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Video games may cause aggression based on difficulty, not violence

A study finds that video games may cause aggressive behaviour, but the trigger isn't violent content, it's frustration.

Maryam el7aRes, CC BY 2.0

Violent video games are a popular scapegoat for aggressive behaviour -- but it seems that violent content may not be the culprit after all. A new study suggests that, if a person acts aggressively after playing a game, the root cause is frustration over the game's difficulty.

Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, and Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester, conducted the first study that examines not just the content of the game, but the psychological experience it delivers. They found that the feelings of frustration and failure could lead to aggressiveness.

We've all, of course, been there at some point: that feeling of wanting to throw the controller through the screen. "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," Przybylski explained.

It's also not a feeling that is unique to video games. Frustration, as defined by the dictionary, is "the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of being unable to change or achieve something," and it can happen in many situations -- including sports, Ryan said.

"When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression," he said. "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."

The study tested over 600 university-aged students across a variety of games. For many of the games, the researchers created non-violent variants for the study, such as a nonviolent version of Half-Life 2. Some of the games had also been modified with counterintuitive, frustrating controls.

In one experiment, the subjects were instructed to hold their hand in a painfully cold bowl of water for 25 seconds, and were informed that the length of time was determined by the previous subject (it wasn't). They were then tasked with playing a game of Tetris -- a game which includes no narrative or imagery, unless you count falling blocks -- after which they would designate the length of time for which the following subject would hold his or her hand in the water.

Those who played the difficult version of the game assigned, on average, 10 seconds more than subjects who played the easy version.

"Results indicated that player perceived competence was positively related to gaming motivation, a factor that was, in turn, negatively associated with player aggression," the study's abstract reads. "Overall, this pattern of effects was found to be independent of the presence or absence of violent game contents."

Ryan also noted that, "When the experience involves threats to our ego, it can cause us to be hostile and mean to others," adding that nonviolent games such as Tetris and Candy Crush can leave players feeling just as aggressive as a violent game.

The full study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, can be purchased online.

(Source: CNET Australia)