Australian research finds violent video games resonate because they address psychological needs

Why this has long been a mystery, but researchers in Australia believe the answers lie somewhere in the fields of biology and psychology.

The most controversial series in gaming history, due to its ties to true crime, Grand Theft Auto has sold 165 million copies of its latest installment worldwide since 2013.

It has also been at or near the top of the Australian Games charts for the past six months.

GTA’s breathtaking popularity is reflected in the world’s best-selling shooter franchise, Call of Duty, and its current offering, Warzone, has over 100 million players. Another, Red Dead Redemption, was Australia’s best-selling game of 2018.

The Fortnite survival saga, meanwhile, generated more than $9 billion for maker Epic Games in just two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2018-19.

All are known for their graphic content, but research exploring the extraordinary fascination they exert is scarce.

Enter Associate Professor Michael Kasumovic, and a dash of evolutionary psychology and cognitive appraisal theory.

Research by the professor and his colleagues at the University of NSW suggests that violent games resonate because they provide opportunities to meet psychological needs.

“The motivations we have for playing (them) stem from our desire to become better as individuals,” he says.

“They allow us to measure our status, assess our abilities relative to others, and overcome our fears.”

Although it’s unusual to think so, Professor Kasumovic says video games tap into human desires. Autonomy, social connection and competence are all motivators for behavior.

“Whether it’s choosing a weapon upgrade, working with other characters, or completing objectives or missions…violent video games lend themselves to our psychological needs because they’re designed in a to allow us to have a sense of control and accomplishment,” he says.

“And they help us understand where we fit in a social hierarchy.”

According to research, violent games also allow players to experience dangerous situations in a safe environment, as well as regulate their emotions.

“(They) help explore our fears around death and can help express our emotions, especially anger,” says Professor Kasumovic.

“Before, people might go out to play with others. Now we have the means to do that through digital interactions.”

Unlike traditional sports, video games can be mastered regardless of physical ability.

Bond University’s latest Digital Australia report shows that 17 million Australians play video games in one form or another. The so-called average player is 35, most likely a guy, and logs in 83 minutes a day.

And the love story continues to bloom. While 76% of Australian households owned at least one gaming device in 2005, by 2021 92% did.

Some people, however, are more likely to gamble than others.

The UNSW study found that those who perceive themselves to have lower social status or who have unfulfilled desires to exercise influence or control over others are more likely to do so.

The less those needs are met in the real world, the more likely they are to seek them out in a digital world.

“Video games can give some people what they don’t get in the real world, like an increased sense of self-esteem and social ranking,” says Professor Kasumovic.

“Thus, people from lower-status groups may be more drawn to violent video games because of a desire to achieve higher status than they possibly can achieve in gaming.”

Violent video games, especially online multiplayer games, are designed to encourage improved performance through matchmaking levels and leveling.

At the extremes, it is thought to encourage addiction.

According to UNSW research, players get instant performance feedback and there is a positive loop that pushes them to play more because they want to improve in the game and in their position relative to others.

AAP with the project


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Carolyn M. Daniel