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Forget violence: Do co-op games make us less aggressive? Exclusive
Forget violence: Do co-op games make us less aggressive?
September 3, 2012 | By Jamie Madigan

September 3, 2012 | By Jamie Madigan
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    16 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Exclusive



Psychologists are starting to examine the flipside of the video game violence coin and finding that violent games can actually lead to more trust and cooperation between players given the right circumstances. What's more, game designers might be able to capitalize on it.

One of the topics that's conspicuously absent from my writings on the psychology of video games is that of the relationship between violence and video games. The short version of the reason why is that I think the issue is too polarizing and too much tends to get read into findings on either side.

Something I did recently find worth discussing, however, is a kind of inversion of that topic: does playing cooperative games make you less likely to be aggressive and more likely to cooperate with people outside of the game? A big tip of the hat to Wai Yen Tang over at the blog VG Researcher, who recently wrote about three recent studies that explored this topic.

The earliest of these studies was by Mike Schmierbach (2010), who was interested in how game mode (single player, coop, or competitive) affected aggression. He shoved subjects into rooms to play games of Halo on the Xbox either campaign solo, campaign coop, or Slayer mode. After playing for a while, the researcher gave subjects surveys that measured various cognitions and emotional states. One part of the survey involved a word completion task where perplexed respondents were given two letters --KI, DE, BL, etc.-- and then asked to use them to complete any word they liked. If you wrote KILL, DEATH, and BLUDGEON then you got more points than someone who said KISS, DEAN, and BLOKBUSTER. Also, you're a better speller.

Schmierbach found that, as expected, people who played a coop mode were far more likely to come up with non-violent words, which he took as evidence of less "aggressive cognition." Other self reported measures of frustration and arousal (in the general physiological sense) showed similar results.

This is interesting, but like most people I'm generally more interested in actual behavior than simple internal thoughts or emotional states. Fear not, because this year has seen the publication of two other studies that follow the same basic reasoning as Schmierback's research, but which actually look at whether people engage in more cooperative behavior after setting the controller down.

Both Greitmeyer, Traut-Mattausch, and Osswald (2012) and Ewoldson et al. (2012) had subjects start off by playing games like Far Cry, FlatOut, and Halo 2 in either a competitive or cooperative modes. One unlucky group of people in a control condition got to play Tetris and frown at each other. Both sets of studies then had players set down the controllers and take part in social dilemma type games (of the non video game variety) where they had the chance to either cooperate with other players or screw them over.

halo2.jpgEwoldsen et al. found that players who had played the coop video game were more likely to engage in "tit-for-tat" strategies where they would open by cooperating and then either reward or punish the other player depending on if they played competitively or cooperatively in turn. Such a gambit is a very common tactic for players looking to cooperate and maximize outcomes for everyone involved.

Greitemeyer and his colleagues took things a bit further and measured perceptions of things like group cohesion (or dyad cohesion if you want to be pedantic about it; I don't) and trust between players. Again, after teaming up to do violence to some common foe, people felt more cohesion and were more trusting in the subsequent task. And it's important to note that these were all violent games --they were just ones that could be played in a helping, cooperative context.

There are some interesting takeaways and ideas from this in terms of crafting your own gaming experiences and for developers looking to capitalize on these findings. One is that timing matters. These effects are typically short lived, so if you want to hit players up for things that require cohesion, trust, and cooperation do it right after they've collaborated or interacted with each other in a cooperative way.

It's the ideal time to ask them to do things like send/accept friends requests, bestow gifts, heal each other, join groups, trade items, and so forth. Just finished a quest in a pickup group or successfully defended a capture point with the help of a new buddy? That may be the perfect time to pop up a prompt to "Rate this player" or to trade crafting materials. Better than after one of you won a dogfight or shootout against each other.

Similarly, if you're a player try not to let the fact that you're competing against someone keep you from cooperating with them next round or accepting their friend request. They may be a pretty cool dude or gal once you're wearing the same colored uniforms.

[Dr. Jamie Madigan is a psychologist and gamer who writes about the intersection of those two topics at www.psychologyofgames.com and for PsychologyToday.com.]

REFERENCES

Ewoldsen, D. R., Eno, C. A., Okdie, B. M., Velez, J. A., Guadagno, R. E., & DeCoster, J. (2012). Effect of playing violent video games cooperatively or competitively on subsequent cooperative behavior. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (5), 277-280.

Greitemeyera, T., Traut-Mattauschb, E., Osswaldc, S, (2012). How to ameliorate negative effects of violent video games on cooperation: Play it cooperatively in a team. Computers in Human Behavior, 28 (4), 1465-1470.

Schmierbach, M. (2010). “killing spree”: Exploring the connection between competitive game play and aggressive cognition. Communication Research, 37 (2), 256-274.


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Comments


Jeremie Sinic
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I think it's obvious that co-op games make people socialize. All time spent socializing is that much less time cursing their enemies and hating the world, no matter how violent the game. On the other hand, I am pretty sure some people might feel like killing someone after a few sessions of multiplayer Mario Kart...

Maria Jayne
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No, coop games just attract a different audience. The player who takes huge delight stabbing your face and teabagging you in CoD isn't the same player that patiently plays through the whole of Portal 2 with you without screaming you're a noob and a failure.

I believe coop appeals to PvE gamers that want to work with players rather than try to compete against them. That's how I feel anyway, I was less aggressive before I played coop games, they didn't make me so.

Whenever I have played competitive multiplayer games with friends, I tend to play to their skill level, adjusting my own play to match theirs if I am able. Of course if they are thrashing me there isn't much i can do about that, but if I'm thrashing them I'll start to play worse, intentionaly miss and make bad decisions to give them an opportunity to beat me. I don't ever mention this, I'm aware it's patronising and I believe if you're going to do it, you can never tell people you do it, because that defeats the point of doing it.

Why am I doing that? I've asked myself this question and I think it's because I'm aware they need to have fun too, if you constantly get beaten you pretty quickly want to stop playing out of frustration. Where as if you feel you're fighting with an equal opportunity to win you can accept the losses easier.

It appears while I feel happy about winning, the feeling that I'm spoiling the fun for someone else has an effect on me to the point I'd rather not beat them so easily. I definitely don't like losing, that pisses me off no end!

So what coop does, is allow me to play with friends, fight and overcome enemies together and not feel guilty about smashing AI faces in, because everyone is having a good time and sharing in the victory.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yes, you are stating the obvious, but that is particularly not the idea of the article. Did you read it? It doesn't seem you did.

As it points out: people were being directed (probably at random) to playing the same game (Halo) in co-op and "versus". And this had effects in their cognition and interaction.

The predisposition evidently affects your choice in games, but that doesn't mean the framework of the game doesn't affect your perception and your behaviour outside the game. And in turn, having a positive experience in either form of game might alsomodify your likelyhood to choose that form of game and have a different behavior in the future.

Adam Bishop
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"No, coop games just attract a different audience."

I don't have access to the journals cited here so I can't confirm this, but I think it is very likely that the researchers randomly assigned players to co-op or non co-op games rather than just letting them choose the one they normally prefer.

Steven Christian
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Personally, I have found that playing World of Warcraft with my fiancee has resulted in great teamwork.
We recently played paintball and had much better teamwork than anyone else, cleaning up most of the competition with our '2-man' team.

Note: we don't play FPS games.

In WoW I was primarily the Tank, and she the Healer, so we developed good co-operation.

Will Buck
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That's really cute :)

These findings don't surprise me, but it is nice to see something like this more formally verified. Nice work James!

Chris Tenarium
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I´m not so sure about this... Personally in portal 2 and world of warcraft, me and friends just end up shouting at how bad the other one was knowing full well it´s our fault. Can´t say I´ve trusted anyone more than before!

Henrik Namark
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I have a friend that I've known for 15 years. In all that time, the only time we got into a fight was when we were playing Lord of the Rings: Return of the King co-op. It was a basic argument on whether to go right or left.

Luciano Lombardi
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Spot on, as usual it is really nice to read your articles, very educational.

I believe that the design of the game can help nurture the emergence of social interactions within the game, and it even has a great potential to be seized for meta-game relationship building such as guilds.

Bruno Xavier
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Work on non-violent games is my utopia.

Gern Blanston
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People working together, as opposed to against each other, results in a positive outcome for all involved. There are no winners and losers, which the act of competition dictates. The type of game matters as far as aggression is concerned. If there is fighting, shooting, or any other violent behavior involved, cooperatively or not, aggression is innate. When there is aggression in a game and the player takes part, aggression becomes part of them. If playing a non-violent game free of aggression, though, the result is no doubt different. The necessity for aggression in order to win never enters the psyche of the player, and therefore does not become a part of them. Working together to solve puzzles, explore, adventure, journey (pun intended), etc. is the only way games can promote a completely positive environment free from the influence of aggression.

Joe McGinn
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Interesting article. I wonder how the research would apply to our game (Ghost Recon Online) which is competitive, but where success is highly dependent on teamplay. The game modes are all objective based, and the best teamwork almost always wins, even over superior individual players. So it's cooperative but also competitive - the other team is human too. I would guess it would come out more like the coop games but would be interesting to test it.

In any case it's nice to see some people approaching game research with a little more subtlety and less of an agenda.

Will Buck
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Highly competitive games, even when teamwork is vital to success (I play League of Legends / DotA type games, so those come to mind), anecdotally to me feel like they bring out the worst in people a lot of the time. I would be very interested in any findings you might have as a more quantified study, but just in my experience the competitive nature overtakes people and seems to encourage them to be hostile towards their compatriots.

That said, it would be great if people realized that focusing on the cooperative in these types of games leads to the best outcomes. Always better when your team will encourage others with you and work together :)

A W
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How can one make a FPS team Deathmatch a bit more cooperative? Only count the kills. Leave the ratio record as a optional share between friends or just leave it out completely.

Michael Rooney
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@"KILL, DEATH, and BLUDGEON then you got more points than someone who said KISS, DEAN, and BLOKBUSTER. Also, you're a better speller."

"BLOKBUSTER... better speller."

Wat?

Chris OKeefe
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If you wrote Kill, Death, and Bludgeon, then you got more points and are a better speller than someone who wrote Kiss, Dean, and Blokbuster.

The subject is 'you.' 'You got more points' and 'you're a better speller.'

'Someone' wrote Kiss, Dean, and Blokbuster, but 'you' got more points and are a better speller.

I realize the language turns back on itself but it's really not -that- complicated to work out.


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