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Why Computer Games Don’t Make You Violent, but Frustration Might

While writing the Second Edition of Dungeons & Dreamers, John and I spent a great deal of time discussing Part IV: A Darkness Falls (read this section for free), which deals with the socio-political issues related to computer games and violence. We wanted to make sure we treated the issue fairly and that we relied upon science to guide our narrative.

When we wrote the First Edition, we spent hours pouring through research studies and interviewing experts who have studied media effects and violence from a variety of angles. We wanted to make sure we weren’t letting our own assumptions (that games don’t cause violent behavior) get in the way of what we actually happening. We were satisfied that we’d accurately portrayed what was happening: that no studies had found a causal link between playing violent computer games and actually committing violence.

Still, when national tragedies like the Columbine school shootings happened, people searched for easy…and quick…answers to the heart-wrenching question of why such a thing might happen. In general, we don’t like accepting that sometimes terrible things happen for very complex reasons that we might not understand until later. Instead, we want answers and we want them immediately.

Oftentimes this means violent computer games are blamed for these tragedies.

Ten years later we found the socio-political landscape hadn’t changed much.

While the connection of games to violent behavior remains a cultural touchstone, most scientists (and even the Supreme Court) have rejected the idea that there is a causal relationship between the playing violent computer games and committing violence.

I bring this up because there’s a new study, Aggressive Behavior Linked to Players’ Experiences, that found that player frustration over poor performance, not the content of a game, may lead to aggressive behavior.

“The study is the first to look at the player’s psychological experience with video games instead of focusing solely on its content. Researchers found that failure to master a game and its controls led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not.”

At first pass, it may seem like the researchers are telling us that hard games cause violent behavior. Dig a bit deeper into the discussion, and the findings get more compelling. They found that failing to do well in the game impacts the player’s ego, and when something makes you fail (or feel like a failure), you’re likely to lash out.

“Across the experiments, researchers found it was not the narrative or imagery, but the lack of mastery of the game’s controls and the degree of difficulty players had completing the game that led to frustration. The study demonstrated that aggression is a negative side effect of the frustration felt while playing the video game. “When the experience involves threats to our ego, it can cause us to be hostile and mean to others,” Ryan explains.”

Certainly this won’t end the socio-political culture discussions related to computer games and violent behavior, but it does lead us to an explanation that makes paints a more realistic explanation: Frustrating endeavors make us irritable.

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