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Aggressive Games and Aggressive Behavior
by Taekwan Kim on 09/30/09 10:09:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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There’s a frequent misinterpretation of the data from studies which seem to indicate that aggressive games lead to aggressive behavior. The basic mistake is that the results are understood as indicating that aggressive games induce behavioral patterns resulting from habit or simulated situations.

This creates a response from the gaming community which often adopts ineffective apologetic or denial based arguments trying to assert that either the studies are flawed or that these cases do not reflect the greater gaming community. I would argue, then, that the basis of the gaming community’s response itself is flawed.

Of course, as no specific studies have been conducted concerning particular neurochemical levels in players after extended periods of engagement with aggressive games, the following is mere speculation. But the argument here is that the stress inducing, tense situations often found in aggressive games—particularly those of a player versus player nature—raise levels of stress related neurochemicals over time, and thus what appears to be learned behavior is in fact primarily a result of physiological processes and lack of self-awareness concerning them.

Recent studies have revealed that high levels of stress create a feedback loop which increases cortisol while gradually reducing the brain’s ability to escape familiar routines and rote responses. This is a phenomenon quite likely not unfamiliar to serious pvper’s—the more stressed out you get, the more you become aggressive in your response while simultaneously losing efficacy, which in turn feeds back on the stress levels and continues a vicious cycle.

Essentially, losing perspective due to inability to manage stress destroys one’s metagame. It’s no secret that many pvp games are rife with griefing, rage quitting, and unsportsmanlike trash talking—these are merely the manifestations of high levels of stress, or strategies used by unscrupulous players to induce stress in others, thus attempting to reduce their gaming prowess.

High cortisol levels would also go far in explaining why certain studies have indicated that aggressive games seem to decrease academic performance, while “positive” games seem to have the opposite effect. These high levels of stress hormones last beyond a game session, thus producing what appears to be continued aggressive behavior “learned” from gaming. The basic problem here, then, is not so much the fact that a game is aggressive so much as it is the lack of awareness of the often overwhelming power of physiological processes which occur naturally during their course.

This, of course, is saying nothing of the highs players experience during gameplay. Adrenaline rushes and (in certain cases) testosterone highs experienced during play are highly addictive, reward reinforced experiences.

Players who feel that next headshot just around the corner, but are continually frustrated by a more skilled player or bot are being denied the neurochemical rewards which they feel are in their grasp, or should be their due if not for some game glitch or hack. The frustration in turn again generates more cortisol and once more feeds a neurochemical cycle. The ability, then, to maintain patience and resist lunging for that quick reward becomes a much needed skill to remain effective.

Thus, quite contrary to recommending against aggressive games, it is my argument that the need for stress management, self-awareness and cognitive self-control in order to perform optimally pushes players towards practicing a self-understanding process which would not normally occur, at least not as frequently, especially once a player realizes the processes which he is undergoing (be it intuitively, or specifically through knowledge of psychological processes).

In this sense, Trinley Dorje’s recent statements on the therapeutic effects of gameplay are not far off the mark. These are skills which translate readily to “real life” situations, which is in fact the unstated goal of all forms of play—practicing and developing self-control and self-understanding to apply in other, “real world” situations.

A word of caution, however: while play often gives an arena for “harmless” practice, it is all too easy for play to become too real, and for the player to lose control and understanding of the self. It is the gaming community’s task, then, to acknowledge the quite genuine value of games as tools of realizing self-awareness and to never push the flawed idea that games are “just games,” thus trivializing the very real psychological and physiological processes conducted through gameplay.

At the same time, perhaps it is time for game designers to develop new metrics of performance or achievement which are not so heavily reliant on reinforcing “good” and “bad” behaviors with rewards and punishments (this is already beginning to occur in this generation of games, from some of the more team play oriented metrics found in Left 4 Dead, to the growing popularity of unlockable achievements).

Not to say that games should cease to be challenging (this recommendation almost smacks of promoting more “casual” and “accessible” games [which is not to necessarily denigrate those characteristics either]), but perhaps suddenly withdrawing a player’s agency due to an error, or so overwhelmingly rewarding kill counts and headshots, should not be nearly as important as reaching goals and fulfilling roles.

Other Articles for consideration:
Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?
Maybe the Meltdown's a Guy Thing


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