The debate about whether the violence in video games perpetrates violence in real life is an ongoing one. Many parents, wanting to ensure the best for their children, remain uncertain about whether to allow their children to play certain video games.
Researchers continually study the negative — and positive — effects of playing video games, adding to this debate — and to the confusion of parents. Although recent studies have shown that violent and aggressive games do lead to violence, an April 2014 study shows there might actually be another reason behind this aggressive behavior: frustration at failing.
Researchers from the University of Rochester developed a study to learn more about the psychological effects of video games, focusing on the user experience rather than the content of the games. They tested a motivational hypothesis based on self-determination theory: the amount of aggression associated with gaming would be directly tied to the degree the games impeded the psychological need for competence. In other words, the more a person failed at mastering a game, the more aggressive he or she might feel.
For the study, the researchers created seven different lab experiments that used a total of almost 600 college-aged participants. For these experiments, the researchers manipulated the interface, controls, and degree of difficulty in custom-designed video games. The participants played these games, some of which included violent and nonviolent variations, under various circumstances. The participants were also tested for any aggressive thoughts, feelings or behaviors using a range of approaches.
One experiment involved the participants placing their hands in painfully cold water for 25 seconds. They were told that the length of time was determined by previous participants, although the duration was actually standardized. Then, the participants played a randomly selected game of Tetris, either simple or challenging. After they played the game, the participants were asked to assign the length of time a future participant had to leave his or her hand in the water. Those who played the more challenging game of Tetris assigned an average of 10 seconds longer than those who played the easier version.
The researchers found similar findings across all the experiments. It was not the narrative or imagery in the games that influenced aggressive behavior but whether the players were able to master the game’s controls, and the difficulty of the game. The more frustration a person experienced while playing the game, the more likely he or she was to exhibit aggressive thoughts, feelings or behaviors. The researchers also found that when playing games that boosted players’ confidence, they enjoyed the games more and exhibited lower levels of aggression. These behavior patterns were independent of the violent or nonviolent content of the game.
“When the experience involves threats to our ego, it can cause us to be hostile and mean to others,” says Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester and one of the study’s authors. “When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression. 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.”
As part of this study, the researchers also surveyed 300 avid gamers regarding their feelings about playing a game in order to see whether these findings held up in real world scenarios. The gamers reported that the inability to master a game or its controls did cause feelings of frustration, which affected their sense of enjoyment in playing the games.
According to this research, violent content of the games has no influence on whether a person becomes aggressive. Poorly designed games or very difficult games can cause a person to become more aggressive and violent even if it is a seemingly benign game. Therefore, some nonviolent games could end up more destructive then the super-violent games that receive bad reputations.
As with many things, the actual cause and effect of video games on behavior is more complicated than just vulnerable people being influenced by the violent imagery. Instead of associating behavior problems with violent game content, and basing any regulation of play on such content, it would be more beneficial to ensure that gamers play in moderation and learn proper coping mechanisms for feelings of inadequacy or frustration about not mastering a game, the findings of this study suggest.