Characters’ swearing affect players’ aggression (Ivory et al., 2013)

When I saw this article, I remembered one dear old videogame called Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising. It was a carrier command game, a mixture of real-time strategy with third-person vehicle combat. You can pilot your own vehicle and command AIs of once-living and colourful pilots. Why this game is so dear to me is the pilots’ personalities and interactions between the pilots, they compliment each other, insult each other and they especially swear.

Adrienne Holz Ivory (Virginia Tech University) and Christine Kaestle (University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill) conducted an experiment to see how swearing obscenities from videogame characters could affect players’ hostility and aggression.


Although effects of violence in video games have been researched extensively, no empirical studies have examined effects of profanity, a form of verbal aggression, in video games. An experiment (N = 321) investigated effects of profanity used by protagonist and antagonist characters in a “first-person shooter” game on players’ hostile expectations, accessibility of aggressive thoughts, aggressive feelings, and other responses. Profanity used by both protagonist and antagonist characters increased hostile expectations, a direct precursor to aggressive behaviors. Findings suggest that profanity in video games may affect aggressive outcomes, emphasizing the need for more research investigating effects of profanity in media.

A game called Rogue Legacy has a trait for heroes who suffer from involuntary swearing

The authors argued that adding profanity would add more context to the literature on violent videogame effects on aggression, in more technical terms, they are examining a formal characteristic of a videogame. Much of the previous research examined the visual feature of violence, the gore and destruction of things. It does make sense to look at other characteristics that may add in or perhaps supplant it as argued by Paul Adachi‘s research that competition is a major factor for aggression. The authors argued profanity’s importance from a content analysis study by a related Ivory (2009) and company who found that 1 in 5 games contained profanity and when they do contain, the characters profusely utter them. A 2011 survey found associations between profanity in media and verbal and relational aggression, so there is some cause for concern.

The effects of profanity on aggression has not received much attention, IMO it makes sense to start examining it through the General Aggression Model, the theoretical model frequently used to explain the violent videogame effects on aggression. The model explicates that aggression is the result of a process from our internal state, that is our thoughts, feelings and arousal influence how we appraise a situation, decide on our actions and act upon our decisions. Situational factors affect our internal state, hence the reason when we encounter violent situations, we also become aggressive through anger, hostility and aggressive thoughts. The authors argued that profanity would go along as well.


Participants: 321 undergraduate students. 176 are women and 145 are men. Average age is 20.25 (SD=1.77).  Participants were mostly recruited for extra credit and 20 got a 10$ gift certificate.


Hostile expectations: the story completion task where participants read two stories of ambiguous nature, such as a car accident or slow restaurant order. The participants were asked how the characters in those stories would feel, think and do or say. Coders rated these open responses for the number of aggressive responses.

Aggressive cognition: the word completion task where participants complete words that had at least one missing letter. They are given 3 minutes to complete the task. Some words can be completed into a neutral or aggressive meaning, such as “explore” or “explode”. The number of aggressive versus neutral words were counted to score aggressive cognition.

Aggressive affect: the state hostility scale, it is a 32-item answered on a 5-point agreement scale.

Perceived arousal: the perceived arousal scale, it is a 24-item answered on a 7-point descriptive scale.

Enjoyment: taken from another study, it is a 10-item answered on a 7-point agreement scale.

Aggressive personality: the Aggression Questionnaire, it is a 29-item answered on a 5-point characteristic scale.

Videogame use: Participants listed their three favourite videogames that they played in recent months. They also listed three more favourite videogames when they were in 7th and 8th grade. Participants also rated these videogames by the level of violence by content and graphics, on a 7-point scale, each.

Videogame used: The authors created their First-person shooter videogame using the FPS Creator program. They created “Rescue Strike” where players are in the role of a hostage rescuer storming a fortress guarded by armed guards. They created four versions of the game. They differed by the presence of profanity uttered by the player-character and by the enemies. The voice were recorded by volunteers and the authors were careful that these utterances were matched in wording and meaning.

IMO, usually researchers often do not have the skills to create their own videogames from scratch because they are in a different field unless they double-majored in grad school (which is highly unlikely and they’re probably geniuses), thus it takes a lot of time and effort. So, I very much applaud their efforts for this experiment. Although they could try to hire someone, but where will the money come from?


Participants completed some pre-game questionnaires. Participants played one of the four versions of the videogame. Playtime is 12 minutes, if they finished the game early, they replay it until the 12 minutes are up. When finished, they complete word completion task and some more questionnaires.


The authors conducted two-way ANOVAs to examine the presence or absence of profanity from the player-character, the enemies and the combination of both on the mentioned variables of interest. The first analysis examined the effect on participants’ hostile expectations as measured from the story completion task. They found two main effects in that the presence of profanity in the player-character is higher (M=11.33, SD = 4.81) than its absence (M=10.04, SD=4.83), the same occurs with the enemies (M=11.25, SD = 4.84 vs. M=10.13, SD=4.82).

The second two-way ANOVA examined aggressive cognition as measured by the word completion task. There was no significant main effect or interaction effect. IMO, this is rather curious as I vaguely recall similar results from other studies. When I have the time, I should dig my library and find out or read the meta-analysis studies. But the authors noted that all participants played a violent videogame which suggest a ceiling effect, a good explanation IMO.

The third two-way ANOVA examined aggressive affect as measured by the state hostility scale have found a significant main effect. Aggressive affect is higher with the absence of profanity with the enemies (M=2.12, SD = .624) than its presence (M=1.97, SD = .577). This is quite a weird result.

The fourth two-way ANOVA examined arousal as reported by the participants. There was no significant effects.

The fifth two-way ANOVA examined enjoyment as reported by the participants. There were no main effects, but there was significant interaction effects. Enjoyment was higher when the player-character and the enemies were not profane (M=3.37, SD=1.31) as compared to profanity being present in the enemies (M=3.04, SD = 1.21). But when the player-character is profane and so are the enemies, enjoyment is higher (M=3.23, SD=1.24) as compared to profanity being absent (M=2.97, SD=1.22).

The authors repeated the five ANOVAs to examine whether individual differences may have a role in the relationship between profanity and the variables of interests. These individual differences were gender, aggressive personality, and videogame experiences (i.e., general, violent, and current use). Each individual difference was examined independently. Gender was not a significant moderator factor. In ANCOVAS, with aggressive personality and videogame experiences as covariates, they found that the interaction effects on enjoyment was no longer significant when aggressive personality or general video game experience was factored in.


The take home message is that profanity in videogames affects your expectations about events and people to be more hostile and it does not matter which videogame characters were profane, the mere presence of profanity is sufficient enough to raise hostile expectations. The authors argued that media violence is not uniquely problematic and that other content like profanity can have similar effects, although the effect sizes were small and there were no effects on some aggression measure which means more research is needed.

The implications from increased hostile expectations can lead to aggressive behaviours. The present study did not measure aggressive behaviours, the authors argued that based on previous research hostile expectations are closely linked to aggressive behaviours within the framework of the General Aggression Model, the theory on aggression. This could potentially to profanity in other types of media, such as television.

The other measures of aggressions, such as aggressive cognition, affect and arousal, does not corresponds with what the General Aggression Model, but the authors offered possible explanations to these non-significant results. The non-significant finding for aggressive cognition may be due to a ceiling effect as all participants played a violent videogame, perhaps there is a difference when compared to a non-violent videogame. The presence of profanity among the enemies decreased aggressive affect which is weird and counter to the theoretical model.It is possible that it might elicit different emotional responses and/or the participants may be biased in their reports as the wording in the questionnaire might make the participants more willful by not being bothered by the profanity. The non-significant for arousal was unsurprising since many violent videogames are exciting.

The authors listed their limitations. First, play time was slightly shorter than the average (IMO). It is possible the longer playtime might have lead to greater effect. Second, a manipulation check would have been great if participants can tell whether profanity can from the player-character or the enemies. Third, they only used a violent videogame, but I don’t recall a non-violent videogame with profanity. It does not fit with the mood IMO. Fourth, they did not vary the intensity or prevalence of profanity, perhaps frequent swearing might have a stronger effect? Fifth, they looked at profanity and not general verbal aggression like the trash talk you hear from other online players. They suggested examining the effects of aggression from online players which can be done experimentally, you just need to pick a recorder, go online, play a lot, record the trash talking and create a soundboard. I remember a German researcher telling me that one of his colleagues tried doing that with German volunteers and didn’t get any effects, he joked because they were too polite to swear others. I also would like to add one more limitation is the probable amateur voice work, I have not heard or seen the experiment, but knowing the available resources of a typical media research lab, participants may have felt differently if they heard profanities from professional voice actors.

I have some ideas for future studies. Varying the source of the communication, whether it is from the videogame characters or players, we can examine the effects of other types of obscenities: racist, sexist, ageist, against sexual minorities among others. Finally, I’d like to see how humor might affect enjoyment or even aggression, it’s hilarious when you hear Morgan Freeman’s voice while playing Call of Duty.

Ivory, A. H., & Kaestle, C. E. (2013). The effects of profanity in violent video games on players’ hostile expectations, aggressive thoughts and feelings, and other responses. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57 (2), 224-241. DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2013.787078

4 thoughts on “Characters’ swearing affect players’ aggression (Ivory et al., 2013)

  1. I would like to know what criteria were used to consider something a “profanity”? Did the researcher’s criteria match the participants? I agree that future studies should explore the effects of individual attitudes towards each type of profanity. Also, it seems likely that observed aggression could have a frustration release effect. That is, if people feel they want to express aggressiveness, seen it might work just as well. Other times it could function as an example or invitation for aggression. This could explain why more aggressiveness was observed in the absence of profanity. Either way it would be interesting to see a future study on the subject.

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