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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.

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.

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.

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 www.psychologyofgames.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JamieMadigan.

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