual environment (Draper, Kaner, & Usher, 1998). Vivid and interactive media can elicit the psychological perception of “being there” in the depicted environment and individuals consequently perceive the media environment to be unmediated and real (Hartmann et al., 2016; Lombard & Ditton, 1997; Steuer, 1992; Wirth et al., 2007). Presence can act as a facilitator of various media effects (Schultze, 2010), such as media enjoyment (e.g., Hartmann, Klimmt, & Vorderer, 2010), persuasion (e.g., Kim & Biocca, 1997), and parasocial interactions (e.g., Jin, 2010; Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Shin et al., 2019). Based on earlier research on VR gaming and theoretical considerations, the following hypothesis is proposed.

H1: Participants who play a game using VR will report higher levels of spatial presence than participants who play the same game using a traditional gaming device.

5 Research Gaps

Although the study by Stiff and Kedra (2018) incorporated a computer-controlled cooperative player, research on the attitudinal effects of diverse NPCs is still lacking. This seems surprising, as most content analyses of video games criticize the lack of diversity among gaming characters (e.g., Dietrich, 2013; Passmore et al., 2017). If scientific research showed that interacting with diverse NPCs could improve outgroup attitudes and thus contribute fundamentally to society, gaming producers might be more inclined to incorporate minority characters or previously neglected social groups as NPCs. In addition, most studies have examined the effect of cooperative actions towards a fellow player in social online games. However, single player games that exclusively incorporate NPCs as non-primary characters constitute about half of the gaming market (Lofgren, 2017). Of course, NPCs are found not only in single player games but also in multiplayer games. Consequently, it is necessary to validate whether this form of parasocial intergroup contact is sufficient to reduce bias against outgroup members. Further, most studies on gaming and prejudice reduction have used explicit measurements, but have failed to consider implicit bias. Stiff and Bowen (2016) specifically called for the use of an implicit association test (IAT) to validate the impact of gaming on implicit bias towards outgroups. Singular mediated experiences have already been shown to alter implicit racial bias (e.g., Peck et al., 2013).

Finally, in our study we analyze whether VR games can amplify the positive effect of parasocial intergroup contact. Due to the enhanced feeling of spatial presence during VR simulations, media users might actually perceive the interaction as direct contact. Previous studies have already reported that levels of presence were associated with more intensive parasocial interactions with media characters (Jin, 2010; Liebers & Schramm, 2017; Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Shin et al., 2019). Consequently, we believe that parasocial contact with an outgroup member will have a stronger effect if experienced through VR technology. Because explicit and implicit attitudes do not always align (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2005), we propose two separate hypotheses to validate the presumed effects.

H2: Mediated intergroup contact with an outgroup member during a video game will significantly reduce explicit bias towards the outgroup. This effect will be stronger for participants who play the game in VR than for participants who play the same game using a traditional gaming device.

H3: Mediated intergroup contact with an outgroup member during a video game will significantly reduce implicit bias towards the outgroup. This effect will be stronger for participants who play the game in VR than for participants who play the same game using a traditional gaming device.

6 Method

6.1 Design and Stimulus

The study incorporated an experimental 3 × 1 between-subjects design and was conducted at a university in Germany. The participants were asked to complete a quest in the popular video game Skyrim, an open-world fantasy role-play game produced by Bethesda Game Studios (Metacritic.com, 2011). We decided to use Skyrim because it incorporates several ethnic groups as NPCs and the VR version has received positive reviews (e.g., Metacritic.com, 2018).

The first factor that was varied in this study was the instructor of the game task. The participants were instructed to retrieve an old family sword that was hidden somewhere in a cave. They either received the quest from a Black NPC named Amren (for more information on the character, see Fandom.com, 2016), or were simply assigned the task by the White research assistant, who used the same wording as the video game character. We decided to incorporate a Black NPC as an outgroup member, because racial discrimination against Black people is still a prominent issue in Germany. Discrimination against Black people has reportedly not improved over the last decade in Germany and includes issues such as discrimination in the labor market, verbal insults, and physical violence (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2017; Lancee et al., 2017). Considering the current political climate in Europe and Germany (e.g., Goerres, Spies, & Kumlin, 2018; Sadeghi, 2019), issues of racial discrimination are still highly relevant and should be addressed by scientific research.

The second factor that was varied was the employed gaming console. Participants either played Skyrim using the regular 2D PlayStation and a TV screen, or played SkyrimVR with the PlayStationVR headset (see Figure 1). Even though the combination of the two factors that were varied (virtual outgroup contact and gaming console) would normally result in four different groups, our study design includes only three groups. We understood the experimental group that did not experience virtual outgroup contact as a control condition and thus did not vary the employed technology for this condition. Consequently, participants who did not experience digital outgroup contact only played the 2D version of the game. Table 1 provides an illustration of the experimental design.

Table 1.
Experimental Design
Control condition (n = 27)2D condition (n = 29)VR condition (n = 30)
Task assigned by… Research assistant NPC NPC 
Employed game console PlayStation 2D PlayStation 2D PlayStation VR 
Control condition (n = 27)2D condition (n = 29)VR condition (n = 30)
Task assigned by… Research assistant NPC NPC 
Employed game console PlayStation 2D PlayStation 2D PlayStation VR 
Figure 1.

Participants playing the game in the 2D (left) and the VR condition (right).

Figure 1.

Participants playing the game in the 2D (left) and the VR condition (right).

The Black NPC Amren is an authentic video game character who was not adapted in any way for the study, nor was the task to retrieve the stolen family sword. However, we changed the location of the hidden sword to standardize the game play. A chest in a cave was chosen as hiding place for the sword and all of the creatures (e.g., skeletons) in the cave that might have attacked the avatar of the participant were killed. Consequently, the participants only had to search the cave for the sword without encountering any form of threat, except for some booby traps. With this approach, we could better standardize the game play and largely prevent the death of our participant's avatar. The game was stopped after participants had found the sword and thus fulfilled the assigned quest.

6.2 Measures

6.2.1 Spatial Presence

The Spatial Presence Experience Scale was used to measure the spatial presence of the participants (Hartmann et al., 2016). The scale consists of eight items measuring two dimensions: self-location (e.g., “I felt like I was actually there in the environment of the presentation”) and possible actions (e.g., “I had the impression that I could be active in the environment of the presentation”). The participants indicated their level of agreement on a 7-point Likert Scale (with a score of 1 corresponding to totally disagree and 7 to totally agree). The reliability of the scale was satisfactory (Cronbach's α = .87; M = 4.38, SD = 1.12).

6.2.2 Levels of Explicit Prejudice

To measure explicit prejudice, we used three dimensions of the scale proposed by Pettigrew and Meertens (1995): “threat and rejection” (e.g., “Black people have jobs that Germans should have”), “intimacy” (e.g., “I would be willing to have sexual relations with a Black person” [reverse coded]), and “traditional values” (e.g., “Black people living here should not push themselves where they are not wanted”). After excluding one item, the overall reliability of the prejudice scale was acceptable (Cronbach's α = .70; M = 1.81, SD = 0.58). Again, a 7-point Likert scale was used and higher values indicated higher levels of prejudice. All of the items are listed in Table 2.

Table 2.
Items and Scales
Spatial presence (Hartmann et al., 2016)
I felt like I was actually there in the environment of the presentation. 
It seemed as though I actually took part in the action of the presentation. 
It was as though my true location had shifted to the environment in the presentation. 
I felt as though I was physically present in the environment of the presentation. 
The objects in the presentation gave me the feeling that I could do things with them. 
I had the impression that I could act in the environment of the presentation. 
I felt like I could move around among the objects in the presentation. 
It seemed to me that I could do whatever I wanted in the environment of the presentation. 
Blatant and subtle prejudice (Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995
Threat and rejection 
Black people have jobs that the German should have. 
Most Black people living here who receive support from welfare could get along without it if they tried. 
German people and Black people can never be really comfortable with each other, even if they are close friends. 
Most politicians in Germany care too much about Black people and not enough about the average German person. 
Black people come from less able races and this explains why they are not as well off as most German people. 
Intimacy 
I would be bothered if a child of mine had children with a person of very different color and physical characteristics than my own. 
I would be willing to have sexual relationships with a Black person.* 
I would not mind if a suitably qualified Black person was appointed as my boss.* 
I would not mind if a Black person who had a similar economic background as mine joined my close family by marriage.* 
Traditional values 
Black people living here should not push themselves where they are not wanted. 
Many other groups have come to Germany and overcome prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without special favor. 
It is just a matter of some people not trying hard enough. If Black people would only try harder they could be as well off as German people. 
Black people living here teach their children values and skills different from those required to be successful in Germany.** 
Spatial presence (Hartmann et al., 2016)
I felt like I was actually there in the environment of the presentation. 
It seemed as though I actually took part in the action of the presentation. 
It was as though my true location had shifted to the environment in the presentation. 
I felt as though I was physically present in the environment of the presentation. 
The objects in the presentation gave me the feeling that I could do things with them. 
I had the impression that I could act in the environment of the presentation. 
I felt like I could move around among the objects in the presentation. 
It seemed to me that I could do whatever I wanted in the environment of the presentation. 
Blatant and subtle prejudice (Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995
Threat and rejection 
Black people have jobs that the German should have. 
Most Black people living here who receive support from welfare could get along without it if they tried. 
German people and Black people can never be really comfortable with each other, even if they are close friends. 
Most politicians in Germany care too much about Black people and not enough about the average German person. 
Black people come from less able races and this explains why they are not as well off as most German people. 
Intimacy 
I would be bothered if a child of mine had children with a person of very different color and physical characteristics than my own. 
I would be willing to have sexual relationships with a Black person.* 
I would not mind if a suitably qualified Black person was appointed as my boss.* 
I would not mind if a Black person who had a similar economic background as mine joined my close family by marriage.* 
Traditional values 
Black people living here should not push themselves where they are not wanted. 
Many other groups have come to Germany and overcome prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without special favor. 
It is just a matter of some people not trying hard enough. If Black people would only try harder they could be as well off as German people. 
Black people living here teach their children values and skills different from those required to be successful in Germany.** 

Note. 7-point Likert scales were employed (1 = I do not agree at all; 7 = I completely agree); *Reverse coded; **Item was removed to improve reliability.

6.2.3 Levels of Implicit Prejudice

A standard IAT was used to capture the participants’ implicit prejudice towards Black people. The test was scored using the algorithm by Greenwald, Nosek, and Banaji (2003) (M = −0.41, SD = 0.38), who employed the D-scores, which are computed as the mean difference divided by the overall standard deviation. The IAT included blocks in which white was paired with unpleasant words (and black was paired with pleasant) and blocks in which white was paired with pleasant words (and black was paired with unpleasant). Faster pairing of negative words with images of Black people than with images of white people indicates that the participant implicitly associates Black people with negative concepts. A negative D-score implies that the concept (Black people) is more strongly associated with negative dimensions than with positive dimensions. High scores indicate that the participant is slower to pair black and pleasant than white and pleasant, thus indicating a more negative perception of Black people.

6.2.4 Control Variables

We included several additional measure at the end of the questionnaire. Participants were asked how often they played video games in general and how much experience they have had with the video game Skyrim as well as with VR technology before participating in this study. Furthermore, they were asked about their perceived game difficulty (M = 2.66, SD = 1.36) and game enjoyment (M = 4.99, SD = 1.37) on a 7-point Likert scale.

6.3 Procedure

The study took place in a university laboratory at a medium-sized German university. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions and took part in the study one at a time. After entering the laboratory, the research assistant welcomed and instructed the participants accordingly. After providing written consent, the participants were told that they would take part in a study on the enjoyment of video games and informed that they could end the experiment at any time. The research assistant carefully hid the equipment that was not needed for the current participant, so that the participants were unaware of the other experimental conditions.

Before participants received the sword-fetching quest, they familiarized themselves with the game play and the controller by virtually walking through a previously explored and secured forest area. After they had completed the short walk and demonstrated adequate game control, they were given the quest. They either received the instruction to fetch the stolen family sword from the research assistant or from the Black NPC Amren. Afterwards, another saved game was loaded, where the participants could immediately enter the cave where the sword was hidden. They had to roam the cave and inspect several chests and other containers to find the sword. As mentioned, all other creatures that had occupied the cave were killed beforehand to standardize the game play. After the participants had reached the end of the cave and found the hidden sword, they were asked to stop the game. After a short pause during which they relaxed for a few minutes, the IAT was administered, followed by the online questionnaire measuring spatial presence and explicit prejudice. The participants also provided relevant demographic information and responded to several questions about their usual gaming habits. As soon as they had completed the questionnaire, the participants were debriefed and thanked for their cooperation.

6.4 Sample

To estimate the required sample size, a statistical power analysis was performed using GPower 3.1, based on data from Stiff and Kedra (2018). The effect size reported in that study (η² = .30) was large according to Cohen's (1988) criteria. Therefore, with alpha = .05 and power = 0.90, the projected sample size for the current study was approximately N = 84. Ninety undergraduate and graduate students were recruited from a medium-sized German university and received course credit for participating. Only White students were allowed to participate in the study. Four participants were excluded due to technological problems or other difficulties (e.g., when the participant's avatar died by falling down a cliff during gameplay). The mean age of the final sample was 20.98 (SD = 1.77) with a range of 18 to 26. Half of the participants were female (n = 43) and all of them identified as White. Thirty-five participants reported that they never played video games, 27 played them at least once a month or week, and 24 played them every week or every day. Most of them (n = 65) had not played Skyrim before participating in this study. The majority (n = 57) had used VR technology at least once before, but only nine of them owned a VR headset. No significant differences were found between the conditions concerning gaming experience, game difficulty and game enjoyment (all Fs < 2.38 and X² < 5.06).

7 Results

A between-subjects ANCOVA was conducted to compare the effects of different types of game play on spatial presence, using previous experience with Skyrim as a covariate. There was a significant effect of experimental treatment on spatial presence [F(2, 82) = 3.51, p = .016, η² = .08]. As expected, the level of spatial presence was higher in the VR condition (M = 4.79, SD = 1.08) than in the control condition (M = 4.25, SD = 1.19) and the 2D with parasocial contact condition (M = 4.07, SD = 1.09). Simple contrasts were used to compare the three groups (see Table 3). The mean score for the VR condition was higher than for the 2D with parasocial contact and the 2D control condition, while there was no significant difference between the 2D with parasocial contact and the control condition. These results suggest that VR games can facilitate higher subjective feelings of spatial presence, supporting the first hypothesis. The results are consistent with earlier studies and theories (e.g., Cummings & Bailenson, 2016; Pallavicini et al., 2019; Steuer, 1992). The bearer of the task instruction (research assistant or game character) had no effect on the perception of spatial presence.

Table 3.
Simple Contrasts for Spatial Presence (H1) and Explicit Prejudice (H2)
Group 1Group 2ContrastsSEptr
Spatial presence       
2D without POC vs. 2D with POC 0.12 .30 .704 0.619 .068 
2D without POC vs. VR with POC 0.60 .30 .048 1.811 .195 
2D with POC vs. VR with POC 0.71 .29 .015 2.281 .263 
Explicit prejudice       
2D without POC vs. 2D with POC 0.18 .15 .255 1.005 .137 
2D without POC vs. VR with POC 0.37 .15 .017 2.474 .364 
2D with POC vs. VR with POC 0.20 .15 .197 1.436 .206 
Group 1Group 2ContrastsSEptr
Spatial presence       
2D without POC vs. 2D with POC 0.12 .30 .704 0.619 .068 
2D without POC vs. VR with POC 0.60 .30 .048 1.811 .195 
2D with POC vs. VR with POC 0.71 .29 .015 2.281 .263 
Explicit prejudice       
2D without POC vs. 2D with POC 0.18 .15 .255 1.005 .137 
2D without POC vs. VR with POC 0.37 .15 .017 2.474 .364 
2D with POC vs. VR with POC 0.20 .15 .197 1.436 .206 

Note. POC = parasocial outgroup contact.

A one-way ANOVA was conducted to verify H2, which proposed a positive effect of parasocial contact on explicit prejudice. As predicted, the participants in the VR condition reported the lowest prejudice scores (M = 1.65, SD = 0.39), followed by the 2D with parasocial contact condition (M = 1.85, SD = 0.62). Participants in the control condition (2D without parasocial contact) indicated the highest levels of prejudice against Black people (M = 2.03, SD = 0.69). While the main effect reached significance [Welch's F(2, 50.147) = 3.38, p = .042, η² = .07], a simple contrast test (see Table 3) indicated that only the VR and the control condition differed significantly. Nevertheless, the significant main effect and the expected reduction in levels of prejudice meant that H2 was maintained.

A second ANOVA was conducted to verify the third hypothesis concerning implicit bias, but showed no main effect [F(2, 83) = 0.10, p = .905, η² = .002]. The means of the three groups did not differ significantly (2D without parasocial contact: M = −0.39, SD = 0.36; 2D with parasocial contact: M = −0.42, SD = 0.41; VR with parasocial contact: M = −0.44, SD = 0.39), thus indicating that parasocial contact with an outgroup member did not change the implicit bias of the participants. Consequently, the third hypothesis was rejected.

8 Discussion

While H1 (spatial presence) and H2 (explicit bias) were supported, H3 concerning the participants’ implicit bias had to be rejected. The reported results can still be considered important primary findings on the impact of NPCs on the attitudes of players towards outgroups.

A single, positive exposure to a Black NPC reduced explicit bias towards Black people in general. This is an important and novel finding, as earlier studies have either manipulated and adapted the avatar of the media user (e.g., Oh et al., 2016; Peck et al., 2013) or used fellow players as outgroup members who continuously interacted with the media user (e.g., Stiff & Bowen, 2016; Stiff & Kedra, 2018). Reducing explicit bias can improve conscious intergroup actions, such as verbal communication and can thus be considered highly important for altering intergroup behavior (Dovidio et al., 2002). Additionally, the results support the demand of researchers (e.g., Williams et al., 2009) for greater diversity in video games, as intergroup bias can be reduced by incorporating more diverse NPCs who ask the gamer's avatar for help. This positive interaction might reduce the perceived distance between the NPC and the player, thus reducing intergroup anxiety, as reported by Stiff and Kedra (2018). Another factor that might have influenced the result is the cognitive dissonance of the players. Because the players helped the Black NPC by completing the quest, they might have then justified their cooperative behavior by reporting positive feelings towards the outgroup. This circumstance is based on cognitive dissonance theory (Blanchard & Cook, 1976; Jecker & Landy, 1969), which proposes that a person will experience tension (cognitive dissonance) if the person does a favor for someone towards whom the person holds a negative attitude. To reduce this cognitive dissonance, the person is more inclined to like the conversational partner afterwards in order to internally justify the cooperative behavior. Of course, we are only able to speculate about these mechanisms and they should be analyzed in subsequent studies.

However, it is important to note that although all of the participants, including those who played the 2D game, reported more favorable attitudes, the increase was significant only among participants who experienced the VR version. The VR technology enhanced the positive effect, consistent with earlier studies on the prosocial effects of VR simulations (e.g., Ahn, Le, & Bailenson, 2013; Yoo & Drumwright, 2018). Furthermore, being physically present in the game environment may have enhanced the parasocial interaction with the NPC. The VR technology and the subsequent psychological perception of spatial presence might have acted as an intensifier of diverse emotional and cognitive processes.

Although explicit bias was reduced by the parasocial contact with the Black NPC, there was no effect on implicit bias. This divergence might be explained by Turner and Crisp's (2010) assumption that social contact affects explicit and implicit attitudes via two distinct routes. Explicit bias might be more strongly influenced by deliberate actions, such as helping an outgroup member, while implicit bias might be changed by more subtle or indirect behavior, such as thinking about an outgroup member (McConnell & Leibold, 2001; Turner & Crisp, 2010). Additionally, implicit attitudes have been labeled as “old habits, which are more difficult to change.” (Turner et al., 2007, p. 371) and thus might not have been influenced by a short virtual interaction. Maybe intergroup contact that can be considered higher in quality could make a difference (Allport, 1954; Schiappa et al., 2005); for instance, NPCs that help and follow the gamer's character throughout the game might reduce implicit bias. In a similar line, the quest only involved finding the sword, but the participants did not need to return it to the NPC. It is possible that expanding the quest by returning the sword to the NPC could render the interaction between the player and the NPC more positive, thus further reducing bias.

Furthermore, the external validity of the results was limited because the opponents that inhabited the cave were removed before the participants entered the game scenario. Fighting with and killing dangerous creatures to complete the quest might have influenced the impact of the NPC on bias in both ways: either the violent actions might prime gamers and enhance negative bias, or the quest might be perceived as more difficult and dangerous. Risking the life of your own avatar to help someone you disliked could provoke stronger levels of cognitive dissonance, thus reducing bias (Blanchard & Cook, 1976; Jecker & Landy, 1969).

While this study showed positive effects of intergroup contact during VR gameplay, it is also possible that negative intergroup contact could enhance negative consequences (Wilson & McGill, 2018). Performing antisocial acts towards members of the outgroup can be perceived as negative contact (Saleem & Anderson, 2013), and might result in pronounced feelings of social distance and higher levels of prejudice. Thus, while VR games might be an effective tool to reduce bias, depending on the type of contact they could be a double-edged sword. Future research seems necessary.

Several limitations should be considered when interpreting these findings. First, the sample was rather homogenous as it was composed only of students. While young adults reflect a large part of the gaming community, children and older gamers should not be neglected. Second, the measurement instruments have to be critically acknowledged. Explicit prejudice against Black people was rather low in this sample; this might have been due to social desirability, as the IAT suggested that prejudice was higher than indicated by the explicit test. Due to the low levels of explicit bias, the effects of parasocial contact might have been underestimated. Additionally, a pre-posttest IAT might have detected changes in implicit bias and provided interesting results, but was not included in order to disguise the purpose of the study. Additional studies should incorporate a more diverse sample, be mindful of distortion due to social desirability and employ different measurements. Third, because only three experimental groups were included in this experiment, the possibility of experimental artifacts have to be critically discussed. Using the VR technology might have triggered demand effects and participants might have unconsciously adapted their responses; a fourth group that played the VR version of the game, but did not experience virtual contact with an outgroup member would have been useful to rule out demand effects.

Nonetheless, the notion that playing video games that incorporate diverse NPCs could actually benefit society seems intriguing; additionally, based on the widespread and steady excitement concerning interactive video games and VR innovations, these kind of interventions seem largely scalable. Hence, this study could be the first step in a very interesting program of research.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Ina Graber, Felicitas Lemke, Christina Haas, and Jiyeon Yeo for their help in conducting the experiment. Additionally, I would like to give my thanks to Daniel Reinhardt for the technological support.

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Author notes

The author confirms that the manuscript has been submitted solely to this journal and is not published in press or submitted elsewhere. This work was not supported by grants or funding. There are no financial interests or benefits dependent on this manuscript.

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author, PB, upon reasonable request.