Video games have been getting more and more attention, partly due the fact that more and more children (and adults) are playing them, and partly due to the fact that some advantages of playing them are starting to surface. Now, a new study has shown that gamers’ hostile behavior is linked to the experience of failure and frustration during play – not necessarily the game’s content.

credit: Steven Andrew, flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0

Games such as Grand Theft Auto get a lot of bad rep – and for good reason. You walk around, get in a car, run people over, chainsaw them, shoot them, hang out with prostitutes – you get the point. It’s not exactly what you’d want your kid to play. Naturally, many have claimed that due to the violent nature of the games, children tend to grow up to be more violent as well; that sounds like a fair assumption, but is it actually true?

This study is the first to look at the player’s psychological experience with video games instead of focusing solely on its content. They found that failure to master a game, getting stuck and/or losing over and over again led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not. I know it doesn’t have any scientific relevance, but personally, I can confirm that.

“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,” explains lead author Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, who said such frustration is commonly known among gamers as “rage-quitting.”

“Rage-quitting” is when you get so annoyed and angry with the game that you instantly quit it, regardless of playing alone or with other people. But as it turns out, this experience is not really limited to video games – it happens in all types of games and sports.

“When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression,” says Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester. “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.”

To test the degree to which this happens, researchers manipulated the interface, controls, and degree of difficulty in custom-designed video games across six lab experiments. Some games were violent, some weren’t. For example, in one experiment, undergraduates held their hand in a bowl of painfully cold water for 25 seconds. They were told that the duration was established by a previous student. They were then randomly assigned to play a simple or a very difficult version of tetris and then assign the duration for the next student. Undergrads who played the difficult version assigned on average 10 seconds more of chilled water pain.

The results were conclusive – it’s not the violent nature of the game which causes violent and aggressive behavior, it’s the frustration it induces. Scientists also surveyed 300 avid gamers to identify how real world gamers might experience the same phenomena. When asked about pre- and post-game feelings, gamers replied that their inability to master a game or its controls caused feelings of frustration and affected their sense of enjoyment in the experience. Just as a sidenote – this isn’t to say that violent games are good, or that they don’t have any negative repercussions – just that they don’t generally cause violent or aggressive behavior.

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