If Video Games Make You Aggressive, Blame Your Own Incompetence

It's not the violent content; it's that we're sore losers.

Image: Flickr/Mykl Roventine

There’s been study after study looking at the impact video games might have on a player’s emotions, and specifically on their aggression levels. The thesis is usually similar: playing a violent video game could make you more aggressive in real life. Some studies have come to this conclusion, others have said there’s no such evidence, concerned parents and gung ho gamers have voiced their opinions loudly, and there’s generally still no real consensus on the issue.

But a new study takes a different tack, and suggests that it might not be violent content in video games that leads to aggression, but a player’s own feeling of competence—or lack thereof. In a series of tests, researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK and University of Rochester in the US found that players felt more aggressive after playing a game if they’d had trouble mastering it, regardless of whether they’d been playing a violent or non-violent game.

In the paper, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they wrote that their research “indicated that competence-impeding play led to higher levels of aggressive feelings, easier access to aggressive thoughts, and a greater likelihood of enacting aggressive behavior.”

Essentially, people get pissed when they’re not good at the game; we’re sore losers. While that might seems obvious, it’s the first time this has been looked at in the context of gaming, and in comparing violent with non-violent games. The authors explained their findings were “independent of the presence or absence of violent game contents,” which explains why ostensibly innocent like Flappy Bird can be so infuriating.

The team gave university students games to play in a set of seven different studies which featured non-violent and violent games including the likes of Glider Pro 4, Marathon 2, Half-Life 2, and Tetris, and looked at how competence affected post-play aggression. In one study, they switched up the buttons on a controller to make it harder to use (like making you click left to move right) and found that, unsurprisingly, this made players feel less competent and more aggressive, even though they were only stacking blocks. 

Lead author Andrew Przybylski told me over the phone that the main implication from the work was that video games are more than just an interactive vehicle for content; how they work is just as important as what they contain. “The structure of video games is something you need to look at if you want to build a great game and avoid aggravating your players,” he said. It’s not always just a player’s fault if they get angry because they’re bad at the game; the designer has to strike that fine balance of creating a challenging experience that isn’t too frustratingly difficult.

Przybylski suggested some ways of doing this, such as gradually increasing the difficulty of controls, and introducing feedback that motivated rather than shamed players when they failed. “When players received feedback that was very negative, that’s when they got most aggressive in the lab,” he said. Turns out people don't like it when you tell them they just got pwned.

It’s not just relevant to video games; the link between feeling incompetent and feeling aggressive harkens back to broader psychological research, where competence is one of the key psychological needs in a theory of motivation known as self-determination theory. So the takeaways from gaming could be applied to other activities like physical sports, or even day-to-day situations in the workplace.

Przybylski said that video games, however, made a useful test subject as they’re “particularly good at either supporting or thwarting your need for competence, because that’s what they’re made for.”