Science gets spicy: is it violence, or competitiveness, that makes gamers act up?


Do video games make people more likely to serve spice-haters hotter hot sauce? Some do, apparently. Picture by Flickr user jennecy.

I’ve talked to a lot of parents about whether they think violent video games make their kids more aggressive. Although some have noted a relationship between gaming and surly behavior, most don’t think it’s violent games per se that are the culprit. At most, they theorize that something else about the act of playing a video game — any video game — might make teens have a hard time coming back to reality, where the reward system is murkier.

Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, researchers at Brock University in Canada, thought it was high time that a study on video games and aggression looked beyond violent video games. In a new paper, published by the American Psychological Association, the duo describe how they looked at whether it’s gaming’s competitiveness, rather than its violence, that makes players act up after walking away from the game controller.

So far, studies have failed to prove that such behavior is due to in-game violence because, as Adachi and Willoughby put it, “it is unclear whether participants view their behavior as competitive instead of aggressive, in that participants’ motivation to give intense punishments may be to slow their opponents’ response time on subsequent trials, thus allowing participants to win the competition (Lieberman et al., 1999). Furthermore, because violent games generally involve more competition than nonviolent games, violent video games may prime competitive schemas more than nonviolent video games.”

To tease out the competitive angle, Adachi ran two trials: in the first, he had had 42 college students (25 men, 17 women) play Conan (a violent first-person-sworder) or Fuel (a nonviolent racing game) for 12 minutes. Apparently, the games are equally matched for competitiveness, although Conan is more violent. Then, gamers had to make up a cup of hot sauce for a “taster” who supposedly didn’t like spicy food. The “Conan” players didn’t make up spicier brews than the “Fuel” players, suggesting that violent content alone was not a factor in aggressive action (or, in this case, passive-aggressive action).

In the second round, Adachi had 60 college students (32 men, 28 women) play one of four games: Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe, a violent, competitive fighting game; Left 4 Dead 2, a violent, moderately competitive zombie shooter; Marble Blast Ultra, a nonviolent, noncompetitive game; and Fuel, the highly competitive, nonviolent racing game. They then did the hot-sauce experiment again (I wonder who came up with that idea) and found that the Mortal Kombat and Fuel picked hotter sauces for their “tasters” than the Marble Blast and Left 4 Dead folks. They also had significantly higher heart rates, according to electrocardiogram readings.

“These findings suggest that the level of competitiveness in video games is an important factor in the relation between video games and aggressive behavior, with highly competitive games leading to greater elevations in aggression than less competitive games,” wrote Adachi.

Interesting, though these kinds of trials have the same problem that other studies: namely, that they only show the short-term effects of playing pre-selected video games in a lab setting, which is not likely to resemble how gamers actually play or behave in a real-life situation. (Hot sauce? Really?) The gamers were tested immediately after playing, but nobody followed them home to see whether they put hot sauce on their loved ones’ food that night out of lingering aggression. Or, you know, actually harmed anyone as the result of the gaming session.

Note Adachi’s careful language in that statement above. “Important factor,” “relation between video games and aggressive behavior.” He’s not saying anything causes anything. Just that there are factors and relations. In his closing remarks, he admits that the findings might be limited to the college-age subjects he studied. And, he added:

Although this study addressed the short-term effect of video game competition on aggressive behavior, we did not examine long-term effects. Thus, longitudinal research examining the relation between video game competition and aggression is needed. Finally, findings may not generalize to other geographic regions, including those with differing ethnic and/or demographic mixes.

Right. I’ve met more than one person from a culture that favored spicy food who would serve you extra hot sauce, thinking they were doing you a favor.

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2 responses to “Science gets spicy: is it violence, or competitiveness, that makes gamers act up?

  1. Pingback: Scientists show violent video games change brains, but what does it mean for gamers? | Backward Messages

  2. Pingback: Congressmen revive, expand failed proposal for warning label on violent video games | Backward Messages

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