Feelings of Failure, Not Violent Content, Foster Aggression in Video Gamers

The disturbing imagery or violent storylines of videos games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto are often accused of fostering feelings of aggression in players. But a new study shows hostile behavior is linked to gamers’ experiences of failure and frustration during play—not to a game’s violent content.

The study is the first to look at the player’s psychological experience with video games instead of focusing solely on its content. Researchers found that failure to master a game and its controls led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not. The findings of the study were published online in the March edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Any player who has thrown down a remote control after losing an electronic game can relate to the intense feelings or anger failure can cause,” explains lead author Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, who said such frustration is commonly known among gamers as “rage-quitting.”

That experience is not unique to gaming, says coauthor Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester. For example, in sports, players may lose a game as a result of a bad call. “When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression,” he explains. “We saw that in our experiments. If you press someone’s competencies, they’ll become more aggressive, and our effects held up whether the games were violent or not.”

To tease out which aspects of the gaming experience lead to aggressive feelings, the researchers manipulated the interface, controls, and degree of difficulty in custom-designed video games across six lab experiments. Nearly 600 college-aged participants were tasked with playing the games—many of which included violent and nonviolent variations—and then were tested for aggressive thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

In one experiment, undergraduates held their hand in a bowl of painfully cold water for 25 seconds. They were led to believe that the length of time was determined by a prior participant, but in fact, all participants were assigned the same duration. Next, participants were randomly asked to play either a simple or challenging version of Tetris, after which they were asked to assign the amount of time a future participant would have to leave their hand in the chilled water. Players who experienced the difficult Tetris game assigned on average 10 seconds more of chilled water pain to subsequent players than those who played the easy version.

Across the experiments, researchers found it was not the narrative or imagery, but the lack of mastery of the game’s controls and the degree of difficulty players had completing the game that led to frustration. The study demonstrated that aggression is a negative side effect of the frustration felt while playing the video game. “When the experience involves threats to our ego, it can cause us to be hostile and mean to others,” Ryan explains.

The researchers also surveyed 300 avid gamers to identify how real world gamers might experience the same phenomena. When asked about pre- and post-game feelings, gamers reported that their inability to master a game or its controls caused feelings of frustration and affected their sense of enjoyment in the experience.

Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology and Gown Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, and C. Scott Rigby, president of Immersyve, a consortium of researchers and interactive development professionals that study motivation and sustained engagement, also contributed to the paper.

The researchers say that the findings offer an important contribution to the debate about the effects of violent video games. Ryan says that many critics of video games have been premature in their conclusions that violent video games cause aggression. “It’s a complicated area, and people have simplistic views,” he explains, noting that nonviolent games like Tetris or Candy Crush can leave players as, if not more, aggressive than games with violence, if they’re poorly designed or too difficult.

3 thoughts on “Feelings of Failure, Not Violent Content, Foster Aggression in Video Gamers”

  1. Video games are a part of todays’ society; every child has played at least one video game in their life. And as technology advances it seems as if video games are becoming more and more violent. And as these video games become more violent, the youth have also become more frustrated, angrier and more violent. Many blame this on the violent content that video games incorporate. But this article proves that this is not the case.

    Both my brother and I are avid gamers. We enjoy playing all sorts of video games from sports games such as FIFA, to action games such as Grand Theft Auto, to more innocent games such as Sims3. I also found that it does not matter which games we played both of us experienced some sort of rage during game play. This rage is often as a result of our frustrations when we lose, or cannot get to the next level or even when we feel that the game is being too slow. This article helped me understand that our rage is not because of the content of the game but rather the frustration we feel at our own capabilities.

    In the future such information can be used to stop such violent outbreaks by helping to identify the cause of the frustration and then finding a way to manage or solve it.

  2. In this day and age almost every teenager or youngster has made contact with video games in some way, violent or non-violent. And most of us have experienced frustration or anger towards a certain game. Probably because of the inability to master it, not because of the content.

    I agree 100% with this article. As the sister of an avid gamer I have had first hand experience to the newest games on the market. Yes, some of the games are truly gruesome and violent, but that had no effect on my brothers personality and behavior.
    I truly believe that games with violent content isn’t the reason for some kids to lash out or a change in their behavior, it’s more likely to be like the article says, the inability to master the game or frustration with the game itself.

    In that case it all depends on the person playing the game. If a unstable child plays a game which will lead to anger and frustration, it will probably contribute to a alter in behavior. Also the environment plays a significant role in child’s reaction to a game. If a child has no way of releasing his/her frustration in a save and comforting environment, it can lead to a child to snap.

    I have seen that an innocent game such as candy crush can leave a person angry and frustrated, which also indicates that its not about the content of a game but more about he reaction to the games controls and difficulty.

  3. This particular topic grabbed my attention because my younger brother and his friends spend most of their time playing video games together. Most video games nowadays centre around violence and aggression, and I often think that exposing the youth to such games can only be disastrous. We are all aware that video games can have a significant psychological impact on the minds of gamers. However, my perception regarding which aspects of gaming actually cause violence and aggression has changed after reading this article. The article mentions that feelings of failure, and inability to control the outcome, not violent content, foster aggression in gamers. This is likened to similar behaviours and feelings of frustration seen in sports players who act out violently or become aggressive due to an inability to control the outcome or result of the game they are playing. Often we are so quick to blame the content of video games for inciting violence and aggression, that we often forget that there could be other viable reasons as to why gamers experience feelings of violence and aggression. Gamers may be exposed to violent and disturbing imagery, but each gamer should remember his/her ethics and morals when it comes to violence and aggression and be responsible enough to remember that video games are just a virtual reality.

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