A good sport or bad winner? How competition and player 2’s behaviors affect enjoyment (Schmierbach et al., 2012)

Bad Winner

This study may be seen by some as a waste of money as it provides evidence for the obvious, others might discount as a fluke or some might just object that trash talking is something as part of gaming culture and is “character building” where one grow some thick psychological skin. Nevertheless, an obvious assumption must be tested unless we find ourselves to be embarrassingly wrong about things. Mick Schmierbach, Frank Dardis, Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch (Penn State University), and Qian Xu (Elon University) and colleagues have published in Media Psychology.


Industry and scholarly sources both argue that multiplayer gaming and competition are important factors in creating enjoyment, but relatively little empirical work demonstrates this claim. This study uses an experimental design (N = 139) to evaluate the effects of different multiplayer modes on enjoyment, allowing participants to interact naturally with a confederate partner and manipulating both game mode and partner behavior in a game of Madden ’08. Results show that enjoyment is significantly enhanced by the combination of competitive play and a friendly partner, and demonstrate that the quality of interpersonal interaction only partly accounts for this.

Riot Games’ League of Legends are doing some very interesting policies regarding their players’ behaviors. Recently, they punished a pro player (IWillDominate) for persistent harassment, verbal abuse, offensive language and negative attitude.

The authors argued two reasons to the importance of a social space or multiplayer environment in videogames. Social facilitation posits that people perform differently in presence of others, usually their performance increases unless my High Expectation Asian Dad came to my dissertation defense. In the case of videogames, a deal of studies have found that the social presence of others is an enjoyable experience, this includes fulfilling the human need of relatedness as posited by Self-Determination Theory. So why do it again? Why not examine enjoyment from a different angle argued the author.

The second reason for a social space is the interactive dynamics of play, in short competition and cooperation. The joy of sports when you barely beat out your opponent is similar in videogames. The authors clarified that competition can be operationalized in many ways (e.g., online competition without seeing the face of your partners, playing with your friends or family, etc.), they focused on direct, interpersonal competition, i.e. two people sharing the same TV screen and console and are in the same room. Strangely enough, not many used a real confederate second player in their experiment, usually we tell participant that the second player is in a different room playing with them. Why is this case? Good undergraduate confederates with the perfect schedule are rarities. The authors argued that cooperative play with another human player will not be as enjoyable as competitive play because two humans against a not so bright computer opponent is no fun. Although, I wonder if enjoyment could be enhanced when they fought the computer on a higher difficulty level. Second, cooperation requires teamwork, collaborative effort and greater interdependence which sometimes can lead to conflict and disagreement about strategies (think League of Legends). Furthermore, the authors astutely argued the consideration of videogame genres for in-game social interactions. In first-person shooters, the goal is a high score which requires not much tactics, but on skills whereas sports games like Madden needs tactics for winning and American undergraduates already know the rules of American Football. Although, it is quite a bit difficult to generalize that to other genres.

A third factor to consider is what the partner says, does and plays with the participant. My brother is usually silent when I play with him, but some of my friends are friendly, others are highly controlling or loud and annoying enough to mute them. Unfortunately, the participant can’t use that function when the participants is sitting next to them. Yes, the authors examined whether there is an effect of the second player’s behavior, either friendly and support versus unfriendly and hostile. This goes back to when I mentioned about trash talking and whether the participant finds the second player’s boastful and yet hostile behaviors enjoyable. The obvious might be there, but sometimes we hold dissonant beliefs and this could prove to be a little wake-up call about this “character building” argument that some people holds about trash talking. Nevertheless, being hostile in a competitive environment is understood and perhaps is acceptable and might enhance enjoyment and doing the same in a cooperative environment does work. Although, we just don’t know what really works.


Participants: 315 college students signed up, but only 196 passed a pre-test which consisted of a football knowledge test. Of those of who passed, 139 students (51.8% are female) completed the lab part.


Enjoyment: 7 items on a 7-point agreement scale, the items were derived from two existing enjoyment scales, one of which is the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory.

Partner Liking: Unknown number of items. This assessed feelings towards one’s partner and mixing the wording with the enjoyment scale. This is used to assess whether the partner is clearly friendly or hostile towards the participant.

Final Margin of Victory: Schmierbach and company being careful with details also calculated score differences between the participant and the partner given the former might have not any experience and lost, close call or was very superior. They found that margins of victory varied between conditions. Therefore, they used this as control variable in their analyses.

Videogame used: Madden ’08. This videogame can be played in competitive, cooperative and solo play mode. They used the Playstation 2 and Wii versions and found no differences in their analyses. Playtime varied between 12-20 minutes depending on how the match performed, again playtime was not significantly different between conditions. All participants played as the Amsterdam Admirals against their partner’s Frankfurt Galaxy as American college students are well versed in football and have some opinions about certain teams, so they reasoned well that having unfamiliar teams would minimize this problem.


Participants who successfully completed the pre-test took a 15-minute training session with the videogame (either on the Playstation 2 or Wii). They were then randomly assigned to play in cooperative, competitive or solo. If they were assigned to cooperative or competitive, the confederate partner was either assigned to be friendly or unfriendly to the participant. Of course, the participant is not aware about the partner being a confederate.


They analyzed their data through a series of one-way ANCOVAs with margin of victory as the covariate and enjoyment as the outcome variable. Why not two-way? They got solo play as one of the conditions, so it would have been excluded like a fifth wheel in a two-way ANCOVA.

The participants’ liking of their partner showed a main effect where  friendly partners were more liked (M > 4.5) than those in with the unfriendly partners (M < 3.4) which means the experimental manipulation worked as intended.

Examining only game mode, they found that competitive mode (M=5.18) is significantly more enjoyable than cooperative (M=4.45) or solo play (M=4.61). That’s it.

Examining only the confederate’s demeanor, they found that no significant differences, although the means seem to suggest that having a friendly partner is more enjoyable (M=4.93) than unfriendly partner (M=4.65). In any case, this non-significant different has a qualifier when both game mode and confederate demeanor are analysed together.

With five conditions in their one-way ANCOVA (solo, competitive-friendly, competitive-unfriendly, cooperative-friendly, and cooperative-unfriendly). They found that participants who played competitively with a friendly partner enjoyed their game (M=5.43) or unfriendly more so than who played solo or cooperatively, either with a friendly or unfriendly partner. Interestingly, those who played competitively with an unfriendly partner (M=4.94) seems to be in a grey zone as their enjoyment level is not significantly different from the other conditions.

The authors conducted mediational analyses to consider whether partner liking acts as a mediator in enjoyment. They reasoned that partner liking should account for the partner conditions rather than the game mode. What they found is that the unfriendly condition has a indirect effect on enjoyment in both cooperative and competitive mode and where partner liking mediates that link. So, if you played with an unfriendly partner either in competitive or cooperative, your level of enjoyment is affects on how you liked your partner which in turn affect your enjoyment.  Although, the friendly and cooperative conditions still have a direct effect on enjoyment which means something else besides partner liking might be involved.


The take home message is that players respond to social contexts in nuanced ways, playing with others is fun, but not necessarily more fun than solo play. Nevertheless, it is best enjoyed within a friendly competitive environment.

The authors cautioned that while friendly competitive play is more enjoyable, it does not automatically mean that it’s more fun than solo play, perhaps some individual differences would affect level of enjoyment relative to game mode, say introversion (IMO)? The authors offered two explanations as to why competitive multiplayer play is more enjoyable than cooperative or solo. It provides an effective type of competition and if offers social context.

The authors discussed why cooperative play is less enjoyable relative to competitive play. They reasoned that as players are sharing a playing field, they have less independent control and therefore both players are interdependent on each other’s skills. This might lead to some conflict when you have a partner who doesn’t perform as good as your expectations. However, their data on partner liking did not support that claim. Second, the participants played with a stranger which might not help enjoyment and  perhaps playing with friends is the key.  They suggested varying communication modes, such as direct or indirect communication or having the participant play solo while the partner watched and encourages or gives advice to the partner.

lONvzIMO, what would be interesting is to see how skill discrepancy could affect enjoyment by taking some cues from League of Legend players’ frustration. And this is exactly what the authors controlled for with the margins of victory data. They found that participants in the competitive condition tend to perform worse and they found a correlation between performance and enjoyment, although the authors could not explore this further. They argued that there are nuanced relationship between enjoyment and challenge-skill balance where close games are highly enjoyable (since there’s still hope) versus a one-sided outcome (no hope at all). The authors cautioned that any future competition-based studies should carefully assess feelings of optimal challenge which it would affect enjoyment.

One limitation is the football videogame they used as they noted that one takes on the leadership role, calls the plays and serving as the quarterback while the other takes on the supporting role, I really don’t know how American football works. This limits the study’s generalizability with other videogame genres.

On a final note, the authors noted that while the conditions had significant effects, there’s a lot of variance in videogame enjoyment still unaccounted for in their data which means we require more in-depth experiments and data.

Schmierbach, M., Xu, Q., Oeldorf-Hirsch, A., & Dardis, F. E. (2012). Electronic friend or virtual foe: Exploring the role of competitive and cooperative multiplayer video game modes in fostering enjoyment. Media Psychology, 15 (3), 356-371. DOI:10.1080/15213269.2012.702603


2 thoughts on “A good sport or bad winner? How competition and player 2’s behaviors affect enjoyment (Schmierbach et al., 2012)

  1. An observation in my current research is that some people who had bad experiences with trash talking stopped playing the videogame they were on. For example, one respondent said he stopped playing Heroes of Newerth because of such experiences.


    I should start reading that book called “The No-Asshole Rule”

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