Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Rivers and her students are researching the effects of gaming on empathy and ethical decision making.

In 2017, Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Rivers, Ph.D., spent much of her summer and fall immersed in the role-playing video game Fable III. But it wasn’t all fun and games — she was working on her fall sabbatical project: “Effects of video game play on cognitive, affective and behavioral measures.”

“There’s a lot of literature that says playing video games makes people aggressive,” she said. “The research I’m looking at says that it really kind of depends on the kind of game you play.”

Photo of Associate Professor of Psychology Jen Rivers & Sarah Picard '18, a psychology major

Through a faculty development grant, Rivers set up a makeshift lab with computers and Xbox gaming consoles in the Social Sciences Division conference room. Students who volunteered were assigned to play the villain or the hero, or to be part of a control group that got to play the game freely.

“My original thought was the people who play the hero are going to be affected in positive ways, and the people who play the villain are going to be affected more negatively, “ Rivers said. “I didn’t find statistically significant findings, but I found marginal findings,” she said, adding that the effect was especially noticeable in the moods of people forced to play the villain.

Psychology majors Tacai Dryden ’18 of West Orange, N.J., and Sarah Picard ’18 of Chicopee participated as co-investigators by helping Rivers collect and analyze data. “It’s an amazing experience,” Sarah said of participating in the study. “I’ve never done anything close to this before.”

Participating in this research and in a semester-long group project encouraged Sarah to pursue her own project. She presented a poster, “Mindfulness: The Key to Success? Effects of Mindfulness on Performance,” in October 2017 at the New England Psychological Association conference at William James College in Newton, MA.

'Mindfulness is a kind of meditation. It’s a popular subject in psychology right now, but no one really knows how to quantify it.' -Sara Picard '18

Many institutions offer very limited opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research, but the experience gives students an increased level of confidence in themselves and in what’s possible for their futures.

“Before the conference, Sarah told me, ‘I’m not going to grad school. There’s no way I can go to grad school; I don’t feel competent that I can do this,’” Rivers said. “She came out of it saying, ‘I can see that this could be possible for me.’ Those are moments that I kind of cling to, because that’s why we’re here.”

Sarah plans to take a year off before applying to master’s programs.

“If she does go to grad school, I think she has a really good foundation for a thesis,” Rivers said. “She has ideas of how to expand this idea, or what the next question would be. So I think that’s a really good place to be.”

As for River’s project, 62 students have participated so far. “That is not bad for the initial study, but I do need to collect more data,” she said.

Eventually, Rivers hopes to publish a paper on the work. She’d also like to study the eight percent of the population who, if given the choice, choose to play the villain. “I think those people are especially interesting,” she said.