There's just something really funny about watching my parents go head-to-head in a game of Mario Kart on their Wii. Maybe it has something to do with my mom choosing to play as Princess Peach and my dad driving as Bowser. Or perhaps it is how my mom yells at my dad for bumping her off the track right before she throws a bomb at his kart. I was recently at their house for a visit and threw my Yoshi character in the mix, and we got to talking about how the game brings out our competitive natures. Afterwards, I got curious and looked to see if there was any scientific literature on the competitive compulsion brought out by Mario Kart. The answer is...well, kinda.
In 2011, a study was published by the American Psychological Association that compared video game competition and violence to see which had the greatest influence on aggressive behavior. The topic of violence in video games as it relates to aggressive behavior is not a new one. In fact, there is a comprehensive theory on the association between violent video games and aggression called the General Aggression Model (GAM), which was adapted from past theories of aggression. This model describes "a cyclical relationship between an individual and the environment, in which person variables such as trait hostility, as well as situation variables such as exposure to real-world or media violence (e.g., violent video games), interact to influence an individual's present internal state." This internal state includes cognition (aggressive scripts or hostile thoughts), affect (anger and frustration), and arousal (elevated heart rate or blood pressure). These all act together to influence an individuals aggressive behavior, and violent video games function as a situation variable in this model. However, there is not a consensus as to whether or not there is a relation between violent video game play and aggression. Also, previous studies have not teased apart aggression and competitiveness.
This study defined a violent game as including violent acts such as fighting, shooting, and killing. Competitive acts were those against other players or computer-controlled opponents. The difficulty of the game was defined as how difficult the game was to complete successfully. The game's pace of action was the rate of speed of the action sequences. These four game characteristics were identified as mechanisms that may influence aggressive behavior. Okay, I'm on board with that. You? Next they needed a test to assess aggression. Before reading this study, I was not aware of the Hot Sauce Paradigm, but I'm glad I know it now and love that they used it here. In the Hot Sauce Paradigm, the participant is given an already completed food preference questionnaire and told that it was completed by another participant (who does not like hot/spicy food). They are then given four bottles of hot sauce ranked in terms of hotness and then told to choose one of the four bottles and mix up some hot sauce for the other participant to drink. The amount of hot sauce and its degree of hotness is an indicator of overt aggressive behavior that does not have a competitive benefit.
With these terms and tests defined, the researchers conducted a couple of experiments. In the first experiment they had 42 college students play one of two video games, Conan or Fuel, for 12 minutes. These games are equally competitive and difficult and had a similar pace of action, but they differed in their levels of violence. After playing the game, a student then took the hot sauce test. This test showed no significant difference in the intensity and amount of the hot sauces administered by players of either game, suggesting that video game violence does not elevate aggressive behavior. In a second experiment, the researchers had 60 students play one of four video games: Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe (highly competitive and violent), Left 4 Dead 2 (less competitive violent), Marble Blast Ultra (less competitive nonviolent), and Fuel (highly competitive nonviolent). They found that the participants that played the highly competitive games made significantly more of a hotter sauce than those who played less competitive games, and they had significantly higher heart rates. This suggests that it is the competitive nature of a game, rather than its violence that causes aggressive behavior. However, the mechanisms of this relationship was not explored and needs further study.
If you want to look at the competitive nature itself a little more closely then there is a great study from back in 1995 that looks at cooperation versus competition. In 1993, Morton Deutsch summarized research on the role of competitive circumstances as precursors to destructive patterns relating to violence that is referred to as Deutsch's theory of competition effects. He argues that one way of creating a more peaceful society is to build more cooperation and less competition. Makes sense. People tend to think of competitive situations as more aggressive than cooperative ones. In this study the researchers tested this by giving participants competitive versus cooperative instructions and then having them play Super Mario Brothers. The participants played the game in pairs, and each participant took turns playing the game. When they were told to be competitive their goal was to get their character further in the game than the other participant, with each participant using a different character (Mario or Luigi). When they were told to play the game cooperatively their goal was to get as far in the game as possible together, taking turns playing the same character. After each round of gaming, the participants were then given questionnaires to assess their perception of the video game, that included an interpersonal liking scale, and to assess their hostility/agreeableness mood. The study found that participants in the competitive condition killed 60 percent more enemies creatures in the game than did those participants in the cooperative condition. People in the competitive condition also rated the game as slightly less enjoyable. Interestingly, females reported that they felt more agreeable after playing the cooperative game, whereas males felt less agreeable after cooperative gaming.
At the end of the day, what knowledge to we gain from this? Perhaps it is the same as with most scientific studies: more study is needed. I don't know. I'm not a psychologist. I do know, however, that in our nonviolent, highly competitive games of Mario Kart that there is a lot of laughing along with the bombing, inking, and shelling of our digital counterparts. What do you think?
Paul J. C. Adachi and Teena Willoughby (2011). The Effect of Video Game Competition and Violence on Aggressive Behavior: Which Characteristic Has the Greatest Influence? Psychology of Violence, 1 (4), 259-274 DOI: 10.1037/a0024908
Craig A. Anderson and Melissa Morrow (1995). Competitive Aggression without Interaction: Effects of Competitive Versus Cooperative Instructions on Aggressive Behavior in Video Games Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21 (10), 1020-1030 DOI: 10.1177/01461672952110003
(image by Marcin Klicki via CoolVibe)