A team of researchers from the University of Rochester has published a study on video game players’ feelings of aggression, but unlike similar studies, the focus was not on violence but on competence.
Published in the Journal of personality and social psychology, the study examined the ideas of the General Aggression Model — that exposure to violent media can snowball into aggressive behavior — then asked whether the interactive nature of games really fits the model. From there, the paper raised many questions about game design, with discussions of learning curves, “hardcore” players and even “rage-quitting” before stating that “to date, the structural and motivational aspects of gaming have not been explored. a source of player aggression.” So the team set out to investigate whether difficulty and inaccessibility in games leads to more aggressive behavior than an M rating on the box.
To make that point, many of the studies involved hacked and modified versions of games. In one of the seven tests, players competed in deathmatch games from half-life 2; one version allowed players to “mutilate and dispatch the opponents, causing them to spit blood”, while the other version used non-lethal “tag” attacks to make opponents disappear. Aside from that superficial difference, the gameplay was identical and the difference in resulting aggression was minimal. But everyone was a bit aggressive. In contrast, players who were introduced to the deathmatch through a custom tutorial came out of their sessions less aggressively.
Other studies implemented hacked versions of Tetris with two major changes. In addition to the standard control version, one hack changed the controller’s configuration so buttons were in illogical locations, while another hack analyzed gameplay on-the-fly to make sure the next falling block would be the least useful. The test with the last hack certainly caused aggression. After playing, those participants were asked to put other testers’ hands in near-freezing water, which they did for a whopping ten seconds longer than standard players.
“Psychological need gratification is something that can and does happen in myriad ways in most areas of life, including parenting, sports, work and education,” the study concluded. “Exploring how this happens and how to ameliorate these effects raises extremely important questions for future motivation research.”
The authors hope that future studies will go even further in exploring how interactive media interact with psychological needs. This study examined the human need for competence, but in the eyes of the authors, studies focusing on relatedness/relatedness and autonomy/choice could be equally revealing of how games affect the human psyche.