Violence Not the Source of Video Games' Appeal

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The presence of violence and gore does not increase the enjoyment of video games for most players, according to a new study that will provide some reassurance to social psychologists and valuable guidance to game designers.

The report, just published in the Personality and Psychology Bulletin, reiterates previous findings that “early exposure to violent media can lead to greater propensities for aggression.” But its results suggest that a new generation of such games could be developed that are pleasing to players without triggering aggressive impulses.

The link between video games and violent behavior has been debated virtually since the Pong era. As we reported in December 2007, a father-son research team concluded that violent games are extremely effective teaching tools to reinforce violent thoughts and behavior.

The new study does not contradict those findings. Indeed, it found that a small subgroup of players who report having an aggressive nature expressed a preference for more violent games — although, in practice, they did not consistently enjoy them any more than they enjoyed the non-violent games.

But it concludes that for the large majority of players, the presence of violence did not increase enjoyment, and may even decrease it slightly.

The researchers concluded that the games’ structure — in which players feel the joy of accomplishment as they overcome obstacles and move to the next level of difficulty — is their primary source of pleasure.

“Conflict and war are a common and powerful context for providing these experiences, but it is the need satisfaction in the game play that matters more than the violent context itself,” said University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan, who co-authored the paper with graduate student Andrew Przybylski.

The researchers conducted two large surveys of video game aficionados and four laboratory experiments. In what was arguably the key experiment, participants played one of two versions of a video game in which the level of violence was manipulated to be high or low. Whichever version they played, the participants’ “need satisfaction” – that is, whether they felt capable and effective while playing, and whether the game provided the freedom to experiment with a range of options -- was the best predictor of enjoyment.

However, “persons high in aggression preferred the high-violence condition, whereas persons low in trait aggression preferred the low-violence condition,” the report notes. “This interaction lends support to the idea that more aggressive persons may select themselves into games with a violent conceit.”

The report suggests a new generation of less-violent games could be developed that – for most players – provide the same level of satisfaction as today’s gory creations.