Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifClick on the “Video Games / Technology” category over to the left and you’ll see that we’ve covered many, many studies on the subject of video game violence, almost all of them demonstrating a link between playing violent games and real-world aggressive behavior. Nearly every time we do, we receive an influx of comments from gamers claiming that video games don’t make them more aggressive. Quite the contrary, they argue, the games help them wind down, releasing pent-up anger harmlessly in a virtual world rather than causing real harm.

Offering counterexamples (such as the fact that games seem to make both me and my son Jim more aggressive, or even this Slashdot thread discussing “comfort games” players use to wind down after frustrating violent gaming sessions) doesn’t seem to dissuade the die-hard defenders of violent games.

But recently, one of Greta’s students located a study which attempts to answer the question of whether playing violent games can be an outlet for aggression in people who might otherwise behave aggressively in real life. A team led by Patrícia Arriaga recruited 87 unpaid volunteers to play violent and non-violent games while attached to heart rate and skin conductivity monitors.

The volunteers first completed a pen-and-paper survey designed to measure aggressiveness, anxiety, and hostility. They were then divided into roughly equal groups and devices to measure heart rate and skin conductivity were attached (heart rate is associated with both arousal and hostility, while skin conductivity is seen as a “pure” measure of arousal). To warm up and set a baseline arousal level, everyone played Tetris for two minutes. Two groups played non-violent games: either an action-packed racing game (Lotus) or a non-action-oriented board-type game called Flowers. The other two groups played either a standard or a virtual-reality version the extremely violent game, Doom.

After the gaming session, everyone completed an additional questionnaire in which they rated the game for action, violence, enjoyment, and several other measures. They also assessed their current levels of anxiety and hostility.

As expected, Doom was rated as significantly more violent than Lotus or Flowers. There was an interesting result for gender and the physiological measures. Women had significantly higher heart rates and skin conductance levels while playing violent games, but men did not:

i-fd2df0e6aad8899ee3898771b319ac3f-hostilegames1.gif

This result has been found in other studies, and it’s unclear whether the disparity between men and women is a true gender difference, or related to the fact that women tend to play fewer video games than men (I wish Arriaga et al. had provided some analysis in this regard: I’d be interested to know if less-experienced men were similarly aroused by the games).

The researchers found no significant differences between players of the standard version of Doom and the virtual reality version.

The study’s most dramatic result, however, correlated game content with hostility levels after the gaming session. For gamers who had previously indicated a high level of aggression, there was a significant positive correlation (β=.49) between violent game content and hostility. But for gamers who were not aggressive, there was no correlation between violent content and hostility level after playing the game.

This is quite strong evidence that violent games (or at least this particular game) do not act as a “release” for aggressive or hostile emotions. Indeed, the most aggressive individuals are most likely to have elevated levels of hostility after a gaming session.

The news isn’t all bad for game defenders: There’s also evidence for the converse — if you’re not an especially aggressive person, then this study shows no relationship between playing violent games and hostility.

Finally, I’d like to add a poll to this post. Since discussions on video game violence often end up trading off anecdotes, why don’t we collect responses from all of our readers:

Arriaga, P., Esteves, F., Carneiro, P., & Monteiro, M.B. (2006). Violent computer games and their effects on state hostility and physiological arousal. Aggressive Behavior, 32, 146-158.

Comments

  1. #1 MaxPolun
    October 17, 2006

    This actually corresponds to my experiences as a gamer: those who are load and agressive normally become moreso when gaming, and those who are not (such as myself) remain mostly the same.

    I would be interested in seeing if theese same results hold for more traditional activities like sports: I have noticed similar correlations in sports, those who are normally agressive become moreso, and the less agressive remain that way.

  2. #2 josh g.
    October 17, 2006

    I don’t think “Yes” or “No” works. If things go well, the game is well-played and I feel I’ve accomplished something, I feel relaxed. If it’s frustrating, there are a lot of failures, or if I’m playing a team game online and my teammates are making things worse, I feel more aggressive.

    Also, I feel a HUGE difference between PvP-based violent games and single-player (or PvE) in-game violence. Single player games, or non-PvP content in MMORPGs, feels like working towards solving a puzzle in a very dynamic system. Player-vs-player combat, on the other hand, makes my heart rate increase noticably, and the emotional involvement tends to be higher.

    I’d argue that this is the influence of competition, not violence, though. I experience a similar increase in heart rate and tension when playing competitive board games, such as Go, even when playing at a very slow play-by-mail style pace online. As a supporting anecdote, I’ve known one person who played Go competitively at a local level for quite some time, but who dropped out of it for the sake of his blood pressure and heart health.

    And, I have to ask: honestly, why in the world did they choose Doom? That game is over a decade old.

  3. #3 FhnuZoag
    October 17, 2006

    I’m still not convinced about the violent videogame/agression link, though. To clarify I would agree that playing some games does increase agression, but subjectively, I feel that this is not correlated with the depiction of ‘violence’ within the game.

    What is more important, I think, is gameplay rather than content. For example, playing a frustrating multiplayer combat game in which the player is heavily emotionally invested would, I think, increase agression afterwards. Meanwhile, playing a very gory and violent sniper/stealth game, that punishes rushing and agression in the gameplay, will do the reverse. (unless the player gets so pissed off that he wants to hit something because its so damn hard…)

    In other words, I would find that Doom would be just as agression heightening if all the textures were replaced with flowers and cuddly animals. (Maybe they can have a study on that?)

  4. #4 FhnuZoag
    October 17, 2006

    There’s an additional level which may or may not be involved – did the players play the games until they wished to stop, or did they play for a set amount of time and were stopped by the organisers?

    When players normally play games on their own, they usually play until they have exhausted their desire to play the game. It could be the case that while the players are in a state of heightened agression during the game (as neccessitated by the gameplay), the fact that they play it until they have had enough of the violence provides the catharsis effect. I think it is possible to explain alot of the subjective experience of gamers from this feeling tired and drained after a voluntarily ended gaming session – of course you wouldn’t feel hostile or agressive in such a mental state.

    A (possibly bad) analogy is with watching TV shows. While watching shows to completion is ok, experimentees would be expected to feel rather agressive and hostile if the organisers switched off the TV twenty minutes into an episode so that they can fill in a questionaire.

  5. #5 FhnuZoag
    October 17, 2006

    Also, it’s awesome that there’s a journal called Agressive Behaviour.

  6. #6 colin
    October 17, 2006

    FhnuZoag has an interesting idea. Instead of using several disparate games someone should try using the exact same game but mod it so that all the gore and violence transformed into a happyfunlandish landscape. The gameplay should remain the same but have it more along the lines of sonic where your job is to turn the bad guys back into fluffy animals or something.

    In general, this study makes sense to me. There’s no doubt to me that people become aggressively aroused during gameplay — even the most ardent gamer advocate could agree to that. Additionally, it makes sense that some people have a more difficult time dialing back down that aroused state afterwards. Most likely teenagers would be more susceptible to this

    p.s. for those of you interested in reading the full study you can get a pdf of it here

  7. #7 Bird Dog
    October 17, 2006

    Interesting questions, which might apply equally well to playing a sport, participating in a debate, competing in a music contest, or playing chess.

    All such things offer some degree of aggressive arousal, which is the whole point and the whole fun of it. Let’s exult in our aggression, provided it’s contained by civilized guard-rails(like any other emotion/state). Aggression is good, fun stuff, for both guys and gals.

  8. #8 Terry
    October 18, 2006

    Bird Dog said:

    “Interesting questions, which might apply equally
    well to playing a sport, participating in a debate,
    competing in a music contest, or playing chess.”

    I would really have to disagree with you here,
    I think you are conflating aggression with
    effort.

    Certainly playing music at the competitive level,
    or competing in some other non-violent way
    involves a great deal of effort and concentration,
    but there is no evidence that it leads to
    increased hostility and/or aggression.

    Also I’ve read (I don’t have the cite) that playing
    and/or watching violent sports also increases
    aggression.

    It would be interesting to know, how these researchers
    defined aggression and hostility. And also if the games
    increased anxiety.

  9. #9 Koray
    October 18, 2006

    Playing online multiplayer first person shooters drives me to levels of aggression that I didn’t even know I was capable of. But, it’s not because of the explosions and headshots. My teammates are idiots! He did see me walk into that room. Why did he still toss that grenade in?

  10. #10 Jenny
    October 18, 2006

    If it’s assumed that women play fewer violent video games than men, then the discrepancy between their heart rates and skin conductance would be potentially explained by the compensatory response model of classical conditioning. If I remember that model correctly, eventually the compensatory response, which is an autonomic response in opposition to the response to the external stimulus, becomes stronger than the response to the external stimulus. What does this mean? Video games cause increases in these physiological measures. In order to compensate, the player generates an opposing response – lowering heart rate, skin conductance (and presumably feelings of agression, etc). This response is weak at first, but over time equals and is even stronger than the response to the video game. (By the way, this model explains why withdrawl from various drugs really sucks, and why withdrawl symptoms are often the opposite of the effects of the drug.) Long story short, by this model, it could easily be the case that people who play video games a lot play them and calm down, and people who don’t play them a whole lot play them and get all riled up. This could explain the gender difference here, and it could explain how lots of us seem to have different reactions to playing video games. An interesting test of this would be to make folks play a whole lot of Doom and see if their physiological measures level off after repeated exposures.

    Props to my Davidson College learning professor – I can’t believe I remember that model after 10 years.

  11. #11 Chris
    October 18, 2006

    Like Bird Dog, I would like to see these results placed in context with other violent and pseudo-violent activites: e.g. hunting, target shooting, boxing or other martial arts, football. (It should be noted that “violent video games” is a misnomer; video games aren’t *really* violent in the sense that sports can be. At most, there are pseudo-violent video games. Target shooting is also pseudo-violent, while actual hunting is really violent.) I would expect that electronic pseudo-participation would have an effect in between passively watching and real participation, but of course the point of actually doing such a study would be to have something more reliable than speculation and “common sense”.

    Pseudo-violent games are hardly new, though – chess and go pieces have been captured or killed for thousands of years and there’s the traditional story of the two kings playing chess while their armies fight (Mabinogion, I think?).

  12. #12 Paul
    October 18, 2006

    As a casual gamer, I’m willing to admit games will make a player more violent, based on experience. However, I draw the line on extrapolating that data: Doom does not produce murderers, and Grand Theft Auto does not produce social miscreants. Any court case claiming the opposite is scapegoating; assuming a generally healthy human in a stable environment, games won’t motivate them to act out what they see on screen. Look at the professional gaming industry, where competitors play games for 8 to 10 hours per day. If it were true that video games turned people into psychotic killers, these guys would probably have wiped us all out at this point.

  13. #13 Terry
    October 19, 2006

    Paul said:

    “assuming a generally healthy human in a stable
    environment, games won’t motivate them to act out
    what they see on screen.”

    I agree 100 %.

  14. #14 Terry
    October 19, 2006

    Chris said:

    “actual hunting is really violent”.

    I would think it would depend on the type
    of hunting. For example, shooting ducks
    with a rifle from a distance would be
    more equivalent to targe shooting, while
    catching a duck and killing it with your
    bare hands would be more equivalent to
    Manhunt.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhunt_%28video_game%29

    * * * *

    Chris said:

    “video games aren’t *really* violent in the
    sense that sports can be”

    Remember, human being have been around for
    hundreds of thousands of years, violent
    media only about 50 years.

    Intellectually we might know that a game
    isn’t real, but older parts of the brain
    don’t make that distinction. Hence the
    physiological effects (heart rates and skin
    conductance) noted in this and other studies.

  15. #15 spayced
    October 22, 2006

    Heart rate and skin conductivity were used to measure aggression? Don’t you think this quantitative measurement is sort of unfair? It seems it is a better measurement of how fun the game was. This is the same way lie detectors work. They have a solid positive confirmation but an embarrassingly terrible negative confirmation bias. Lie detectors tend to give a lot more false positives than true positives.

    One poster indicated that game success rate might be a good measure of aggression. People tend to get frustrated when they fail at a vested interest. It means that your cuddly cute games were giving less aggression readings because they were easier. That factor might be something to look into…

  16. #16 Dave Munger
    October 23, 2006

    Spayced:

    “Heart rate and skin conductivity were used to measure aggression?”

    No, they were used to measure arousal. Heart rate is also associated with hostility, but the correlation between pre-gaming aggression and post-gaming hostility was obtained through survey responses.

  17. #17 walter
    November 2, 2006

    Videogames don’t make me feel aggressive or violent. However, waiting on hold for customer support – especially if i get cut off – fills me with a rage that I have never experienced elsewhere in my life.

  18. #18 Justin
    November 20, 2006

    “It would be interesting to know, how these researchers
    defined aggression and hostility.” As Terry said it’d be interesting to know what they mean by aggression. Is it a competitive aggression? Is it an “I Need To Strangle Someone” aggression?
    And also FhnuZoag for “There’s an additional level which may or may not be involved – did the players play the games until they wished to stop, or did they play for a set amount of time and were stopped by the organisers?”

    And finally my own little insight is why are people that wouldnt play a violent game otherwise participating in the study? OK a control, but you cant make any inferences beyond that. There Are differences but if someone in real life is not going to play the game, then they are not the ones society needs to be poking and prodding for results.

  19. #19 Bardo
    November 29, 2006

    Actually there is a very interesting story on violent video games appearing in today’s issue of eMaxHealth and it’s from the Radiological Society of North America, it basically says that Violent Video games don’t have good effects on Teen’s brain. The story is at http://www.emaxhealth.com/22/8430.html

  20. #20 Val
    March 23, 2007

    Firstly, apologies as I’m not a biologist or a doctor, but how does heart rate and skin conductivity relate to aggressivity?

    Certain games provide a level of immersion which increases adrenalin release, especially games where you have to complete tasks within time limit, or race against others, or hunt/be hunted.
    To keep this simplistic hormonal analogy, increasing heart rate is a side effect of adrenalin which is released by playing “immersive” action games. I get the same feeling when waiting for the last second to bid on eBay or risking my life after crossing a busy road.

    From personal experience, when freshly coming out of an adrenalin “boost” one will remain shocked for a few moments until the effects fades. The relaxation that ensues is, in my opinion, what gamers are talking about when they say their aggressivity is “tamed”.

    In the study presented here, how long did the analysts wait following the game session?
    I’d like to see how initially aggressive people felt after 5 minutes of doom…relieved?

    Now on the other hand one should also consider the addictive effects of adrenalin, and the long-term effects on aggressivity.

  21. #21 derek braun
    May 10, 2007

    violence in video games is not a bad thing!!!!! video games never make a persone do something. it is usually peer-preasure that makes a person do something. even then you cant blame peer-preasure, it is ALWAYS,ALWAYS the persons decison to do what he/she did. And video games is not one of the most selling things, DVD’s and books are above video games, even CD’s and movie tickets. the URL is a chart i found on the site http://statastic.com/category/video-games/
    and if you think violence in video games is a problem maybe someone should start with VIOLENCE IN MEDIA!!!! not just video games media has more of an influence on teens then video games. And the video games are rated for a reason. the rating is very accurate. it tells you in detail about what kind of stuff to excpect. so i believe that if a person goes out and kills someone it was his choice. he didnt do it because the video game told him too it was HIS choice to do it not the video games. Media is the biggest influence on teens actions. in the news if there was a murder or robbery etc. they always go into detail on how this person did it and how they got csught. therefor it shows the criminals, that are watching, how to do it a different way, a way not to get caught, or how to make it better, how to spice it up.

  22. #22 Dave Munger
    May 10, 2007

    Derek, this study isn’t really about whether violent video games make people violent, it’s about whether they calm people down. The answer appears to be no.

    For a comprehensive report on violent media, see here.