The concept that “gamer rage” is directed at one’s failure is one that seems like common sense, but the scientific community has long blamed this phenomenon on the oftentimes violent content of the games themselves. A recent study of nearly 600 gamers, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests otherwise.
Andrew Przbylski at Oxford University, along with Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester (hey, that’s where I live!), found that the intense anger gamers exhibit is actually linked to perceived failure on their part. Ryan explains, “When the experience involves threats to our ego, it can cause us to be hostile and mean to others.”
Anyone who’s ever played a videogame knows this. When we shout obscenities at the screen, our blood pressure rising, it has nothing to do with how violent the game is. In fact, I’ve probably gotten more pissed off playing relatively non-violent games, trying to beat my high score in Tetris or my best time in Mirror’s Edge.
Let’s take a Souls game as an example. When I rage quit Dark Souls, it’s not because the violent imagery has somehow lowered my anger threshold. I rage quit simply because I made a careless error that resulted in my character dying.
Put simply: I’m not angry at the game, I’m angry at myself for fucking up. When I die (or in the context of a multiplayer game, lose), my sense of competency is threatened since I have no one to blame but myself. This can be so frustrating that I rage quit or, worse, lash out.
I know that it’s my fault when I die in Dark Souls, and believe me, it’s fucking irritating. I’m mad at myself for lacking the necessary skills to “win” the game, which makes me feel incompetent, but also because there’s a sense that, had I only played better, been more careful, I might have succeeded.
It’s like failing an exam you know you could’ve done well on, had you put in more effort. Humans have a psychological need to feel competent, and when this need is thwarted they feel angry and may take it out on others. This response to perceived personal failure is not unique to gaming: in fact, according to the study, it occurs “across most life domains, including parenting, sports, work, and education.”
Their research is the first to examine the relationship between failure and frustration in gaming. One thing seems clear: “Whether or not the game’s content is violent doesn’t matter,” says Ryan.
This study goes a long way toward dispelling the widely-held notion that videogames themselves are a catalyst to real-life violence. With any luck, further research of this kind will continue to combat the many stereotypes and misconceptions about videogames and those who play them, enlightening both the scientific community and our cultural perspectives as a whole.