Why do we like to play violent video games?

Video games are not just a pastime for children or teenagers. People of all ages and genders, from all walks of life, play them, and they’re available in nearly every home, purse, and pocket all over the world.

But there is one game genre that seems to be more popular than most – violent games. While many criticize games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Fortnite for their graphical content, few studies have explored why these games are so popular.

Researchers in biology and psychology UNSW Sydney have a theory that might help explain our fascination with violent video games. Based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive appraisal theory – a theory explaining the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation – among others, their recent article, published in motivational sciencesuggests that violent video games resonate with many of us because they provide opportunities to meet our psychological needs.

“The motivations we have for playing violent video games stem from our desire to become better as individuals,” says Associate Professor Michael Kasumovicone of the co-authors of the study School of Psychology, UNSW Science. “They allow us to measure our status, assess our abilities relative to others, and overcome our fears.”

Simulate social hierarchy and regulate emotions

While it might be unusual to think of video games as meeting psychological needs, they tap into our human desires. Autonomy (feeling of control), social connectedness (feeling connected to others), and competence (ability to achieve) are all motivations for behavior. Violent video games typically offer it all – whether it’s picking up a weapon upgrade, working with other characters, or completing objectives or missions.

“Violent video games lend themselves to [our psychological needs] because they are designed in a way that allows us to have a sense of control and accomplishment, and they help us determine where we fit in a social hierarchy [based on our performance in them]”, acting prof. says Kasumovic.

According to research, violent video games also allow players to experience dangerous situations — situations we probably wouldn’t encounter in real life — in a safe environment, as well as regulate our emotions.

Violent video games allow us to satisfy our psychological needs. Photo: Shutterstock.

In fact, the reason we play violent video games might be similar to some of the reasons we play sports. At their core, they are a way to deal with aggressive behaviors and our innate desire to compete in a socially acceptable way.

“Violent video games help explore our fears around death and can help express our emotions, especially anger,” said Professor A/Prof. Kasumovic said. “Before, people maybe went out to play with others. Now we have the means to do so through digital interactions.

Unlike traditional sports, video games can be played and mastered by almost anyone, regardless of physical ability – it’s not physical strength or athletic performance that lends itself to success in these games, but the ability and skill level. Some people, however, are more likely to gamble than others.


Read more: Video game players exposed to graphical content may see the world differently


The effects of violent video games

Research suggests that people who perceive themselves to have lower social status or those who have unfulfilled desires for dominance (exercise of influence or control over others) are more likely to play violent video games. 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 increased feelings of self-esteem and social ranking,” a/Prof. Kasumovic said. “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 pathological gambling – or video game addiction – where players continue despite adverse real-world consequences.

group of gamers playing on their laptops in the dark

Compulsive video games can impair an individual’s ability to function in the real world. Photo: Unsplash.

“You get instant feedback on the outcome of your performance, and there’s a positive feedback loop that pushes you to play more because you want to improve in the game and improve your position relative to others,” a/Prof . Kasumovic said. “It can be problematic if it takes over your life and diminishes your ability to take care of yourself, and we think some people may be more prone to this than others.”

Another question of interest to researchers is whether the effects of psychological fulfillment through violent video games can carry over into everyday life. Their future research will also focus on the prosocial effects that violent video games can have on leadership and teamwork.

“We hope the research will help broaden people’s minds, perspectives and understanding around video games, because they are complex. They don’t go away. If anything, [the landscape] only going to get more intense,” A/Prof. Kasumovic said.


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Carolyn M. Daniel