Grand Theft Auto. Call of Duty. God of War. These ultra-violent video and computer games get a bad rap for their bloody battle scenes and disturbing player missions, as concerned parents and media experts fear that the gory screen imagery could translate into real-world violence.
But according to a new study by researchers at the University of Rochester in New York, even a seemingly benign game like Tetris can leave players with feelings of post-game aggression. The findings were published online in the March edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
"People think just watching violent games and imagery is the basis for post-game aggression," said University of Rochester psychology professor Richard Ryan, Ph.D., in a phone interview with the Huffington Post. "But as we studied it, there are other dynamics: the competitiveness in games, the frustration you can have about [failing to] master it. Those are the things that seem to be most associated with post-game aggression."
Ryan conducted a series of seven experiments with almost 600 college-age participants, who were tested for levels of aggression after playing certain video games. The experiments varied in structure and tested participants' aggression levels after playing either violent or nonviolent games, or the same game made either violent or nonviolent. But they were also tested after playing a non-violent puzzle game (Tetris) that had been manipulated so that players either used an intuitive, easy-to-understand controller or an overly difficult, confusing controller.
The image above shoes how controllers were configured to be either intuitive or difficult to learn for Tetris games.
Ryan found that if the game was too difficult to master, or if the poorly designed game left a player feeling frustrated, the study participants were more likely to exhibit higher levels of post-game aggression, no matter what the content of the actual game was. In one particular experiment, participants were asked to keep one hand in ice-cold water for 25 seconds (a painful experience), and they were told that the previous participant had assigned them that length of time. They were then asked to play Tetris with either a simple or a difficult controller. After the game was over, they were asked to assign the next participant a certain amount of time to submerge their hand in the ice-cold water.
Participants who played the frustrating game of Tetris assigned the next players an average of 10 seconds more of chilled water time than the participants who played the simple Tetris game. In other words, participants who had left Tetris feeling frustrated wanted the subsequent player to suffer more.
"One of the basic sources of anger is frustration in video games of all sorts, whether you're playing Angry Birds or World of Warcraft," Ryan concluded.
Iowa State University media and child development expert Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., who was not involved in the study, praised Ryan's experiments for showing that the need to feel mastery or competency is a vital one -- and frustrating those needs can be deeply upsetting for players.
Ryan's experiments only assessed the short-term effects of video games and the potential for minor acts of aggression after playing -- which means these games aren't necessarily an indicator of serious violent acts in the long-term. Gentile, who also studies the effects that video games have on real-world actions, published a study last month that examined the long-term effects that violent games can have on children.
He found that while there was no direct causal effect between violent video games and real-word violence years later, repeated violent gaming seemed to shape the way children thought about the world. For instance, Gentile found that children who played violent games sometimes started to think more aggressively about their surroundings over time -- like being hyper-vigilant for enemies or thinking it's OK to respond aggressively to provocation.
Still, Gentile cautioned against the conclusion that violent video games are a major risk factor for physical aggression.
"Violent video games are just one risk factor. They're not the biggest, and they're not the smallest," said Gentile. "They're right in the middle, with kind of the same effect size as coming from a broken home."