The case of videogames as a source of conflict among couples (Coyne et al., 2012)

I have heard stories of people having problems with their significant others’ time with videogames: some are related to addictions to MMOs, some preferring spending time with videogames instead of their significant others, and various reasons that is a source of friction in their relationships. The family psychologist Sarah M. Coyne (Brigham Young University) and colleagues have published an article in Family Relations.


The current study assessed how playing video games can influence conflict and aggression in relationships. A sample of 1,333 heterosexual couples reported their video game playing habits, conflict regarding the media, and physical and relational aggression (both self and partner directed). Results showed that for men (but not women), time spent playing video games was associated with increased conflict over the amount of time spent using media, as well as the content of those media. Conflict over the media, in turn, was associated with increased physical and relational aggression in the relationship. Thus, conflict over the media offers one explanation for why video game play may increase aggression in romantic relationships.

The semester has started and I can’t wait to get some participants (if only I could get university-wide data, there’s something peculiar about business students).

Television and other entertainment media have also been a source of friction in couples’ relationship. For example, men who often look at centerfold models were less satisfied with their wives’ attractiveness or women who consume a lot of romance media tend to be less satisfied with their husbands (oh where’s the drama?). On the other hand, it can be a boon to a relationship where, for example, texting can improve positive communications between couples or doing media together connects them even further (Movie Nights!). The authors’ particular reason for this study is that no one has looked at videogames until now. The authors noted a cause of concern from anecdotes proliferating on the internet, specifically to cases of gamer widows.

Internet Husband

The authors offered two theoretical considerations as to the causes for relationship conflict in regard to videogame play. The first consideration is time. Referring to a hypothesis from the early internet era, the displacement hypothesis posits that time spent on one media would have displaced time spent in other activities. This would make the significant other feel that his or her partner is being neglectful as the latter is spending time playing videogames or browsing through reddit. Although, I wonder if the player feels the same way or does not realize how bad it could be since the player is having a good distraction, the authors noted this is a useful point for family therapists. A good particular speculation is that videogames need their players full attention or rather capture their full attention as television can do the same, especially with sports.

However, I like to point out whether the couples can improve their relationships if they spend their time together playing videogames. A good play night, intimate conversations, some wine and cheese by the console and some romantic music seems like a good romantic evening.

The second consideration is content. Women are a minority in playing violent videogames as the graphic portrayal of violence and sex is probably a turn off. The authors argued the content may prime the players’ aggression levels, of which we have plenty of evidence in the literature. Second, the significant other might disapprove of their videogame play and its content which can be a source of relationship friction (e.g. “I don’t get why you get so much fun out of war?” or something like that). Third and this one needs investigation, the significant other may feel that parasocial relationships with videogame characters may be seen as threatening. I’ll elaborate further, some videogame characters are very liked because they may possess some traits to their liking that their significant other may lack. I could imagine a silly scenario where the player brings up a videogame character’s name during a relationship argument to prove his or her point. This does not seem odd as mentioned earlier how men judged their wives’ attractiveness  using the centerfold models as their ideal standard since they looked at them a lot. Sexy female videogame characters might do the same thing for husbands and boyfriends.

Furthermore, most of the videogames guys play are for guys which makes the girlfriend feeling left out or, if she plays along, standing out rather than being a normative member. If they played some music videogames, then the gender salience is lessened. Second, the early withdrawal from videogames among many girls meant that later play accessibility is made difficult with their significant others. An example is most women’s low proficiency in first person shooters which could dampen their boyfriends’ play experience, and especially if they play for the score rather than building up a relationship. Taking a cue from Eden et al. (2010) (I will read it some day) tells me otherwise that bringing out some salient cues rather than displaying skills would allow people online to identify players’ gender. If the girlfriend makes herself known, well… let’s see how she handles the sexual harassment.


Participants: 1333 heterosexual couples. The participants came from a larger online survey study. The 1333 couples were selected because they were either in a serious dating relationship, engaged or married. Average age is 30.5 (SD = 10.1, range = 18 to 79 years old), 83% are Caucasian, followed by African-American at 4%. A good range of education attainment where 37% complete some college, 25% having a bachelor and 26% having a graduate degree. There are more details about relationships status, but I’ll just stop.

Measure: The larger study used the Relationship Evaluation Questionnaire, it is a 300-item questionnaire conducted on the internet. This study used specific items to analyze the relationship between gaming and couples’ conflict.

Videogame use: participants responded whether they played videogames (60% of men and 34% of women said yes). If yes, how often they played for the following genres: FPS, MMORPGs, RPGs, Music, Exercise and Sports using a 7-point frequency/day scale. They had a table that showed that the percentage of videogame for men and women, but the problem is that they were not clear on what frequency scale it is on. As expected, a higher percentage of men preferred FPS, RPG, MMORPGs and sports than women who preferred music videogames.

Problem area scale: there are two items where couples report whether the (1) amount of time spent and (2) the content of videogames posed a problem through a 5-point frequency scale.

Relational aggression: 14 items using a 7-point frequency scale. 7 items asked relational aggression directed towards their partner and the other 7 items directed towards the participants.

Physical aggression: 6 items from the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale through an 8-point scale. 3 items asked physical aggression directed towards their partner and the other 3 items against the participants. The authors noted that response scores for physical aggression are very low meaning they happen very rarely.

As couples reported their own aggressive behaviours towards their partner (e.g. “I slapped her”) and their partner’s aggressive towards them (e.g. “he slapped me”), the authors averaged the scores from each respondent.


The authors elected to assess the overall impact of videogame play rather than looking at specific genres. I was a bit disappointed as I wanted to see the effect sizes between the various genres.

Zero-order correlations were presented before the main analyses, but I didn’t pay much attention.

The main analysis was conducted through structural equation modeling where the problem area variables were inputted as predictor variables and the aggression variables as the dependent variables. Their analysis as seen in this simplified graph showed that men’s videogame play is positively related to their own and their partner’s reporting that time and videogame content being a problem to their relationship. This problematic reporting is then related to relational and physical aggression for both men and women. Well this seems to fit to what happened in that youtube video.

Click to enlarge


The take home message is that guys should seriously consider their significant other’s concerns about their time with videogames and discuss a satisfactory agreement before their relationships sours badly.

Given the context of their larger study, the authors acknowledged that it is unclear what specific part of videogames or gaming behaviours are related to relationship conflict. One probable cause is that videogames displaced other activities that their significant others valued more (e.g. preferring videogames than the jazz festival). A focus group study with women having problems with their significant others’ videogame play would allow some in-depth insights as to what troubles them. A survey instrument could be constructed from that focus group and tested in a representative sample. On the other hand, the time problem was particularly more problematic as posited by the displacement hypothesis. Meaningful relationship building were pushed out for good gaming distractions, although I must point out that the survey did not ask if both couples played together or enjoyed playing together. Trepte et al. (2012) gave us some encouragements that social bonding via gaming can result in stronger social ties if the online meets with the offline.  The authors noted that MMORPGs may be problematic given how much of a time sink these games are and, the computer-mediated relationships with other players.

The authors noted the non-significant correlation between relational conflict and women’s videogame play, they argued that it is likely the amount of time spent did not reach problematic levels. They argued that it is possible that they may be spending time with their male significant other as a joint activity. However, I’d like to point out what videogames that women like to play with, they mostly play music (69%) and exercise (58%) videogames in contrast to first person shooters (18%). It is possible that both men and women build their relationships through gender-inclusive videogames (e.g. Limbo, Minecraft, etc.) rather than through gender-typed videogames. Of course, I am not arguing that not all women don’t find FPS that enjoyable with their significant other. It is possible some find it enjoyable with their significant others, I am just speculating statistically.

Speaking of a survey of 300 items, I wonder if they could compare the relative effect size of other activities that could cause relationship problems, such as being a workaholic, going out too often, watching way too much sports programs, or not helping out with household chores. Given that we know that other media entertainment can be a source of relational friction, could videogames be a mere factor of a larger problematic media habits? People who play a lot might also consume other types of media entertainment, such as television, magazines among other things. An interesting take from Michael Kimmel’s work is that the man-child argues that playing a lot of videogames is part of being a man and it is a typical male bonding experience, although adhering to traditional masculine ideals about media consumption can lead to insensitivities to women and relationships.

Another consideration is the age factor as they analysed across the age spectrum. I was wondering if the relationship is stronger among emerging adults than older adults? Consider how my generation grew with the current crop of videogames and how much they integrate into their identity as opposed to the older generations. Social networking videogames (e.g. Farmville) seems like it would have a role in building social ties (Skoric & Kwan, 2011; Zhong, 2011).  Does helping each other build their crops and farms help their relationships as well? Sending each other virtual gifts over facebook seems like a nice gesture unless the guy wants to do it for rich and fame.

The authors noted several limitations. Causal relations are not established, so it is possible that aggression in their relationships can lead to escapist behaviours to videogames. The coefficients in the model were small to moderate which leaves room for other variables of interests like other media and maybe something in their 300 item questionnaire.

Coyne, S. M., Busby, D., Bushman, B. J., Gentile, D. A., Ridge, R., & Stockdale, L. (2012). Gaming in the game of love: Effects of video games on conflict in couples. Family Relations, 61 (3), 388-396. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00712.x


7 thoughts on “The case of videogames as a source of conflict among couples (Coyne et al., 2012)

  1. Pingback: Your pain is none of my violent gaming business (Fraser et al., 2012) | VG Researcher

  2. It’s genuinely very complicated in this active life to listen news on Television, therefore I simply use internet for that reason, and take the latest news.

  3. Hi, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your website in Firefox, it looks fine
    but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some
    overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Other then that, awesome blog!

  4. Very nicely written ! And absolutely agree here. The effect of such video games are seen to be much worse on children who are becoming stubborn and violent following what they see in their games. Thanks for sharing !

  5. Pingback: National survey on bullying and violent videogame play among Canadian youths (Dittrick et al., 2013) | VG Researcher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s