There’s nothing like a tabloid headline to wake you up on a Friday, that’s what I always say. I’m not just toying with you; new research has found that aggression in gamers is more likely to be caused by frustrating gameplay mechanics than by violent content. Cast your eyes upon that cracked controller – the one that rattles a bit because you threw it at the wall – and maybe, just maybe the researchers speaketh the truth.
It’s only April and we’ve already had two reports looking into violence and gaming. This is one research subject that just isn’t going away. Earlier this year, academics at Brock University studied 100 13 to 14 year-olds. The test concluded that these gamers lost a sense of “right and wrong” after playing violent games – those involving players acting out the killing, maiming, decapitating or mutilating of other human characters. It’s of course worth noting that this puts a relatively small portion of games in the ‘violent’ category – something the tabloid papers choose to ignore.
The researchers studied pupils at several Ontario schools and reported that this age group played games between one and three hours a day. The study highlighted that teenagers should develop empathy, trust and concern for others, as they grow up, but long periods spent playing violent games could delay the development of a sense of right and wrong.
Thankfully, just a month or so later and we have new findings, which suggest that frustrating gameplay or just being a bit rubbish at a game (or ‘incompetence’ as the researchers diplomatically put it), could lead to aggression in gamers.
Six studies were carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute, in partnership with the University of Rochester in the US. In one study, they modified a Half-Life 2 game to remove the violent content and deliberately create a frustrating control system. Only a portion of the gamers had a tutorial before they started playing, allowing them to familiarise themselves with the controls and gameplay.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found higher instances of aggression among the players who had not had the tutorial. We can only suppose there were a few battered keyboards and swearing tirades that day.
“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,” said Dr Andrew Przybylski of Oxford Internet Institute, speaking in a BBC article. “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.
He adds, “Players of 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.”
The most interesting thing about this research isn’t the conclusion it draws, but the approach it’s taken. This isn’t yet another team of academics out to prove or disprove that violent games lead to violent kids. It’s looking beyond the pure content of games and focusing on the mechanics – no wonder this study hasn’t hit the headlines. If it did, the newspapers might read ‘researchers take intelligent approach to violence and video games study’.
Dr Przybylski thinks his research is the first to look at the impact of game mechanics on player aggression. He says, “There’s a need for researchers who are interested in these questions not just to pull two video games off the shelf from the high street. We need to have a more sophisticated approach so we’re all reading from the same experimental methods.”
This kind of research could actually help developers create games that are more fun to play and save a whole generation of controllers from the wall of death. My own anecdotal evidence reveals that shooting zombies (they’re humans – sort of) in The Last of Us at no point made me feel aggressive towards my fellow human. However, give me five minutes on a subpar platformer and I suggest you stay away. Oh the incompetence!
Of course Tecmo will use the research to tweak its current difficulty and frustration parameters, allowing them to reach new highs or lows, depending which side your bread’s buttered.
We all like a challenge. That’s why we play games. However, this research confirms that we like to win or at least feel like we have a fighting chance . The best developers manage to strike a perfect balance between challenge, fun and progression. Anything that takes the frustration out of games has got to be a good thing, so developers take note (and any researchers planning yet another ‘violent gamers’ study also take note).