The stress and ecstasy of playing video games

Do violent video games make people more prone to aggression in life?

Call of Duty: playing this game seemed to make people more spiteful, according to a study by Ohio State University

Call of Duty: playing this game seemed to make people more spiteful, according to a study by Ohio State University

 

In the political drama House of Cards , congressman Frank Underwood – played by Kevin Spacey – likes nothing more after a day in congress than to play his favourite “shoot ’em up” video game. He, like many others, does so as an escape and also, apparently mistakenly, as a stress reliever.

Playing violent video games after a hard day at the office is the opposite of relaxing, and not simply because of the nature of the game you’re playing according to many who work in the field.

Stressful enjoyment
“Violent games create a very stressful type of enjoyment, from your physical tension, particularly in the shoulders, and the very fast frame rate on the screen,”says Hugh McAtamney, head of development of digital media at DIT.

“Whether or not they can alleviate frustration is open to discussion but action games are, by their very nature, repetitive which leads to further frustration.

“They also tend to have fast goal achievement and reward structures. In other words, action games tend to have a quick reward-feedback loop which can both augment exhilaration and/or frustration, depending how good you are at playing.

“I saw an insightful photography exhibition recently where the photographer captured the expressions of people while playing video games. They looked very stressed but in an ecstatic kind of way.”

The tired question of whether virtual violence can lead people to violent behaviour in real life is sensational and the answer from experts isn’t as sexy as the media would hope.

“In the short term, it increases our propensity for aggression and emotional responding,” says Dr Ian Robertson from Trinity College Dublin.

“Whether it produces long-term actual violent behaviour is an open question. If you look at murder rates across countries, you’ll see that cultures with a permissiveness of violent and aggressive behaviour – in any form – are more likely to have more violence.”

Congressman Underwood is a middle-aged man who probably didn’t grow up with video games in his youth. So it’s unlikely he might start having aggressive tendencies at such a stage in his life. When children are allowed to play violent games it can, like any repetitive behaviour, have some effect.

Moral code
“Seven-year-olds playing Grand Theft Auto don’t have any moral code built up at that stage,” says McAtamney.

“They can’t make judgments as to what they’re doing. That’s an educational issue and parents need to be aware of that.”

Anything we engage in regularly has a long-term impact, particularly for children.

“Younger brains are more plastic,” says Robertson. “Any activity we do a lot is physically changing our brain. So if you get people playing altruistic games, it’s certain you’ll get a short-term effect of altruism. Most cognitive functions can be shaped by many hundreds of hours of practising something.”

The short-term effect of violent video games has been shown in a number of experiments. A recent US study measured the behaviour of students in Ohio State University after playing games like Call of Duty and Killzone 3 .

After playing for 15 minutes, they were asked to give hot sauce to a fellow student who did not like spicy food. Compared with a group of students who had played a non-violent video game, they gave out significantly larger doses of hot sauce.

Is this enough to ban Mortal Kombat and every other nasty game on the market? Certainly not. But the role of such entertainment can at least be examined in a wider societal context. Should, for example, we be concerned with the fact that the perpetrators of two recent massacres – Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik and Adam Lanza of the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut – both said they regularly played violent video games?

“I don’t see any correlation between someone sitting down and role-playing a computer game and going out and shooting up a school,” says McAtamney.

“Breivik claims he prepared his strategy for his massacre by playing World of Warcraft . But I think that’s nonsense. In that game you’re in a fantasyland where you can use spells. How can you base that on the cold-blooded shooting of children in the back?”

Player types
According to game theory, there are four types of people who like different sorts of video games: achievers, explorers, socialisers and killers. “Killing attracts more hardcore players and, if you’re a hardcore player, you’ll likely play for longer, have an addictive personality, and possibly be more socially withdrawn. As such you may also likely be a dropout and engage in anti-social behaviour.”

Then again, it could also be argued that violent video games provide an outlet for people to vent their frustrations virtually. Another study published in the journal Psychological Science , from Ohio State University, found that people who are frustrated in their efforts to cheat or steal in real life are also the kinds of people most attracted to violent video games.

Co-author of the study Prof Brad Bushman said they “made new discoveries in what makes people frustrated and aggressive, but also what people do when they’re feeling this frustration.

“Our results help us understand why people are attracted to violent entertainment in the first place – they feel they can take out their frustration virtually.”

So if a couple of games of Congressman Underwood’s favourite “shoot ’em up” keeps him from embarking on a killing spree the following day at work, then maybe such games have some positive role to play.

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