Playing to win or to hurt and aggressive behaviours (Adachi & Willoughby, 2011)

Back in late August 2011, news about Paul Adachi and Teen Willoughby’ (Brock University) study went through the media circuits which elated many gamers about the effects of competitiveness and violence in videogames. I was busy with other priorities and since the actual article was publicly available, it lessened my need to expedite a review of the article and push it back into an appropriate blogging time. The article can be downloaded from the APA website


Objective: This study is the first to our knowledge to isolate the effect of video game violence and competitiveness on aggressive behavior. Method: In Pilot Study 1, a violent and nonviolent video game were matched on competitiveness, difficulty, and pace of action, and the effect of each game on aggressive behavior was then compared using an unambiguous measure of aggressive behavior (i.e., the Hot Sauce Paradigm) in Experiment 1. In Pilot Study 2, competitiveness was isolated by matching games on difficulty and pace of action, and systematically controlling for violence. The effect of video game competition on aggressive behavior was then examined in Experiment 2. Results: We found that video game violence was not sufficient to elevate aggressive behavior compared with a nonviolent video game, and that more competitive games produced greater levels of aggressive behavior, irrespective of the amount of violence in the games. Conclusion: It appears that competition, not violence, may be the video game characteristic that has the greatest influence on aggressive behavior. Future research is needed to explore the mechanisms through which video game competitiveness influences aggressive behavior, as well as whether this relation holds in the long-term.

This quarter could be the death of me since I have to write for my thesis proposal, apply for PhD programs (I heard you penguin), send out my SSHRC application, write up manuscripts, and while doing all the homework expected of a grad student.

The authors’ impetus in examining competitiveness in videogames came from methodological criticisms of the current literature on violent videogames. Their earlier paper (Adachi & Willoughby, 2011) detailed the methodological limitations of past experimental studies, namely the selection criteria in choosing violent and non-violent videogames. They argued that earlier studies failed to equate or experimentally control for important game characteristics, such as competitiveness, pace of action, and difficulty. They argued the importance in differentiating between the videogame’s characteristics and an individual’s internal state and how discussed the relation between these two.

First, competitiveness may influence aggressive cognition which prior experiences of competitive activities (e.g. sports) would prime aggressive thoughts. Furthermore, being in a competitive spirit also lends towards higher physiological arousal and frustration (such as losing a point) which they influence aggression.  Second, difficulty can influence three factors: frustration, physiological arousal and hostility. Although, I must point out whether difficulty’s relationship to the aggression factors be conceptually mediated by a sense of mastery, locus of control, mastery of control or need for challenge similarly to flow experiences. Third, pace of action may be linked to physiological arousal since (IMO) the flow of information between player and videogame would require plenty of energy to maintain the game’s desired level of attention or play. I remembered when I first played OSU!, I was flustered, but after a year, I did not sweat a beat on any normal beatmaps.

This is not new to videogame researchers as there were prior attempts to experimentally control one or more videogame characteristics. The authors cited Anderson & Carnagey (2009) having first attempted to equate competitiveness between violent and non-violent sports videogames.  However, the videogames were not equated on other variables, such as difficulty and pace of action. Anderson & Carnagey used statistical methods to account for these differences in their analysis, but the authors cited Miller & Chapman (2001) who argued that there are problems in doing such statistical analysis.

The authors cited Schmierbach (2010) who conducted a similar study on competition and aggressive behaviours. Schmierbach randomly assigned participants to play solo against a computer, against a human player or co-op with a human player against two bots. His results suggested that participants in the “against human” condition reported the highest aggressive cognition scores than the other groups. Hence, the authors found supporting findings that competition elevates aggression as compared to cooperation.

The authors discussed the issue of assessing aggressive behaviour where the competitive reaction time task was criticized in that the participation motivation to behave aggressively is ambiguous. The authors discussed at length the validity issues of the CRT. Therefore, they decided to use another behavioural measure of aggression. They decided to use the hot sauce paradigm where the intent to harm is unambiguous.

Experiment 1

The authors conducted a pilot study to test which games are equal in terms of competitiveness, pace of action and difficulty, but differs in terms of violent content. How these variables were operationalized was done through likert scales (7-point) for each variables of interest. One item for each variable and four items for competitiveness. The participants played all the games for 12 minutes in a counter-balanced order to minimize biases.

The end result is that Conan (violent videogame) and Fuel (non-violent videogame) satisfied the criteria for the experiment. Whilst the participants rated them on those likert scale as statistically different in terms of violent and equal in other characteristics. I must object that there could be confounds in using two games of different genres. How can we determine that the perception of competitiveness in Fuel, a racing game, is the same with the perception of competitiveness for Conan, a hack-and-slash videogame?


Participants: 48 undergraduate students, average age is 18.5. There were 25 men and 17 women. 6 participants were excluded due to suspiciousness of the study which reduced the number down to 42.


Aggressive behaviour: the hot sauce paradigm where participants are asked to pour one of four sauces into a cup. They were told that this cup would be given to another ostensible participant who indicated not liking hot sauce. The type of sauce (i.e. mild to ultra spicy) and the amount poured is calculated as an indicator of aggression. The participant was given the opportunity to taste it in order to demonstrate the spiciness.

Food preference questionnaire: A six-item questionnaire about food preferences, such as sweet, spicy, hot, salty foods. This is part of the hot sauce paradigm which the questionnaire is used to create the impression on food, instead of aggression.

Trait aggression: The Buss-Perry aggression questionnaire. 29-items on a 7-point agreement scale.

Suspiciousness: a questionnaire, no other details given.

Videogame rating: the same ratings used in the pilot study.

Demographics: Age, sex, videogame experience with action and racing videogames.


Participants were tested individually by Paul Adachi, the first author. They were told that the study is about something else in order to minimize participants’ bias, so in this study it’s about eye gaze, personality and food preferences. As part of the hot sauce paradigm, they were told that they were “randomly” assigned as the food administrator where they will fill a cup of sauce to another person who is the “food taster”.  Participants were randomly assigned to one of the videogames. Play time is 12 minutes. Why 12 minutes and not 15 minutes? After play, participants performed the hot sauce task, then the Buss-Perry questionnaire and then the suspiciousness questionnaire.


As was rated by the pilot study, the participants rated the videogames as non-statistically different for competition, difficult and pace of action, except for violence. The participants’ videogame experience did not have a statistical significance in the rating or, later on, on aggressive behaviour. However, their use of two different videogames and their attempts to equate them through likert scales as their empirical assessment was nagging me for an entire afternoon. What nagged me further is the use of null-hypothesis significance testing to accept a null hypothesis as a way to say there are no differences between games (see Levine et al., 2008). But then again, so did other researchers…

The authors conducted a univariate ANOVA where videogame conditions and gender are the predictors and the hot sauce scores as the outcome. They added videogame experiences as covariates. What they found is a non-significant statistical difference between the videogame conditions, whereas a gender difference was found where men were more aggressive than women, which is no surprise.

Given the small sample size and the non-significant findings, they had to argue for their findings’ validity. In one lengthy paragraph, they conducted a power analysis with their sample size of 42 would have a statistical power of .775, a reasonable number. Furthermore, the effect size was zero so increasing the sample size would have not affect statistical significant argued the authors.

They continued their analysis by examining the relationship between trait aggression and the hot sauce scores, curiously Adachi had only obtained the data from 26 participants. As if the Buss-Perry questionnaire was added after formal approval. Their correlational analysis had found a a statistically non-significant positive correlation between trait aggression and aggressive behaviour at r  =  .32.

With these results, they compared their scores with that of Barlett et al.’s (2009), and found that the given weights between theirs and Barlett’s suggest that the videogames elevated aggressive behaviours from baseline. Although, I must point out that there were no pre-post test scores, nor a true control group to support their arguments. Furthermore, comparing their score with another study might raise concerns about the differences between videogames, namely that of ludological equivalency, and this should be verified using the same population (i.e. the student population in St-Catharines, Ont. Sorry for being picky).

Experiment 2

They have conducted another pilot study by expanding their videogame repertoire to test the hypothesis that more competitive videogames would elicit higher levels of aggression. Using the same procedures from the first pilot study, they selected Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, as the violent competitive videogame, Left 4 Dead 2, as the violent less-competitive videogame, Fuel, as the non-violent competitive videogame, and Marble Blast Ultra, as the non-violent and less-competitive videogame. The participants in the experiment proper gave pretty much the same ratings.


Participants: 60 undergraduate students from Brock University. Five students were dropped from the analysis because they indicated that they were suspicious of the study.

The measures used are exactly the same from experiment 1. In addition, they measured the participants’ heart rate through electrocardiogram.

The procedure is the same, with the addition that they measured heart rate 5 minutes prior to videogame for baseline data and continuously during play time, which is 12 minutes.


Their univariate ANOVA on aggressive sauce pouring revealed a main effect in that the more competitive videogame conditions gave hotter sauces than those in the less competitive conditions. There were no differences in terms of violence conditions. A non-significant trend showed that men gave hotter sauce than women.

Their repeated measures MANOVA (with gender as a between-subjects variable) on heart rate revealed an interaction effect where the competitive videogames lead to significant increases in heart rate than the less competitive videogames, of which the latter showed no significant differences. This result is consistent with the literature, argued the authors, that physiological arousal is a mechanism that influence aggressive behaviour.


The authors hypothesized that competition and not violence was a significant factor in aggressive behaviours. They conducted two experiments which demonstrated the non-significant effect of violent video game content on aggressive behaviours (i.e. hot sauce pouring). The first experiment looked at two videogames that differed in violent content and found no statistical difference between them in terms of aggressive behaviours. The second experiment corroborated the prior experiment’s results on the violent content factor, and found competition to be a significant variable in aggressive behaviour. This seemed to contradict previous findings in the videogame literature, which is intriguing to hear and hopefully expand our views in this line of research.

The larger threads must be examined because the videogame literature is tied to the larger media violence (e.g. film, television) literature and the authors’ discussion did not explore this issue. Thus, I would like to muse on these threads and how this might would pose difficult theoretical outcomes. There are two outcomes (at the top of my head) that would raise interesting questions about media violence. The first is the cultural meaning of competition and its association to aggression. If our aggressive tendencies are related to a competitive mindset and from an evolutionary standpoint, this would seem appropriate in that out-gunning your opponents lead to reproductive fitness. Perhaps many forms of violence, both on-screen and in everyday life should be viewed as a form of competition. Following this line of reasoning, the examination of violence in itself is insufficient and that it should be viewed as competition as a better explanation of aggression. However, a possible falsification of my reasoning is intimate partner violence: can it be viewed as a competition of relationship dominance? Have competitive sports cultivated associations with violence and aggression, as the authors noted at the end of their article, that opportunities to behave aggressively are allowed or even encouraged? Nevertheless, the next step from this empirical examination would be a thorough examination on the concept of competition. I suspect many questions must be raised and answered before we can throw out the old paradigm. [something relevant]

The second outcome, given from the first, is the possible cutoff point that competition is what separate videogame violence from television violence. Earlier, academics argued that interactivity is what separates the two medium and that videogames have a larger effect due to this characteristic, although I am hard-pressed to find some good evidence on this issue. The competition abound in videogames, offline and online, would have a cultivating dynamic on individuals’ social interactions and that it is possible that players are cultivating a sense of individualistic competitiveness, rather than communal cooperation, as a more accessible motivator than previous generations. “The motivation to harm others is under the name of winning for one’s sake”. I do understand that cooperation exist in gaming environment of which would foster cooperative spirit, although I must ask whom would seek such cooperativeness and whom would seek it under an utilitarian motivation, perhaps narcissists are likely to have such motivations (see Herodotou et al., 2011).

The authors discussed some of the study’s limitations. Its limited generalizability to other age groups, in particular to adolescents whom the authors argued that they are likely to be more aggressive than adults because early maturing socioemotional system and slower maturing of self-regulatory system (i.e. Puberty). Second, it is limited in explaining the short-term outcomes and their sample’s demographical characteristics. The authors discussed that future studies should examine the other videogame characteristics, such as pace of action and difficulty (or challenge IMO) as significant factors of videogame-induced aggression.

Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of video game competition and violence on aggressive behavior: Which characteristic has the greatest influence? Psychology of Violence , 1 (4), 259-274. doi: 10.1037/a0024908


3 thoughts on “Playing to win or to hurt and aggressive behaviours (Adachi & Willoughby, 2011)

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