The Psychological Appeal of Violent Shooters

Jamie Madigan asks why headshots, loadouts and military themes are so attractive to video game players

As anyone who has accidentally walked into a room full of children can tell you, they're good at asking the kinds of questions that just keep drilling down. "Why is the sky blue? So why does blue light get scattered more? Then why is the sky red at sunset? Where are you going?"

"Competence is communicated by immediate and unambiguous positive feedback in response to your actions. The headshot is particularly effective in this regard"

And although I don't recommend it, if you were to sit one of these little buggers down with a quarterly earnings reports from EA or Activision, they might soon start asking "Why are violent video games so much more popular than other games?" It's a tricky question to answer without falling down the why hole. Because shooting stuff is fun. Why is it fun? Because people like military themes where they can be the hero. Okay, but why is that? Because players like feeling ridiculously powerful and enormous guns let them do that. But why is that appealing? Why, why, why?

Well, some psychologists are trying to tease apart the reasons why violence sells without throwing their hands up and shouting "Just because! And I'm not even your real dad!" Researchers Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan describe how they think that the design of violent games - especially shooters - naturally does a pretty good job of satisfying some very basic psychological needs. But not in the way you may be thinking.

Remember that skull modifier that made headshots on Halo's grunts explode into a spray of confetti? That's some super-effective feedback on competence.

Remember that skull modifier that made headshots on Halo's grunts explode into a spray of confetti? That's some super-effective feedback on competence.

In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, Rigby and Ryan describe "self-determination theory," a fairly well established framework that aims to describe why people pursue certain voluntary activities. In part, self-determination theory says that people are motivated to engage in activities to the extent that they satisfy three psychological needs:

  • 1. Competence - progressing in skill and power.
  • 2. Autonomy - being able to choose from multiple, meaningful options.
  • 3. Relatedness - feeling important to others.

What does this have to do with violent shooters? Rigby, Ryan, and their colleagues argue that many of the design principles of good shooters also happen to follow well worn paths to satisfying these three psychological needs. Let's take a closer look.

Competence is communicated by immediate and unambiguous positive feedback in response to your actions - you see opponents stagger, see blood fly off them, and ultimately see them collapse. The beloved headshot is particularly effective in this regard. Scott Rigby notes, "I'll often put up a slide with a great screenshot of a headshot, and it always elicits smiles. The smiles here aren't because everyone is sadistic - they are because this is a moment of mastery satisfaction that all gamers can related to. The blood may not be the value component, but really is just a traditional way dense informational feedback on mastery is provided." Information about competence in shooters is also thrown at you in the form of scoreboards, rankings, weapon unlocks, and eventually the outcome of every (relatively short) match.

"It's not fetishising guns and explosions as much as it is the ability to use tactics and choose among meaningful options on the road to victory"

Autonomy, the second motivator in self-determination theory, is also well served by the design of most popular shooters. Having the option to choose many different paths through a level satisfies autonomy, as does choosing between different classes, different loadouts, or different tactics. In a lot of games you can even choose between different modes, modifiers, or maps, allowing you to satisfy the need to play a game how you please. And if that's not enough, custom character or weapon skins or models also fit in here.

Finally, relatedness is most obviously important in multiplayer games where you can feel like part of a successful (or, perhaps more likely of pickup games, incompetent) team bound together by opposition to a common foe. To the extent that shooters communicate your contributions in the forms of scores, points, server-wide notifications, or MVP awards, relatedness will be satisfied - to say nothing of what you can get out of text and voice chat. But even most modern shooters have single player campaigns that somewhat mimic this and put you in the role of someone important to those around you.

Call of Duty games let you customise loadouts and weapons to scratch the itch for autonomy.

Call of Duty games let you customise loadouts and weapons to scratch the itch for autonomy.

Of course, none of these motivators is unique to shooters. They show up in good game design across all genres and themes. But violent shooters usually hit on all three, and Rigby and Ryan believe that's there's a big overlap between what makes an effective shooter and what satisfies multiple facets of all three of these psychological needs. So while RPGs might nail autonomy, platformers may demand competence, and MMOs may allow the most relatedness, violent shooters fire on all three cylinders.

"[Violent games] are fun not because of the blood and gore," write Rigby and Ryan, "but because games of war and combat offer so many opportunities to feel autonomy, competence, and the relatedness of camaraderie rolled up into an epic heroic experience." But, that all said, do shooters satisfy all these motivators so well because they're violent?

It's an important question, and Ryan, Rigby, and their colleague Andrew Przybylski published a 2009 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that addresses it. Part of their research involved a clever experiment where they modified Half-Life 2 to create a high-violence version of the game's multiplayer and a low-violence version. The high violence version is pretty much what you'd expect. The low violence one, though, was created by changing the bullet-spewing guns into "tag" tools that players would use to zap opponents. Once tagged, foes would freeze and float up into the air for a second before being harmlessly teleported to a "penalty box" where they would wait to respawn into the game. So the main difference - arguably the only difference - between the two groups was how much violence there was in the game. Everything else was the same: the level layouts, the controls, and all the other stuff that satisfied competence and autonomy (unfortunately they didn't examine relatedness). Only the violence was teased out of the equation

What did they find? Well, a lot of things. But one interesting finding was that the games in either condition were found enjoyable and both games satisfied the basic psychological needs of competence and autonomy. Even whether or not a person was naturally aggressive and normally enjoyed violent games didn't matter once you accounted for competence and autonomy.

How fun would Half-Life 2 Deathmatch be if you gently tagged other players out by flinging toilets at them instead of shooting them? Still pretty fun, as it turns out.

How fun would Half-Life 2 Deathmatch be if you gently tagged other players out by flinging toilets at them instead of shooting them? Still pretty fun, as it turns out.

To me, this is vastly interesting and argues for alternatives to the go-to trope of violence and gore if you're looking to draw people to games. It's not the bloodshed as much as it is feeling like you're able to make what you want happen on-screen. It's not fetishising guns and explosions as much as it is the ability to use tactics and choose among meaningful options on the road to victory. It's not the military themes as much as it is feeling like you're an important part of a team.

Sure, war and military heroism are themes and experiences worthy of exploration, but there are other options that can be just as effective. Gamers may be happy to just keep buying the same game over and over again without understanding a thing about self determination theory, and publishers may only want to greenlight games that look like smash hits from the past without caring about mechanisms for satisfying psychological needs, but developers who think about these things and play around with them can definitely do something both great and different.

Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and video games at Follow him on Twitter: @JamieMadigan.

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Latest comments (14)

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments9 years ago
@Eric - "MOBA" is the generic term for the DOTA genre :
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I see gameplay as being a core reason. The core gameplay elements such as aiming/positioning (a crosshair over something on the screen), dodging, and moving around a 3D environment all work really well (in raw gameplay terms). Combine all three, and you have the basis for a shooter. It just works well as far as current control schemes and TVs/monitors go.
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe9 years ago
Violence is never necessary. Sometimes it fits into the setting or the focus of the game. Still I say extreme level of violence as shown in some recent games again is simply not required either for your visuals or storytelling. All three factors (Competence, Autonomy, Relatedness) can be experienced while playing a game without a single bit of gore, splattering heads or ripped off spines.

Unfortunately the report is true where it says too many simply copy what worked in the past and only try to succeed itself with even more violence and gore.
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Show all comments (14)
David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers9 years ago
To speak to this whole MOBA/DotA thing, I think that while DotA was the general genre name when those sorts of games were very new, Valve claiming the DotA Name for Dota 2 has pushed people to embrace other names, so MOBA has become the accepted term.
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Stephen Richards Game Deisgner 9 years ago
This psychological analysis is all very well, but I think a large part of the truth may be uncomforatbly simple: people enjoy violence. It's why we used to watch live fights-to-the-death in arenas and it's why we still watch Hollywood action films. It's simply the way evolution has molded us.

Not that I want to undermine this research. I'm sure it has much to enlighten us about, but there's no point having a clear conscience in the hope that it'll somehow turn out there's no link between violence and human satisfaction.
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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 9 years ago
This article helps explain why multiplayer games have taken precedence to single-player games. They're mature, they appeal to the mature mind. Why? Why does Call of Duty appeal to a mature mind if it's all about gore and guts? Because it's not about gore Nd guts, it's about tactics and skill. I think you're right, the headshot is a perfect display of mastery. It implies skill.

Blah, blah, blah multiplayer gaming is mature because it forces one human to outwit another.
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Daniel Laughlin Executive Secretary, Subcommitte on Digital Gaming Technology, National Science and Technology Council9 years ago
I think the focus on the violence in the article distracts from the significant points about the psychological need fulfillment. Violent or not, games can supply the need to feel competent, in control and "valuable" by letting you develop and demonstrate skill mastery. The nature of school and work seldom give that sort of psycholical feedback in meaningful time scale. That's the reals significance of this research.
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Juan J Valverde Freelance (looking for full-time) 9 years ago
Not only the hree reasons from the article are important in FPS. I would like to add a another reason for the likeability of FPS: War is a very understandable concept. FPS are quite easy to grasp for everybody. It has nothing to do with violence but with how easy is to get involved in the game mechanics. Even a football match is much more complicated because you need to know the rules. War, on the other hand, is quite simple: defeat the enemy-no rules (hence the cheaters trying to gaind advantage even hacking tha game or trying every thinkable trick).

Donīt understimate how easy is the Call of Duty gameplay for beginners. Just pick up a weapon and go for the enemy. Experience players are those who have had success in the game and adquire the right level of competence and still winning. Those frustrated because didnīt adquire the necessary level competence usually drop the game after a while. But, For me, it has nothing to do with violence but with how easy it is.

Just my two cents
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Brett Caird Production Director/Founder, 5th Cell9 years ago
Combining some themes posted by Stephen and Juan above - I would contend that saying people enjoy violence may be loosely true, but the source of that isn't so much a question of generational or social conditioning to revel in pain. Rather, people psychologically need conflict to be intrigued, and war is an easy context for expressing conflict which people can relate to immediately.

Without conflict a story is dull, and the same is true for a game. Whether it is the conflict of war, or the conflict of time and gravity as Tetris blocks fall and need to be optimally placed. War just requires less explanation.

The theme/setting/context is a marketing consideration, people are more likely to pay attention to something that is relatable to them or is quickly and easily understandable. This is why licenses sell, and familiar settings sell. This has almost nothing to do with what keeps people playing a game however, that's all about scratching psychological itches.

Violence only sells because people are used to violence, so it is familiar and (ironically) feels "safe" as something to invest entertainment time or money in.
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David Serrano Freelancer 9 years ago
@Benjamin Crause

Exactly. This theory can be applied to widely acknowledged forms of play which involve absolutely no violence.

I mean... AAA designers and developers need to take off the rose-coloured glasses and take a long, hard look at the core games on the market, the sales stats and the demographics of the existing audience. If violence / combat themed competition is so attractive to the average person in the existing and potential audiences, then why do the vast majority of these games now only sell to a single digit percentage of the existing audience? Why hasn't the core market experienced any growth in years while other segments of the market continue to grow? It has nothing to do with the economy or outdated hardware. As long as the AAA development community views hardcore violence / combat themed competition as the only "legitimate" form of play, the games, the demographics and the size of the audience will never diversify, evolve or grow.

So instead of attempting to use a new theory like this to justify a design philosophy which the vast majority of consumers have consistently rejected for years now, use it as ammunition in the argument about why AAA games must change in order to appeal to the majority of the existing audience and to the potential audience.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 9 years ago
Sometimes you just want to shoot a virtual mofo in the head. It can be very satisfying and a nice stress reliver.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Why hasn't the core market experienced any growth in years while other segments of the market continue to grow?
Has growth really completely stopped in the core market? My understanding is that it's simply been growing a lot slower over the last few years than newer markets, such as casual games.

If that's the real case, it's easily explicable by the core gaming market being considerably more mature. A few years ago there were an enormous number of adults (say, people 25 or older) who were potential consumers of casual games but had not yet been exposed to them or didn't have a platform on which to play them. Whereas I don't think that for a long time there have been many at all in that age bracket who would be core gamers except for lack of exposure or platform availability.

In first-world countries, where smartphones are just in the last year or two getting near market saturation, you're going to see casual games achieve market saturation soon and then that market's growth rate will also drop to the rate at which children grow up and buy their first devices.
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Private Industry 9 years ago
Millions of people also enjoy jumping on mushrooms and turtles in Super Mario games. :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Private on 11th April 2013 3:03am

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
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