04/03/2013 08:07 EDT | Updated 06/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Video game rage: Violent imagery isn't the trigger, researchers say

When Marc Nascimento hosts “fight nights” at his Hamilton video game store, he often has to deal with people who exhibit varying degrees of video game rage.

Every Thursday night at Super 1UP Games, video game enthusiasts can participate in a beat-'em-up event at Nascimento's store. He says, however, that some people get pretty angry when they lose the video game fights.

“I think a lot of people put too much emotion or emphasis on the game,” said Nascimento. “It brings them down quite a bit as a personal loss.”

Video game rage is not a new phenomenon. YouTube is rife with videos of people — teenagers and adults alike — experiencing so-called "video game freakouts" or "rage quitting."

While rage stemming from video games is common, there are different theories about what triggers it. Some suggest it's the violent images in the games, but a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Brock University indicated that the most influential factor in video game rage is the level of competition involved.

“The first thing you see in a violent game is the violence,” said Paul Adachi, a Brock University PhD student who was the lead researcher for the project. “I think one of the first things that may come to mind is that seeing this violence is going to make people more aggressive and more violent. And that's kind of been the main intrigue, because of how graphic and obvious the violent content can be.”

The results of Adachi's research, however, indicate that it's the competitive aspect of the games that causes people to get angry rather than the violence.

Putting violent games to the test

Adachi conducted two experiments that consisted of students aged 17 to 19 playing both violent and non-violent video games.

The first experiment, during which participants played a violent game called Conan and a non-violent racing game called Fuel, found that there was no difference in aggressive behaviour between the participants who played the violent and non-violent games.

The second experiment had participants playing one of four games, including two competitive games (one was violent and one was not) and two less competitive games (again, one violent game and one non-violent game).

Adachi concluded that people who played highly competitive games behaved more aggressively than those who played the less competitive games.

“Even younger kids, if they're playing these games, a lot of the time they know that playing this Call Of Duty shooter game or whatever it is, is a fantasy-type thing,” said Adachi. “It's not something that's real … whereas the competition in the games is more real.”

Marc Ouellette, an active member of the Learning Games Initiative, is a Hamilton-based academic with some insight into video game rage. Ouellette said people get angry playing video games because, in many cases, the games are designed to be unwinnable.

“It only enhances the frustration level when it goes wrong, and it will go wrong. You will lose or you will fail. That's the frustrating thing. Especially if you're playing an arcade-style game; they're set up so that you will lose.”

Ouellette said video games are also addictive, which means the theory of “massed practice” comes into play. Massed practice is the idea that when one does something over and over, performance can actually decrease.

“Athletes and others doing routines experience it when you do a routine over and over and suddenly get worse,” said Ouellette. “That's the time to walk away, but the game almost demands to be played.”

As a result, he takes issue with the idea that video games can function as an emotional outlet.

“Doing something for the perceived catharsis doesn't actually work,” said Ouellette.

RAGE Control

One group is trying to use the negative aspects of games to help people. The connection between video games and anger is the subject of study by psychiatrists at Boston Children's Hospital.

Led by Peter Ducharme, a clinical social worker at Boston Children's Hospital, as well as researchers Jason Kahn and Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, the study involves showing children with anger issues how to calm down while playing a video game called RAGE Control.

The children are hooked up to a heart rate monitor and cannot shoot the enemy spaceships if their heart rate increases above a certain level.

“We're giving them a task that we know is going to cause them to engage, and we know it's going to cause them to make these constant rapid fast decisions,” said Kahn. “But at the same time, we're asking them to stay calm while they do it, otherwise they won't be able to shoot at the bad guys.”

The study is still going on, and Ducharme, Kahn and Gonzalez-Heydrich are looking to move from video games to other kinds of toys to teach even younger children to control their emotions. One of their planned studies involves letting children race using remote controlled cars that are hooked up to heart rate monitors — the cars would stop if the child's heart rate became too elevated.

“Losing is really stressful, but if you let that get to you, then you're not going to come back in the race because your car is stopped,” said Kahn.

Gonzalez-Heydrich said the goal of the video game experiments is to teach children to use rage control techniques in all aspects of their lives.

“We hope that we'll be able to eventually jump from doing this with kids who have pathological aggression to helping all kids develop better emotional strength,” said Gonzalez-Heydrich.

Brock's Adachi is expanding upon his own research into the effects of competition on aggression. He recently finished a long-term study that looked further into the effects of competition on aggression, including different types of competitive video games like racing or sports games, as well as different types of gambling.

Adachi added that a great deal more work also needs to be done in order to understand how video games affect people positively, since most of the research that has been done focuses solely on the negative aspects of video games.

“There's not enough research on competition in games to say it's all negative or it's all bad,” he said.

“There's a lot of positive elements of competition in life.”