Skip to main content

Video Game Violence Not Why Most Play

Contrary to popular belief, violence does not make video games more enjoyable, a new study suggests.

For many game players, gore actually detracts from the experience, decreasing players' interest and desire to purchase a game, the scientists conclude.

"For the vast majority of players, even those who regularly play and enjoy violent games, violence was not a plus," explained Andrew Przybylski, a graduate student at University of Rochester and lead author of the study. "Violent content was only preferred by a small subgroup of people that generally report being more aggressive," he said. And even these hostile players did not report increased pleasure when playing more gruesome games.

Through two online surveys and four experimental studies, the researchers showed that people stayed glued to games mainly for the feelings of challenge and autonomy they experience while playing.

Both seasoned video gamers and novices preferred games where they could conquer obstacles, feel effective, and have lots of choices about their strategies and actions, the researchers write in online Jan. 16 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

These elements, said coauthor Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University, represent "the core reasons that people find games so entertaining and compelling. Conflict and war are a common and powerful context for providing these experiences, but it is the need satisfaction in the gameplay that matters more than the violent content itself."

Scott Rigby, president of Immersyve Inc. and a co-investigator in the study, said the findings should be of practical help to the game development industry.

"Much of the debate about game violence has pitted the assumed commercial value of violence against social concern about the harm it may cause," Rigby said. "Our study shows that the violence may not be the real value component, freeing developers to design away from violence while at the same time broadening their market."

Study details:

To assess players' experiences on a wide variety of games, the authors conducted two survey studies involving 2,670 frequent video game players. Participants rated their current favorite games based on statements like "When moving through the game world, I feel as if I am actually there" and "I would buy a sequel to this game."

The surveys focused on players' needs satisfaction, immersion, and enjoyment, based on a psychometric model developed by Immersyve called the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS). Respondents were 89 percent male and between 18 and 39 years of old.

Four additional experimental studies involving more than 300 undergraduates allowed the investigators to study the effects of violence under controlled conditions. In three of the tests, researchers modified the video programs to create violent or non-violent formats of the same game.

One study used the commercially available game Half-Life 2 and assigned subjects to play either a bloody battle against computer-controlled adversaries or a low violence alternative, in which the robots were tagged and teleported serenely back to base. Another study using House of the Dead III varied the gore level from no blood to realistic wounds and graphic violence.

A fourth experimental study took a closer look at subjects' aggressive tendencies. Using a 29-item scale, including such statement as "Given enough provocation, I may hit another person" and "I sometimes feel like a powder keg ready to explode," the study measured participants' hostility before having them play the bloodier version of House of the Dead III.

Across all of the studies and both surveys, additional violent content added little enjoyment and in some cases detracted from the enjoyment reported by players. Violent content was preferred, though not enjoyed more, by a small subgroup of people who scored high in aggression traits.