Play long and cooldown your aggression (Krcmar & Lachlan, 2009)

This article resurfaced a few weeks ago, what I mean is that OSU library just has full-text access to last year’s issue of Media Psychology, whereas Concordia University had it when it was published.

Marina Krcmar (Wake Forest University) and Kenneth Lachlan (University of Massachusetts Boston) published an article of methodological importance in videogame research. It’s about play time in experimental settings and its role in aggressive outcomes


Recent meta-analytic findings (Sherry, 2007) suggest that the effect of violent video games on aggression tends to decrease the longer participants play. Therefore, it is likely that different mechanisms may be at work depending on the length of play. In this study, we employed a 4 (length of game play) × 2 (sex) design to examine the effect of length of video game play on aggressive outcomes. Findings suggest that length of play may be curvilinearly related to verbal and physical aggression, and that arousal may mediate this response. Implications for our current understanding of the relationship between video games and aggression are discussed, along with directions for further research

Since I’m running out of time, I’ll try to keep this post as short as possible.

The study addressed an issue raised earlier by John Sherry (Michigan State University) in 2007 where Sherry noted that length of play time was found to have a peculiar relationship with aggression measures, the longer playtime resulted in lower aggression scores. Krcmar and Lachlan sought to explain this peculiar relationship through an experiment based on two theoretical rationales: the excitation transfer theory and priming theory. Excitation transfer theory is as it sounds like. Violent content causes physiological arousal, which that arousal is likely to cause aggression. So, you’re getting worked up in playing, but after you stopped playing, you’re still pumped and that energy can be turned into aggressive impulses and behaviours. However, they argued you can’t stay pumped up during play and eventually your physiological arousal will slow down. With that in mind, they argue that aggression is mediated by physiological arousal

The other rationale is cognitive priming where it posits that memory and concepts are arrayed like a network of related connections. So, if I say “anime”, then you might think of Pokemon or manga, or anything that is related. The strength of the connection is how fast it comes up to mind when a related concept is brought to attention. With violent videogames, violence makes you think of violent thoughts or aggressive thoughts. This theory posits that if those connections are occurring over time, i.e. violent videogame concepts and thoughts paired up with violent or aggressive concepts, the more likely it is reinforced and connections made stronger, which in turn makes aggressive behaviours more likely, but not necessarily.


Participants: 153 undergraduates. 92 males, 61 females. Average age is 19.95 (SD = 1.55).


Video game use and preferences: questions on how many days they played videogames in the past week and how many days they played videogames in the past month. They were also asked on 7-point Likert frequency scale on how often they played on every videogame genre, e.g. FPS, RTS, etc.

Aggressive cognition: the word completion task. Participants are asked to fill in incomplete words with whatever that comes up in mind in the first place. Participants filled in 50 of such words. The words were either coded as aggressive or nonaggressive.

State aggression: participants read a hypothetical story that is ambiguously aggressive. Responses were from a modified version of the  Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire. The modifications were rewording the questions and this was done by Marina Krcmar and Kirstie Farrar in 2006. Answers were on a 7-point likelihood scale and two subscales were examined in this study, physical aggression and verbal aggression.

Frequency of violent game play: how often they played shooter games and sport games.

Perceived arousal: a self-report measure with three items, e.g. I feel excited.

Other measures: the authors briefly mentioned other measures, such as personality, presence, videogame rating, etc.

Videogame used: Max Payne xbox version. I’m concerned about their choice in regards to whether play pauses through narrative cutscenes may slow down physiological arousal. Given that no further information as to which level participants were playing had me more worried as to whether participants’ game experience were controlled for, except for time. What if those that played the longest were exposed to the narrative whereas those that played the shortest were not.  The authors mentioned that plot vignettes (i.e. cutscenes) were there and provided graphic and violent expose and that such exposure would maintain physiological arousal. This lead to this other thought that we might argue that introducing the narrative element might be arousing because they might get engrossed into the game. But then, this study would not just be about playtime, but also story time as well.


Participants are randomly assigned to play either for 10, 15, 20 or 30 minutes. There is also a no-play condition serving as a control group. Participants filled in some questionnaire, then they played Max Payne for their randomly assigned condition.  After the elapsed time, the game is stopped and the participant filled in the word completion task, state aggression and the rest. And, they were debriefed.


A curvilinear relationship was found between length of playtime and physiological arousal (Self-report. The same holds true for physical and verbal aggression with respect to play time. The highest level of verbal aggression was found at 10 minutes of playtime, whereas for physical aggression it`s at 15 minutes. At 20 minutes, both aggression measures tapers off and at 30 minutes, the scores were below that of the 10 minute level. So, it looks like steam builds up to a certain point, peaks around 15-20 minutes and then loses it between around that time.

The authors tested whether self-report physiological arousal acts as a mediator between playtime and aggression, through a series of steps designed to test such mediation, and found that arousal is indeed a mediator. So, if you are bored or the violent videogame is boring, then you are not likely to be physically or verbally aggressive.

Playtime did not have a variable effect on aggressive cognition, whether it is at 10 minutes or 30 minutes of playtime. The moment you play Max Payne, your aggressive cognitions are primed up from the violent content and in-game acts and doesn’t go down at all. As for its relationship with verbal and physical aggression, when playtime is controlled, its relationship was nonsignificant. As I try to wrap my head around this result, the authors wrote that its physiological arousal, therefore the excitation transfer theory, that explains the best on the short-term effects of verbal and physical aggression. Aggressive cognitions effect is best explained for long-term effects.

For the previous argument, they tested the relationship between frequency of violent game play and aggression. They found one significant correlation with physical aggression. The authors argued based on priming theory that violent videogames prime aggressive concepts in our cognitive schema. As those violent videogames continue to prime aggressive concepts, the connections between violent videogames and aggressive concepts and scripts develop over time and are strengthened. Eventually, in-game violent actions would translate into actual aggressive behaviours. On paper, it sounds logical, in practice, somebody will make themselves look like fools if they were act violently and stupidly. Oh, I’m just throwing mindedness into the mix (something I picked up from some articles in Aggressive Behavior).

The article needs some bearings in regards to video gameplay that I noticed. First, videogames are more difficult temporally. This is given since players are mastering gameplay and therefore difficulty invariably increases, so as to keep the game as exciting as possible. Now the results seem contradictory to my previous statement, some explanations may be that Max Payne has easier difficulty curve, it has a lot of cutscenes, it’s not focusing on making the levels harder at every step and is focused on the narrative; the level, if sufficiently long, has a uniform difficulty, so start to end, its difficulty stays the same, therefore players might habituate to it, thus arousal tapers off.

An interesting point brought up by the authors is the duration of exposure between television and videogames. They argued three differences between videogames and television, videogames can keep players shooting for a longer period than television’s violent action sequences. Second, players are actively involved in the shooting versus the passive observation of the shooting from television. Third, the presence of blood has different effects in television versus videogames, in television blood is a turn-off, in videogames it’s the opposite in the vein that the presence of blood is a success indicator. These differences coupled with their results, the authors argue, exposes that using television research for videogame research would lead to some flawed assumptions. This reminds me how videogame scholars debate of whether videogames should be treated narratively or ludologically. I would like to add temporal linearity. Game time is very different from television time because games can be temporally manipulated, through saving, loading, and checkpoints. This temporal gaming mechanism differentiates media experiences from television and this would deserve some academic attention if it has any bearing on aggression.

Another tangential point is that aggressive behaviours can be spontaneous, consider how tensions can rise in synchronous play, e.g. in MMO or multiplayer FPS games, and then somebody provokes or sparks a whole array of profanities. Ninja looting comes into mind, although this is more of a social more violation. Or how a perpetually raging player can raise everyone’s anger, but it could be funny too or annoying. But I hope you get the idea.

The authors listed some limitations about the study, self-reporting of arousal; it might not relate that well with actual arousal so future studies should try to use physiological measures. Convenience sample of college students, try other age groups; gun violence, other types of violence should be investigate, therefore other videogames.

Try as I can, I couldn’t find an article that described how long a typical videogame session last. Most of them report weekly or daily hours.

Krcmar, M., & Lachlan, K. (2009). Aggressive Outcomes and Videogame Play: The Role of Length of Play and the Mechanisms at Work. Media Psychology , 12 (3), 249-267. doi: 10.1080/15213260903052257.


One thought on “Play long and cooldown your aggression (Krcmar & Lachlan, 2009)

  1. Pingback: Causes of aggression: Social determinants « Absolutely Mental

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