Spilling the blood and guts of an opponent and other macabre acts of violence do not make video games more enjoyable for players, according to a new study.
The findings could have implications going forward for game designers, who may decide not to put as many resources into ratcheting up the gore factor, the authors suggest.
Researchers at the University of Rochester and the think-tank and consultancy company Immersyve, based in Orlando, Fla., reached their conclusions after conducting two surveys of 2,670 frequent game players and four experiments involving more than 300 undergraduates.
Lead author Andrew Przybylski, a graduate student in social psychology, said they began the project after noting the popularity of games like “World of Warcraft,” “Halo 3” and “Team Fortress 2,” which have a “good deal of violent content.”
“So we wanted to know if the violent content by itself was motivating because these games also do offer compelling challenges and stories,” he said from Rochester, N.Y.
“We found that, on average, violent content didn’t add to motivation for play.”
In fact, he said the games are popular because they offer players meaningful opportunities to interact and work together, or to feel effective and exercise choice.
“The reason why children gravitate to something like ‘Halo,’ ‘Halo 3’ or ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Team Fortress’ isn’t necessarily because they want to get at the blood or the acts of violence,” said Przybylski.
“What they’re really chasing is having their psychological needs met. Cranking up the violence knob doesn’t automatically make a game automatically more fun.”
The work was published Friday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In one portion of the study, the investigators took the first-person shooter game “Half Life 2” and modified it using a programmer’s tool kit to make a violent version and a non-violent version.
Players either had a weapon that was like a shotgun or they had a psychic power.
“And then we manipulated the blood level and the gore level, so when people had the gun and they were told that it was going to be a kill or be killed situation, when they actually took out an adversary, it was very bloody, it was a very violent game,” Przybylski explained.
“And then in the less violent condition they were essentially playing a game of tag. When they were able to hit someone with their ability, the person just floated up very serenely into the air before evaporating.”
The researchers wanted to find out if the same game became more fun for players when they made it more violent.
“And the answer to that question was no … as you made the game more violent, it didn’t add extra variance in how enjoyable the game was.”
Study subjects were assessed through a series of questions, along the lines of “how much fun was the game you just played?” and “would you like to play this game again when you come back to our lab?”
Przybylski noted there was one sub-group of participants identified as being more aggressive – about five per cent – who showed a preference for violent games, even though they didn’t rate them as more enjoyable.
“They didn’t really experience more pleasure when they were pulling the trigger, but when they were given the choice of what to do next, they opted in to playing again at a higher rate than individuals who were lower in aggression.”
As for himself, Przybylski said he considers himself a low-aggression person.
“If the screen starts getting splattered with blood and I can’t make out what I’m doing, it actually becomes an impediment to my enjoyment of the game. It gets in the way of my feelings of competence and effectiveness,” he said.
Craig Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, said the studies were very well done methodologically and make an important contribution to our understanding of what motivates people to play video games.
“A common belief held by many gamers and many in the video game industry – that violence is what makes a game fun – is strongly contradicted by these studies,” he said in an email.
“Furthermore, the research convincingly shows that there is no relation between amount of violence in a game and the enjoyment experienced by the players, once opportunities for satisfying competence needs and autonomy needs have been equated in violent and non-violent games.”
Przybylski said the message for game designers is that their resources are probably better spent designing games that will satisfy the psychological needs of players to feel competent, a feeling of autonomy and being connected to other players.
“That’s probably a better place for them to put their efforts than being able to very realistically depict someone’s arm falling off,” he said.
Anderson agreed the challenge for the industry will be to use its creative and artistic skills to develop and market non-violent games that satisfy the competence urge and desire for autonomy.
“Whoever does this well will be able to tap into a much larger market,” he wrote.
Scott Rigby, president of Immersyve, said the video game industry is locked in “a little bit of a mortal combat” with those who are worried about violence and not so keen about video games.
If most consumers aren’t drawn to the violence, he said, it frees up designers to do other things.
“They won’t feel as constrained by kind of the history and the convention within the game development industry to develop a lot of games with violent themes,” he said.