Computer games research hits the headlines.


Aggression from video games ‘linked to incompetence’ – BBC News
Video Gamers’ Aggression Born From Frustration, Not Violence: Study – NBCnews
(and others)

So the interwebs news reports on some research from Oxford and Rochester universities. This is good news as this type of research needs to be considered widely. Aggressive reactions to computer games are due to the difficultly of the task you are asked to complete, not the game scenarios you play. Thats good findings. But as I read the news reports I found questions come up.

Take this explanation of one of the experiments.

In one experiment, undergraduates held their hand in a bowl of painfully cold water for 25 seconds. They were led to believe that the length of time was determined by a prior participant, but in fact, all participants were assigned the same duration. Next, participants were randomly asked to play either a simple or challenging version of Tetris, after which they were asked to assign the amount of time a future participant would have to leave their hand in the chilled water. Players who experienced the difficult Tetris game assigned on average 10 seconds more of chilled water pain to subsequent players than those who played the easy version.

tetris game screen

So they inflicted pain on people, lied to them about why they had the painful experience, asked them to play a game of Tetris, after the game, the participants decide how much pain someone else should get. I am not sure the effects of the game difficulty which is causing the player to react? I realise I am easily confused, but that seems weird. I don’t know this is really the experience to be able to make findings upon. Within the paper there are seven different approaches used. This experiment was one selected to be reported in the press.

The second thing which occurs to me is the experience of the player.
If you play games regularly you develop a repetoire of skills and knowledge which is applicable, within a game setting. The theory (Sicart) argues that Video Games only have a restricted number of things you can do. As your repertoire increases so does the amount of strategy you can call on. Your ability to cope with new game scenarios and higher levels of difficulty increases. In this research what game experience did the players have? How did the players repertoire affect the findings, was it considered? Reading the article, yes it was. In the article there were 7 experiments and player competence was actually named and considered as a key factor in the study.

The last thought is the role of failure within computer games. Jesper Juul in his book “the Art of Losing”, considers that games exist in a paradox. We as humans prefer success to failure. We enjoy games. But games are an exercise in repeatedly failing. We enjoy failing in this game context. How does this aggressive behaviour study actually address this paradox? How does it move beyond a computer games are linked to aggression stand point to actually consider the very nature of games and how this experience then affect the person.

Sadly it doesn’t deal with this issue. It doesn’t even refer to this a part of the game experience. I think this is a fatal weakness which undermines this researches usefulness. If the central premise of your study is around our reaction to failure why pick a medium which has a predominancy to failure, yet paradoxically is a very popular and enjoyable space for expressions of failure?

Why not something with more of a 50-50 chance of failure. If I replaced video games with soccer, or trying to find a car parking space in a busy car park would the research or findings be different. This seems to indicate that the designers of the study decided early on that video games and aggressive reactions were significantly linked, thereby betraying a low view of video games and those who play them. Computer games are reasoned to cause more agression than other example, by inference, they are a negative way of spending time. Is the failure cause actually important to the research? This research is not about computer games and their players at all.

I know my analysis of this stuff is probably wrong, but here goes. If I was cynical I would guess that the research has used computer games in order to speak about the links between video games and aggression with a knowledge that this is a topic newspapers like to comment on. Being generous I would guess they are trying to challenge the perceptions of aggressive behaviour and games being linked. Unfortunately by not dealing with ongoing relationship between failure and video games, a vital element of the very nature of video games, they have not actually dealt with their research subject.