Young man holding video game control
Young man holding video game control

Games linked to aggression if players can't master technology

Playing electronic games can make people feel aggressive, but new research finds that the reason has little to do with violent content.

Researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK and the University of Rochester in the US carried out lab tests in which volunteers played both violent and non-violent games. They found that the deciding factor was how the volunteers were able to master the electronic game after 20 minutes of play.

Games that were too difficult or where players had trouble mastering controls that were too complicated were the most likely to leave players feeling aggressive afterwards. There was little difference in the aggression levels of players on games with violent content as compared with those playing non-violent games, says the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This is believed to be the first academic study to explore how the structure and motives behind gaming lead to feelings of aggression among players. The findings are chiefly based on a series of six lab tests involving university students. The volunteers played electronic games that the researchers manipulated to make the game's challenges or hand controls harder to play. Overly difficult games, counter-intuitive hand controls and a lack of practice were significant predictors of aggression among players, and this effect had little to do with whether the game contained violent material or not.

Co-author Dr Andrew Przybylski, from the Oxford Internet Institute, said: 'To date, researchers have tended to explore passive aspects of gaming, such as whether looking at violent material in electronic games desensitises or aggravates players. 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. 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. Players on 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.'

Players were surveyed on how they felt before and after a 20-minute game, agreeing with statements such as 'I feel irritated', 'I feel like I am about to explode', and 'I feel friendly'. The players' ability to master the controls was also measured, and their feedback included comments such as 'the game controls are intuitive', or 'when I wanted to do something it was easy to remember the corresponding control'.

The researchers manipulated a simple puzzle game, changing the players' own sense of competence through making tasks more challenging and altering the complexity of the controls. They also explored whether a player's experience of the game changed their sense of competence, so some players were able to practise while others were not. The researchers also varied the level of violent content in the games. After game-playing, participants underwent tests to measure levels of aggression. In one test, participants were asked to bang the space bar when words flashed up to see whether they reacted more quickly to aggression-related words. In another, after 10 minutes of a 20-minute game, players were told they could determine how long the next player would have to submerge their hand in a glass of chilled water before play.

As well as lab tests, researchers questioned over 300 gamers about the three games they had played the most in the previous month, and then coded the games according to their level of violence. The gamers were also surveyed on which of these three electronic games they had enjoyed the most, and why. The researchers found that players were most likely to feel aggressive when they did not feel they were good at the game. Players revealed that having aggressive thoughts had spoiled their sense of enjoyment, according to the research.

Co-author Richard M 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.'