Gamers with a preference for violent games tend to display higher levels of verbal aggression and hostility but not higher levels of physical aggression, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. Interestingly, while narcissistic traits were linked to aggressive behaviors, the choice of video games didn’t mediate the relationship between personality traits and aggression, suggesting both personality and game choice independently contribute to aggressive tendencies.
Video games have become a ubiquitous form of entertainment in today’s digital age. With an array of gaming genres available, from action-packed shooters to peaceful simulations, individuals have diverse options to satisfy their gaming preferences. However, questions about whether certain video games, particularly violent ones, might contribute to aggressive behavior have loomed for years.
Research on the impact of video games on aggression has yielded mixed results over the years. Some studies suggested that violent video games might be linked to aggressive thoughts and behaviors, while others found no substantial evidence of this connection.
Given the ongoing debate and the potential influence of personality traits on our behavior, the researchers set out to explore this complex relationship. They wanted to determine whether the types of video games people choose to play are related to their levels of narcissism and self-esteem, and whether this, in turn, affects their aggression levels.
“My first interest in the topic of violent video games started when I noticed video games were being used as a scapegoat for violent behavior – particularly the shootings in the United States,” explained study author Szymon Olejarnik (@SOlejarnik), computer science PhD student at the University of Nottingham.
“I then started digging in the psychological literature on the matter. I noticed that although past findings refute the idea of violent video games being the cause of real-life violence, the methodology was often not something I agreed with. Particularly, many studies opted in to use screen time as a measure of exposure – a measure not sensitive to the type of content consumed. So, I became interested in how the actual content is measured and how this has an impact. Hence why we used PEGI ratings, since this is what consumers, for example parents, are guided by.”
The researchers conducted this study with a sample of 166 participants, consisting of 113 males and 53 females, with an average age of 25.2 years. The participants were recruited through online platforms such as Reddit and Discord, where they voluntarily chose to participate in the study. The inclusion criterion for participation was that individuals must actively play video games.
Participants first completed a basic questionnaire, providing information about their age, gender, country of origin, and the amount of time they spent playing video games per week. Next, they completed a series of psychological assessments, which were presented in a counterbalanced order to minimize order effects.
The Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire was used to measure the level of aggression in each participant. It consisted of 29 items across four dimensions: physical aggression (e.g., ” Once in a while, I can’t control the urge to strike another person”), verbal aggression (e.g. “I can’t help getting into arguments when people disagree with me”), anger (e.g., “Sometimes I fly off the handle for no good reason”), and hostility (e.g., “I am suspicious of overly friendly strangers”).
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory-16 was used to measure narcissism levels in participants, while the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale was used to measure self-esteem. The Gaming Instinctual Motivational Scale assessed motivations behind video game engagement.
Participants also reported their three favorite video games, and the researchers classified these games as either violent or non-violent based on their PEGI (Pan European Game Information) ratings. If PEGI ratings were not available, ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) ratings or gameplay observations were used to determine the violence level of the games.
One of the key findings was that the type of video games people choose to play is indeed related to their aggression levels. Participants who played more violent video games tended to exhibit higher levels of verbal aggression and hostility.
The study also revealed that heightened narcissism was linked to higher levels of anger, physical aggression, and verbal aggression. On the other hand, low self-esteem, which reflects how positively or negatively we see ourselves, was associated with higher levels of hostility.
The researchers found that violent video game choice did not act as a mediator between narcissism or self-esteem and aggression. This means that personality traits had a direct influence on aggression, and the choice of video games did not significantly impact this relationship.
“We were surprised about the overlap between personality traits and exposure to violent video games,” Olejarnik said. “We found that the number of violent video games played correlated with aggression dimensions to the same extent as personality traits like narcissism and self-esteem. This not only suggests that aggressive behaviours are dependent on personality traits, but also that playing violent video games might be an additional factor that can contribute to aggressive behaviors.”
The researchers also found that the motivation to “be a thief or killer” was the most strongly associated with aggression. In other words, those who were drawn to games where they could take on such roles tended to exhibit higher levels of aggression. This suggests that some individuals are drawn to violent video games as a way to put themselves in roles that society generally deems unacceptable, possibly seeking a form of escapism.
“The crucial finding is that the number of violent video games you’re exposed to has an influence on your verbal aggression and hostility,” Olejarnik told PsyPost. “The more violent video games you play, the more likely you are to be hostile and verbally aggressive in your behavior. This is also true for low self-esteem and/or high narcissism individuals. It also seems that players pick up violent video games to immerse themselves in undesirable roles, like thieves or killers.”
Like any scientific study, this one has its limitations. It predominantly focused on a U.S.-based sample, so the findings may not apply universally. Additionally, the choice of aggressive gaming motivations might not have captured the full spectrum of players’ motivations.
“It’s very important to stress that our findings are not causal,” Olejarnik noted. “We do not have the evidence to say that violent video games cause verbal aggression or hostility. They are related to one another, but there could be something else that truly causes these behaviours to arise. Also, as intuitive as it would be to assume violent video games cause real-life aggression, we did not find anything to support this notion, as there was no relationship between physical aggression and violent video game choice.”
While the research doesn’t establish a causal relationship, it highlights the importance of considering personality traits when examining the potential effects of these games. It also emphasizes the need for continued research in this area, especially regarding the motivations behind choosing violent video games and their unique impact on individuals.
“We hope that our study not only will lead to more informed choices parents make with regards to violent video game exposure of their children, but that we also reintroduce the study of video games and their impact on behaviour, testing actual content exposure, rather than just screen time,” Olejarnik said.
The study, “Is playing violent video games a risk factor for aggressive behaviour? Adding narcissism, self-esteem and PEGI ratings to the debate“, was authored by Szymon Zbigniew Olejarnik and Daniela Romano.