Gamers crave control and competence, not carnage

Study turns belief commonly held by video game industry, gamers, on its head

Blood, guts and gore aren’t what thrill avid gamers when they slaughter zombies in The House of the Dead III video game, a new study suggests. Instead, feelings of control and competence are what the players crave. The new research, led by psychologist Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester in New York, appears online January 16 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“A common belief held by many gamers and many in the video game industry — that violence is what makes a game fun — is strongly contradicted by these studies,” comments Craig Anderson, a psychologist who directs the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University in Ames.

Many studies aim to determine how video game violence impacts players. Recently, lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced a 2009 bill requiring violent video games to carry the following label: “WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior.”

Some psychologists and lawmakers think the link between exposure to such violence and committing violent acts is well substantiated, but others, including Ryan, think the topic is “unfinished business.”

To figure out how enticing violence is for gamers, Ryan and colleagues conducted a series of survey-based studies to identify the reasons players enjoy a certain game. The results from two surveys, based on responses from over 2,500 people who participate in an Internet chat group focused on video games, found that the inclusion of violent content did nothing to enhance players’ enjoyment. What did matter was feeling in control and feeling competent. “Games give autonomy, the freedom to take lots of different directions and approaches,” says Ryan.

In a smaller experimental study, the researchers extensively modified a popular first-person shooter video game called Half-Life 2 to have less gore. Half the people in a group of 36 male and 65 female college students were instructed to dispatch adversaries as the original game intended, “in a thoroughly bloody manner,” says Ryan. The other half was instructed to tag enemies with a marker. “Instead of exploding in blood and dismemberment, they floated gently into the air and went back to base,” Ryan describes.

An extensive survey of the two groups showed that the exclusion of violence didn’t diminish players’ enjoyment of the game.

In a different study of avid gamers, a group of 39 males who were, on average, 19.5 years old and played video games for 7.5 hours a week were asked to play the game The House of the Dead III with a low violence or high violence setting. Instead of realistic wounds and gratuitous blood on slain enemies, the wounded were covered in neon green goo in the low-violence version of the game. As before, violence did not affect players’ enjoyment of the games.

Feelings of competence and autonomy are factors important to many different aspects of happiness, according to Ryan’s previously proposed “self-determination theory.” Bruce Bartholow, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, is not surprised that the same is true for video game enjoyment. “It’s a decent thing to know, but it’s not something to shout from the rooftops.”

Bartholow cautions that the new study did not take subjects’ past exposure to violence into account. Ryan and colleagues note in the paper that more behavioral data, such as tracking video game choices and purchases over time, would add to the initial findings.

The results here are good news for game developers, gamers and also for parents who are concerned about their kid’s reasons for playing violent games, says Ryan.

“They may not be in it for the blood. They’re in it for the fun.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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