Online videogames these days have integrated many competitive elements: scoreboards, leaderboards, achievements, perks and of course the fundamental play of outscoring your opponents. But it is a question for game scholars whether videogames are fundamentally competitions of skills, abilities or knowledge. Aside from that, the question about the effects of competition is examined by Canadian psychologist grad student Paul Adachi and his advisor Teena Willoughby (Brock University).
The majority of research on the link between video games and aggression has focused on the violent content in games. In contrast, recent experimental research suggests that it is video game competition, not violence, that has the greatest effect on aggression in the short-term. However, no researchers have examined the long-term relationship between video game competition and aggression. In addition, if competition in video games is a significant reason for the link between video game play and aggression, then other competitive activities, such as competitive gambling, also may predict aggression over time. In the current study, we directly assessed the socialization (competitive video game play and competitive gambling predicts aggression over time) versus selection hypotheses (aggression predicts competitive video game play and competitive gambling over time). Adolescents (N = 1,492, 50.8 % female) were surveyed annually from Grade 9 to Grade 12 about their video game play, gambling, and aggressive behaviors. Greater competitive video game play and competitive gambling predicted higher levels of aggression over time, after controlling for previous levels of aggression, supporting the socialization hypothesis. The selection hypothesis also was supported, as aggression predicted greater competitive video game play and competitive gambling over time, after controlling for previous competitive video game play and competitive gambling. Our findings, taken together with the fact that millions of adolescents play competitive video games every day and that competitive gambling may increase as adolescents transition into adulthood, highlight the need for a greater understanding of the relationship between competition and aggression.
I wish I could exert more cognitive effort into reviewing this paper, but I have some compelling matters at hand, so I apologize to readers and the researchers for the quality of this post.
In Adachi & Willoughby’s prior studies, they found evidence that competition in videogames rather violence was the significant factor for aggression in the short-term. Several theories could explain why competition and not violence would lead to aggression. The excitation transfer theory posited that physiological arousal is a mechanism leading to aggression. The authors argued that the frustration stemming from competitive play would increase arousal which can influence aggression. To be more precise what in competitive play is increasing frustration is how players who are being obstructing from winning is the cause of the frustration and in turn the aggression. However, I must point out an experiment by Muller and colleagues (2012) regarding the effects of wins and losses in competitive game. Those who were told they won were more aggressive to the losers than losers to the winners.
Another theory is the cognitive neoassociation model where a thought or cognitive concept can activate other related cognitive concepts. For example, the thought of cats activates related concepts, such as animal, cuteness, warmth, dog, pet, etc. The model posited that repeated associations between these concepts would strengthen in their knowledge model. So the more you associate competition with aggression over time, the stronger they become and the more likely aggression would result from this activation of these thoughts.
The authors noted that they have some experimental evidence linking competition and aggression in the short-term, but there are no evidence for long-term effects of which this study comes in to answer. The authors argued that if competition is a significant reason for the long-term link between videogames and aggression, then perhaps other competitive activities would also lead to aggression, such as competitive gambling.
Another question in this longitudinal study is choice of videogames. Two competing theories are examined. The socialization theory posited that the media influenced later media choices whereas the selection hypothesis posited that individuals’ personality, such as aggressive personality, influenced later media choices.
Participants: 1492 Canadian high school students from Ontario were in their longitudinal study. The students were surveyed once a year for four years. So, these students started at grade 9 and ended at grade 12. I should note that the authors are using the same data that was reported in prior publications. Understandably, the amount of data gathered in this longitudinal project cannot fit into a single publication.
All measures were completed by the students each year.
Sports involvement: a 2-item scale on a 5-point frequency scale asking: how often they participated in organized sports in school and outside school. A bit disappointed about this one, I was hoping which sports they would be involved in, like hockey, football soccer or perhaps wrestling.
Direct aggression: A composite of two scales: a 9-item 4-point scale measure. The other scale is a 4-item on a 5-point scale which was converted into a 4-point for statistical analysis and to create a composite score of direct aggression.
Competitive videogame play: A “yes or no” if they played sports or racing videogames. A second measure was included in the grade 11-12 where students were asked on a 5-point frequency scale for two items: “on an average day, how often do you play sports games?” and “… do you play racing games?”
Non-competitive videogame play: Similar “yes or no” questions from the competitive videogame play questions except that it asked whether they played puzzle, art, building model worlds or quiz videogames. Same second measure for grade 11-12 where students were asked on a 5-point frequency scale.
Violent videogames: Same questions for action and fighting videogames. Although the authors are treating it as a moderator variable.
Frequency of competitive gambling: Same questions for playing cards (e.g., poker, euchre) for money and betting on a sporting event, but only on a 5-point frequency scale.
Frequency of non-competitive gambling: Same questions for entering draws for charity on a 5-point frequency scale.
I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: “I must say that a ‘yes or no’ assessment is very limiting in terms of accuracy and meaning, it would’ve been more meaningful if they’ve played violent videogames on a temporal basis (rarely to regularly)”
The authors reported preliminary analyses mostly correlations supporting their hypotheses.
Their first analyses examined the association between aggression competitive videogame play, competitive gambling over four years and tested the socialization vs. selection theories. To analyze such associations, they conducted a 4-wave autoregressive cross-lagged model (or is it a structural equation model?). They showed a graphical model with so many paths that is confusing for me to assess whether they are doing right or wrong. I don’t even know how or what they are writing about, so I’ll just take their word for it, and I’m pretty sure some reviewers know what they are doing or else it would not even be published. I am digressing here.
To sum it up, competitive videogame play and gambling predicted higher aggression over time, after controlling for previous aggression. Non-competitive videogame and gambling did not predict aggression, after controlling for previous aggression. Conversely, higher levels of aggression predicted competitive videogame play and both types of gambling, after controlling for previous competitive videogame play and both types of gambling, respectively. Control variables across time are sports involvement, parental education, gender and the number of computer in home. But is the selection model effects or socialization model effects stronger than the other? They compared the models and found they were not significantly different.
The authors examined data from grade 11-12 because they can look at the frequency data unlike the “yes or no” data from grade 9-10. They applied the same control variables (i.e., sports involvement, parental education, number of computers in home and gender). They found that more frequent competitive videogame play and gambling predicted higher aggression over time, after controlling for previous aggression. Non-competitive videogame play and gambling did not predict aggression. Conversely, higher levels of aggression predict more frequent competitive videogame play and both types of gambling over time, after controlling for previous competitive videogame play and both types of gambling, respectively. But is the selection model effects or socialization model effects stronger than the other? They compared the models and found were not significantly different.
So what about violent videogame play, those action and fighting games? The authors played no moderating role in the analyses. They also examined whether gender played a moderating role and found none.
The take home message is a sort of spiral effect over time where high aggression predicted more frequent competitive videogame play over time and competitive videogame play predicted higher aggression over time, so there are bidirectional effects. Furthermore, the relation is true for other activities with competitive elements, in this case, competitive gambling. Non-competitive gaming and gambling did not have any predictive effect on aggression.
The authors suggested looking for mediators, such as frustration and arousal. Another mediator is whether sustained playing in competitive activities would strengthen the link between competition and aggression over time. They suggested using the implicit association test (IAT) as a method to examine this idea that competition and aggression are implicitly linked in people’ knowledge structure. However, a certain faculty member at OSU would disagree on the use of the IAT and would tell me to use a better alternative.
Some limitations to be aware of: self-reports on all of their measures, so accurate assessments need to be taken with grains of salt. A possible concern is that maybe a few sports and racing games might contain a few aggressive or violent content which could confound their results. But the authors countered this as unlikely (I agree). The results are generalizable to high school populations in Ontario.
Some stray thoughts I’d like to add is whether there are any truly violent and non-competitive videogames at this point of history. Many popular videogames have online multiplayer options where players can enjoy the game with friends or compete with strangers. I do wonder what are the statistics, features and popularity of competitive videogames, I don’t ever recall any such studies. Leaderboards, rankings, and even player statistics (.e.g, Kill-death ratio) can induce competitiveness among players. There is a lot of social comparisons going on between one person and the masses, that perhaps downward comparisons is what is driving people to aggress one and another.
Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2013). Demolishing the competition: The longitudinal link between competitive video games, competitive gambling, and aggression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42 (7), 1090-1104. DOI:10.1007/s10964-013-9952-2