I’ve talked about the suspect research that’s been done in the past linking playing videogames to aggression in the past, but a recent study suggests there may be an alternate link that no one’s considered before. If you’re familiar with some of the previous research, you’ll know that most of them try to say there’s a direct causal relationship between exposure to videogame violence & aggression in people, especially children. More often than not the research goes like this:
- Have children play violent or non-violent videogames
- Give children access to violent & non-violent methods of play afterwards
- Observe their preferred playstyle
- Note that children who play violent games tend to choose violent toys
- Say videogames caused the aggression
They typically base their findings on Social Learning Theory, which basically says we learn our behaviors by observing others. It’s a phenomena that’s been proven many times, particularly in children. Of course no one actually stops to question whether viewing violence in games leads to long-term more aggressive behavior. Sure, kids are going to act out what they just saw, whether it’s violent or not.
But a recent study done by the Oxford Internet Institute & the University of Rochester suggest that there may be something other than the actual violence in the games that lead to aggression. Turns out, it may be the mechanics of the game itself.
You can read the abbreviated results on the BBC News article “Aggression from video games linked to incompetence.” But as I prefer to see the research for myself to determine if there are any methodology flaws, I checked the full paper out myself. Gotta get some use out of those research classes I had to take in graduate school.
In a series of several different studies, researchers broke participants up into different groups & exposed them to different types of games. In each study there was a violent & non-violent game. However, they also varied the games on how easy they were to actually play. The study actually discussed in the article was the second one, where researchers used Half-Life 2‘s development kit to create two different games. One was the regular “violent” version of Half-Life 2, with guns, gore & all that good stuff. In the non-violent version, players tagged their opponents & they were removed from the game via the physics gun. But the researchers also created a tutorial level for each version to show players how to play the game. So they ended up with four groups based on which version of the game & whether or not they had a tutorial.
What they found was that, regardless of which version of the game participants played, participants reported more frustration & aggression when they didn’t get a tutorial. In other words, when the participants played more mechanically-difficult games they felt more aggressive afterwards. The other studies repeated these results with different types of games, even comparing simple puzzles to difficult puzzles. The more complex, difficult & unintuitive the mechanics of the games were, the higher players reported their aggression levels afterwards.
The reason for these findings, according to the researchers, is because of the motivations behind playing videogames. Think about that for a minute. Why do you play games? You could probably list lots of reasons, but according to the researchers it all boils down to three key motivations that are behind why we do anything at all: competence, autonomy & relatedness. We play games to beat them, for victory, to succeed (competence); to explore, experience new things, have fun (autonomy); we play to have fun with friends (relatedness). Gaming fulfills all three basic needs.
According to the researchers, instead of looking to Social Learning, they looked to the Self-Determination Theory. In short, SDT says that all humans have:
The needs for competence (i.e., the experience of efficacy), autonomy (i.e., the sense of choice and volition), and relatedness (i.e., the feeling of connection and belongingness with others). When supported, these three needs form the basis of psychological health and provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for effective self-regulation. SDT researchers have argued that people are more prone to aggression when any of these three basic needs is thwarted either proximally, by situational threats or deprivations, or distally, by chronic developmental conditions.
So what does this actually mean? In short, people become aggressive after playing games not because of the exposure to violent images but because they’ve been made to feel incompetent, not in control & disconnected from others. Or, to put it in the words of co-author Professor Richard Ryan,
“The study is not saying that violent content doesn’t affect gamers, but our research suggests that people are not drawn to playing violent games in order to feel aggressive. Rather, the aggression stems from feeling not in control or incompetent while playing. If the structure of a game or the design of the controls thwarts enjoyment, it is this not the violent content that seems to drive feelings of aggression.”
Speaking from personal experience, I can say this sounds pretty accurate. I’m not an aggressive person (I’m actually quite passive-aggressive), but I’ve played some games that have made me scream, curse, throw my controller & in general done things that if people who knew me actually saw me do they’d think I’d lost my mind. Watching the boy die for the millionth time in Limbo made me want to throw my controller at the TV, but running over cops in Saints Row 2 did not make to do the same in real life. And that’s what a lot of research on game violence fails to pick up on. We may get violent because a game frustrates us, but that doesn’t mean we lose our minds & act out what we saw in the game.