To anyone who has seen the carnage of Call of Duty or the gleeful sadism of Grand Theft Auto, the connection drawn in a new psychology study between video games and aggressive behavior may not seem surprising—at least not at first. How could these festivals of violence not instill antisocial feelings, even bloodlust, in their players?
But the study, conducted by researchers at the the University of Oxford, the University of Rochester, and the company Immersyve, found that aggressive thoughts and actions don’t come from the violent content of a game—instead, it’s being bad at playing difficult games that gives rise to real-world aggression. A few frustrating rounds of Tetris, in other words, would be more likely to make a gamer lash out than an hour spent absorbed in virtual decapitation and evisceration on an easy level of Gears of War.
“Difficulty was a consistent, robust predictor that accounted for a certain share of the variability in aggressive feelings and thoughts and behaviors,” says Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at Oxford and the lead author on the paper. “We didn’t once find a content effect.”
What makes the findings even more interesting is that Przybylski and his co-authors are proposing a new way of studying the effects of video games. Most previous studies on the topic have treated video games as if they were movies. Studies on the effect of movie violence will typically show some subjects high-body-count movies, such as Kill Bill, and some subjects nonviolent ones, such as Wall-E, then give them questionnaires or put them through behavioral tests to measure their aggression. But video games, unlike movies, are interactive.
Przybylski and his co-authors were curious whether how well one did at a game might have an effect. In the multiplayer gaming world, the phenomenon of failure-induced anger is common enough that there’s a term for it: rage quitting. In the paper, it’s described as “the act of disconnecting gaming equipment, sometimes violently,” the result of “sudden, high-intensity negative emotional experiences in response to feeling overwhelmed by competitors.”
To see whether even those who don’t rip their Ethernet cables out of the wall and throw their controllers to the floor in fury might nonetheless feel game-induced frustration, Przybylski and company had their subjects play different video games modified to amp up or tamp down the violence. In one study, they created two versions of the first-person shooter Half-Life. In one version, players only tagged competitors and teleported them away rather than killing them. In the other, the researchers “turned the blood to the maximum,” Przybylski says, so that players left their competitors gasping in puddles of arterial spray.
In other studies, the researchers focused on difficulty. Sometimes that meant manipulating the controls of the game to make them either simple and intuitive or complex and nonintuitive. One experiment employed a version of Tetris that had been customized to be devilishly hard: “It figured out the piece you needed and then gave you the wrong piece 78 percent of the time,” Przybylski says. “If you play that version of Tetris for 10 minutes, no matter how good you are, those kinds of challenges will wear on you.”
After playing the games, subjects had their aggression levels tested. In some of the studies they were given a questionnaire based on something called the State Hostility Scale to get them to describe how they felt, in others they were given a word recognition test measuring how fast they could identify aggression-related words as opposed to neutral ones. In the superhard Tetris study, each subject before playing the game had to place his or her hand in uncomfortably cold water for a length of time. The subjects were told that the length of time had been decided by the preceding test subject, though in reality everyone had to do it for 25 seconds. After playing Tetris—either the standard version or the brutally hard one—each subject was asked how long the next subject should have to put his hand in the cold water. People who had played the harder version of the game recommended, on average, 7 seconds more pain for their successors than those who had played the normal version. By contrast, in none of the studies did Przybylski and his co-authors find an effect on aggression from manipulating the violent content of games.
The idea that frustration is a trigger for anger and antisocial feelings has ramifications beyond video games, of course. It could apply just as easily to a crossword puzzle—or it could apply to behavior on the job. The theory of human behavior that Przybylski uses to interpret his findings is called self-determination theory, and it posits three basic psychological needs: the need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness. In this model, being bad at something, even a video game, thwarts a fundamental need.
Przybylski emphasizes that his research, like much research on video games and aggression, measures only short-term effects. He compares it to commuting. The frustrations of traffic can make a person more aggressive while driving, and perhaps for a few minutes after he gets to work, but it’s a leap to assume that someone who commutes every day has become an inherently more hostile person.
Still, the paper’s finding could help explain a curious finding in earlier video game research. Some studies have found that playing a violent game for a short amount of time makes people more aggressive, but if they play it for longer the effect goes away. If it’s actually frustration rather than violent content that accounts for the aggression, that makes sense. The longer one plays, the better one gets at a game, and the less frustrating it is—indeed, helping players fight through frustration is part of what well-constructed video games do.
But if that’s the case, it means that if we’re worried about the effects on kids of video games, violent and otherwise, we shouldn’t be encouraging them to play less. We should be encouraging them to play more.