It’s No Game: Experiments in Conflict and Violence

June 8, 2016

When is a game not a game? When it’s deadly serious.
Todd Sechser, P.I., and Abigail Post, Project and Lab Manager, presented preliminary findings from their laboratory experiments in conflict and violence to an audience including John Luginsland, a technical adviser in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and Rana Ganguly, Director of Sponsored Research and Development from UVA’s College of Arts and Sciences. Sechser’s research tests assumptions about how being exposed to violence can shape our behaviors and actions.
Todd Sechser presentingThe experiments Sechser presented are designed to tease out what happens to a person after exposure to violent media: do they become more aggressive? Or more empathetic? The academic literature offers conflicting answers. Studies in psychology have shown that video game violence seems to cause more aggressive behavior in experimental subjects, but other research has found that exposure to actual violence seems to decrease it. Sechser’s experiments, which involved more than 500 subjects, will help reconcile this disagreement. Initial papers from his project are forthcoming in the Journal of Conflict Resolution and International Studies Quarterly. Ultimately he hopes to field-test these experiments in countries that have experienced large-scale violence.
To run his experiments, Sechser built an experimental laboratory from scratch, which he launched in the spring of 2016. Twelve laptops, headphones, portable partitions, and heavy-duty wire carts make the lab mobile, giving him the ability to conduct experiments anywhere. The lab manager, Abigail Post, can set up the machines and software in a matter of minutes. Overall, Sechser’s laboratory team consists of 10 graduate students and more than 20 undergraduates.
Sechser’s program is the outcome of a seed grant from the Quantitative Collaborative, an initiative out of the Dean’s office. QC Seed Grants are designed to provide researchers with the initial funding to gather the elements for larger grant applications. Sechser’s seed grant helped him lay the groundwork for a large-scale grant from the Air Force to launch his experimental lab and conduct  experiments. Seed grants are supposed to work like this and the Dean’s office has high hopes for their investments. The QC has continued to provide support for the lab by helping to purchase additional materials and equipment to keep it running.
Sechser and Post plan to continue their experiments to help answer other important questions about conflict and violence.  How does violence shape group identities and behavior? What is the role of emerging technologies in civil wars and insurgencies? In the long term, Sechser hopes to make the laboratory a permanent fixture in the Politics Department, with dedicated space and staff to help answer these questions.

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