Aggression from video games 'linked to incompetence'

By Dave Lee
Technology reporter, BBC News

Image source, Valve
Image caption,
Researchers made a modified, non-violent version of Half-Life 2 as part of the study

Feelings of aggression after playing video games are more likely to be linked to gameplay mechanics rather than violent content, a study suggests.

Researchers carried out a range of tests, including making a non-violent version of popular game Half-Life 2.

Games modified to have counter-intuitive, frustrating controls - leading to feelings of incompetence - produced more aggressive reactions.

The team called for more sophisticated research into violent gaming.

"There's a need for researchers who are interested in these questions not just to pull two video games off the shelf from the high street," said Dr Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute, who carried out the research along with colleagues from the University of Rochester in the US.

"We need to have a more sophisticated approach so we're all reading from the same experimental methods."

The link between violence and video games is a heavily debated topic among psychologists.

One recent study suggested that playing violent video games for long periods of time can hold back the "moral maturity" of teenagers.

Problems arose with teenagers who spent more than three hours every day in front of a screen, continuously playing these violent games without any other real-life interaction.

Evaporating foes

The study from the University of Oxford, however, believed it was the first to look at the impact gameplay mechanics had on aggression.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The research sought to establish whether it was violence in games which made players feel more aggressive, or a combination of other factors.

Six separate studies were carried out.

One of them involved modifying Half-Life 2 - a critically-acclaimed, but graphic, shooting title.

The researchers created a modified version in which rather than violently removing enemies, the player would instead "tag" foes who would then evaporate.

This version was tested alongside the normal, violent version.

However, only some of the gamers were given a tutorial before playing the game so they could familiarise themselves with the controls and game mechanics.

The researchers found that it was the players who had not had the tutorial who felt less competent and more aggressive, rather than people who had played the more violent version of the game.


"We focused on the motives of people who play electronic games and found players have a psychological need to come out on top when playing," said Dr Przybylski.

"If players feel thwarted by the controls or the design of the game, they can wind up feeling aggressive.

"This need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
More research into long-term effects of video gaming is needed, researchers say

"Players of games without any violent content were still feeling pretty aggressive if they hadn't been able to master the controls or progress through the levels at the end of the session."

Further research is needed, Dr Przybylski said, into longer-term effects of video game violence beyond initial feelings of aggression.

Co-author Prof Richard Ryan, from the University of Rochester, said: "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."

The chief executive of Tiga, a British video games trade body, said it was encouraging to read a study that took a more nuanced approach to the link between video games and aggression than some previous research into the topic.

"If developers can design more effective game-play processes then it could be possible to minimise a player's feelings of exasperation and irritation - admittedly something good developers will want to achieve in any case," said Richard Wilson.

"Indeed, creating a game that is challenging without feeling unfair or frustrating is often the mark of a great developer.

"It's also important to understand, as part of this debate, that most video games are not violent.

"Previous research published by Tanya Byron in her 2008 independent review 'Safer Children in a Digital World', found little evidence to suggest children who play video games become desensitised to violence."

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