Rosenberg RS, Baughman SL, Bailenson JN (2013) Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55003. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055003 (link)
A new study from Stanford University shows that being given the superhero power of flight in a virtual environment immediately changes your likeihood to help another person in the real-world:
"For the study, 30 female participants and 30 male participants were immersed in a foggy virtual reality city and given the power of flight — like Superman — or the experience of riding as a passenger in a helicopter. Those groups were then assigned one of two tasks: help find a missing diabetic child in desperate need of an insulin injection or leisurely tour their virtual environment. Therefore, the study was a two-by-two design, with participants assigned to one of four groups.
After their VR experience, participants were taken out of their head-mounted-display masks and asked to have a seat. While the experimenter fumbled with the VR equipment, she “accidentally” knocked over a cup of 15 pens sitting on a table near the participant’s chair.
Researchers found that participants who experienced the power of flight in virtual reality were not only quicker to help pick up the pens than their helicopter-riding counterparts, they also picked up more pens. Of the six participants that didn’t help, all were in the helicopter condition. The task of ‘helping the diabetic child’ showed no main effect; only the superpower of flight did."
This is a very nice controlled, empirical design that for once discusses the positive potential of playing computer games.