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Playing Rock Band together lowers stress and makes people more empathetic, study says

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Empathy seems to be in short supply these days, especially on the internet. But there's an easy solution, according to a new study published yesterday in the journal Current Biology: Just play some Rock Band.

Previous research has established that lower mammals such as mice, in addition to humans, are capable of empathy. This particular study, led by McGill University psychology professor Jeffrey Mogil, compared reactions of undergraduate college students to a painful stimulus delivered by a different kind of ice bucket challenge — submerging an arm in ice water. The researchers measured pain reactions from people who were alone; with a friend; with a stranger; with a stranger when both had been given a stress-blocking drug; and with a stranger when both of them had just played Rock Band together.

It turned out that the pain reactions didn't differ for people who were alone or with a stranger. But when a subject was sitting across from a friend, they actually felt more pain.

"It would seem like more pain in the presence of a friend would be bad news, but it's in fact a sign that there is strong empathy between individuals — they are indeed feeling each other's pain," said Mogil.

The researchers saw the same heightened reaction in people who had been given metyrapone, a drug that suppresses the "fight-or-flight" stress response. The findings indicate that "social stress," such as the stress felt between two people who are strangers, presents a barrier to feeling empathy.

The final group of students played Rock Band with strangers prior to the ice water challenge. It took 15 minutes of playing together for the strangers to exhibit empathy toward each other during the experiment. On the other hand, playing Rock Band alone didn't increase empathy.

"It turns out that even a shared experience that is as superficial as playing a video game together can move people from the 'stranger zone' to the 'friend zone' and generate meaningful levels of empathy," said Mogil.

Rock Band developer Harmonix Music Systems posted a survey online today, hinting at a potential future entry in the franchise on current-generation consoles. The most recent Rock Band game was 2012's Rock Band Blitz.

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