Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Video games and emotion

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Video games and emotion:
How do video games affect players' emotions?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Video games are a well-known and well used art form, with 59% of Americans now playing some sort of video game (Entertainment Software Association, 2015). There has been a significant amount of research into the field of gaming and emotions, both positive and negative. But why are video games so emotionally affective?  The majority of the U.S. population now play video games, so there must be something that hooks people in and keeps them playing. But then how could they be so positive, when there are numerous studies that find that games can make people angry and aggressive? This chapter attempts to understand the controversy surrounding emotions and video games.

Figure 1: Candy Crush on the iPad

An introduction to modern video games[edit | edit source]

Video games are a media art form and are a $91.5 billion dollar industry world wide (Sinclair, 2015). The term ‘video game’ generally brings up thoughts of consoles, Call of Duty images, and adolescent males playing in front of a big screen. Realistically though, most people play video games on a regular basis. According to the Entertainment Software Association 2015 statistics, four out of five U.S. homes have a device to play video games and the average age of a gamer is 35 years old, with 74% older than 18 years. 

So much has changed in the gaming industry since the 1980s, and now almost everyone plays some kind of video game. Social games such as Words With Friends and free-to-play puzzle games like Candy Crush (see Figure 1) have been downloaded tens of millions of times. Mobile and wireless devices now make up a combined 66% of the most frequent gaming devices in the U.S. and continue to make more money than console games (Gaudiosi, 2015).

Traditional gaming (console and PC gaming) has also come a long way. Graphics are sharper, environments are more immersive, and the stories are more complex. For these reasons, many people are becoming worried about the exposure to violence that players are receiving from video games. Controversy surrounds this topic with researchers finding evidence both for and against the negative affects, such as anger and aggression, of gaming (Przybylski, Ryan, & Rigby, 2009).

What are emotions?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2: Plutchik's wheel of emotion

Emotions are difficult to define. As such, there is no consensus on what defines an emotion (Ekman, 1992). There are, however, a number of aspects that theorists in this area appear to agree on. These include: Emotions have a trigger, emotions have neural systems dedicated to emotion processes, emotions motivate cognition and behaviour, and that there are different types of emotions - basic emotions and emotion schemas. Basic emotions have evolutionary and biological roots, and as such are universal. Emotion schemas differ across individuals and cultures (Izzard, 2009). Although there is acknowledgement for these factors, there are many more aspects that theorists don’t agree on.

Self-conscious emotions are argued to play a central role in socialisation. In this way they are controversial as it can be debated that they are displayed differently culturally and therefore are something that we have learned, as opposed to being innate. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment are three such emotions discussed by Keltner (1995) to be self-conscious emotions. Keltner found evidence that guilt, sadness, and embarrassment could be picked out individually as separate emotions. This was further examined and supported by Tracy and Robin’s (2004) self-conscious emotion theoretical model.

Ekman, a well-known emotion theorist, rebutted the self-conscious emotions as not being evolutionary and therefore not qualifying as emotions. Additionally, one of Ekman’s criteria for an emotion (2011), was that it must have distinctive, universal signals. Ekman believed that guilt undifferentiated from sadness on the face, so therefore could not be its own emotion. Ekman had his own basic emotions which included: joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust, with other affective states as variations of these.

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions (see Figure 2) shows an array of emotions and the relationship between them. His model incorporates trust and anticipation (Plutchik, 2001) and shows the higher intensity emotions as well as milder ones. According to Plutchik, every emotion has a polar opposite. So joy is the opposite of sadness, fear is the opposite of anger, and so on. Plutchik states that emotions are much more complex than many people realise.

How good are you at recognising emotions? 

Positive emotions in video games[edit | edit source]

The ideal self[edit | edit source]

In psychology, there is the concept of the ‘self’. The self consists of a person's conscious and unconscious aspects. It contains their personality, thoughts, and feelings. One person can have many different selves; two of which include the actual and ideal self. The actual self is how the person sees themselves, their self-concept. The ideal self is the person they want to be. When the actual self is different from the ideal self, we experience incongruence which leads to mental distress or anxiety.

Video games allow players to experience ideal aspects of themselves that they’re not necessarily able to in real life (Przybylski, Weinstein, Murayama, Lynch and Ryan, 2011). Video games can allow someone to be a gangster (such as in Grand Theft Auto), allow them to choose different social roles (The Sims), or become a hero of worlds. Additionally, the more the character reflects the player’s ideal self, the more rewarding the game becomes (Jin, 2009). 

Figure 3: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a motivation model that discusses intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It is concerned with distinguishing different types of motivation based on the different goals or reasons for taking part in the behaviour (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is used when the person is doing something inherently interesting and enjoyable. Extrinsic motivation is used when there is an outcome that the person wants to achieve.

People are happier doing tasks that they find intrinsically motivating, as they find it inherently interesting or enjoyable. SDT ties in with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, arguing that taking part in intrinsically motivating activities fulfils our psychological needs by satisfying the innate needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The need for autonomy refers to free choice and deciding what you participate in. The need for competence refers to a sense of efficacy over events and tasks. The need for relatedness refers to the connection and caring for others, and the sense that they care for you (Ryan, Huta & Deci, 2008). When these psychological needs are met, it fosters well-being, growth, and mental health. 

Video games have the potential to create a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. A study conducted by Ryan, Rigby, and Przybylski (2006) showed that players who played single player games enjoyed the satisfaction of both competency and autonomy, while players who participated in multiplayer games reported satisfaction in all three areas. Post play, the researchers found that both game enjoyment and preference for future play were significantly accounted for by psychological need satisfactions. Interestingly, a follow up study was carried out again by Przybylski, Rigby, and Ryan (2010) that looked specifically at violent video games. They found that there was less satisfaction from players based on psychological needs. 

Regulating mood[edit | edit source]

It’s no secret that media can change our emotions. Watching a comedy movie will often lift our mood while watching a tragedy will produce sad emotions. Video games lead people into an immersive environment which produces the same effect. Even casual games can relieve stress, improve mood, and help prevent anxiety (Engels, Graic & Lobel, 2014). Players with preferred games or genres have also reported an increase in positive emotion and mood. 

Video games can also bring about a more positive mood after a frustrating task or experience. This is better known as mood repair. Video games can give a sense of achievement and autonomy that drives mood repair (Rieger, Wulf, Kneer, Frischlich, & Bente, 2014). Mood repair is driven by achievement and success in video games whereas enjoyment is driven by need satisfaction, which is defined in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Belonging[edit | edit source]

Although not an emotion in and of itself, belonging is a powerful motivator for off-setting anxiety and the fear of being alone (Hofmann, 2014). Video games create an online community and shared interest that anyone can become involved in (Blanchard, 2008). They create their own norms and players that are part of this virtual community will tend to experience positive affect and feelings of acceptance in the community or group. What’s more, being an online group, members can participate from all over the world regardless of where they are. Belonging also satisfies one of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (see Figure 3) and ties into self-determination theory.  

Negative emotions in video games[edit | edit source]

Anger and Aggression[edit | edit source]

One of the most controversial topics surrounding video games is the amount of violence and subsequent effect on players, specifically adolescent males. Many studies have found that playing violent video games can result in more aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Video games are becoming more realistic and immersive through new technology and better game design; this leads to more realistic violent games in more influential environments. 

Violent video games often increase negative affect in players and raise their levels of physiological arousal (Panee, Ballard, Nivens, & Hamby, 2006). This arousal is useful for situations where a threat is present, but when it is produced through violent or stressful video games, the arousal is often misattributed to other real world scenarios. This can result in more aggressive behaviour from the player in the real world (Panee, Ballard, Nivens, & Hamby, 2006). As a result, the player can also suffer from high levels of anxiety. 

Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a major franchise of games which glorifies behaviour such as stealing, drug dealing, abuse, and sexism towards women (Tassi, 2014). It isn’t all bad though, as you can ignore the violence for a while and just head over to Ten Pin Bowling. Lull and Bushman (2014) conducted a study with two groups of participants where one was required to play GTA in a deliberately violent manner, and the other was given instructions to head to the bowling alley. They found significantly higher levels of anger in those who deliberately played in a violent manner than those who went bowling. This difference was increased again when one group was given a larger TV to play on, and even more on a 3D TV, as it was thought to be a more immersive environment.

According to Demirok, Ozdamli, Hursen, Ozcinar, Kutguner, and Uzunboylu (2012), playing video games for longer periods of time can result in higher levels of trait anger in school children. Trait anger describes the number of situations in which an individual gets angry or frustrated. Children playing for two hours or more show higher levels of trait anger than children playing for thirty minutes or less a day. Trait anger does not always become external anger, however, so it is not expressed. Interestingly, the type of genre played does not appear to increase external anger but does increase trait anger. This phenomenon is present in school children, but does not seem to occur in adults. Adults in testing show no significant increase in anger for playing a short versus long amount of time (Devilly, Callahan, & Armitage, 2012).

Guilt[edit | edit source]

Evidence shows that through compelling their characters to perform immoral actions, players can feel guilt. For example, murdering a character or sleeping around can give the players real feelings of fear, sadness, shame, or guilt (Mahood & Hanus, 2015). When players become emotionally involved in the narrative of the game, this phenomenon increases in intensity. This illustrates transportation theory, where players get so caught up in a story that their emotions, attitudes, and behaviours change to reflect their story. 

Theory summary[edit | edit source]

Theories of emotion tend to agree that emotion is linked to motivation and behaviour. For example if someone feels sad because they have become lonely, they are motivated to leave that sad state by meeting other people. Likewise, if someone is experiencing a positive emotion, they are likely to continue to do whatever created the positive emotion (Gordijn, Yzerbyt, Dumont, & Wigboldus, 2003). However, players appear to go against this trend. In a violent game, players can feel negative emotions such as anger or fear, but they continue to play anyway. It appears the enjoyment and gratification that the player experiences from these games overrides their tendency to withdraw or avoid the negative emotions (Jansz, 2005).

Research bias[edit | edit source]

When most people think of the effects of video games they immediately think of negative affect, such as anger and aggression, especially in children. With video game violence and graphics becoming more and more sophisticated, it makes sense that there is concern for what this could be doing to our brains. However, recent studies have recognised this phenomenon and instigated research to combat it (Bennerstedt, Ivarsson & Linderoth, 2011). Both sides have essentially the same goal, to examine the effects of video game play after the game has finished, but with mixed findings (Ferguson, 2015). There is compelling evidence to show that violent video games produce anger and aggression, but there is also strong evidence demonstrating that action games have significant benefits for our brains. Video games can impact emotion and mood for the better but this is still an under researched area.

Quiz![edit | edit source]

1 Emotions are easily definable


2 Video games (select all that apply)

Are a way for players to try on different 'selves'
Can make players feel guilt over behaviours that their characters performed
Are an $80 billion dollar industry
Have been heavily researched regarding negative affects to the player

3 Theorists have found that (select one)

Increased violence is linked with video games
Violent video games can raise physiological arousal and lead to aggression through misattribution
Aggression in players is in no way linked to video games
Playing video games for more than three hours a day is a great way to deal with stress

Implications[edit | edit source]

Gamers are likely to dismiss all findings that point to a correlation between video game play and aggression (Nauroth, Gollwitzer, Bender, & Rothmund, 2014). However, it is important to acknowledge that even with mixed findings, there is still too much evidence for the link between anger and video games to dismiss.

People that frequently play violent or horror games should be aware that their bodies will experience increased physiological arousal due to these games (Lull & Bushman, 2014). In this way, they will be less likely to misattribute this arousal to other situations, which may lead to aggression. It is interesting to note that Przybylski et al. (2009) conducted a study that argued that more aggressive people are drawn to violent video games, and not the other way around. 

Due to early studies (Bennerstedt, Ivarsson & Linderoth, 2011), the media has made it clear that video games are harmful to children in particular. This needs to be revisited and clarified so that parents are not afraid of introducing their children to them. Video games do have the potential to be harmful, but they also have the potential to be very beneficial (Rieger, Wulf, Kneer, Frischlich, & Bente, 2014). Parents need to monitor the amount of time their children play video games during the day. The recommended gaming time is no more than three hours a day for children (Shapiro, 2014). After that, children can start to report higher levels of anger, and lower levels of life satisfaction (Demirok et al. 2012). 

Video games have the capacity to allow people to be who they want to be, regardless of their current situation. They give a sense of autonomy and competency back to the person who’s playing (Rieger et al. 2014). Because of the feeling of achievement and mastery that people experience, video games could potentially be a very effective treatment for people suffering from high levels of depression, anxiety, or stress (Krämer, Klatt, & Reinecke, 2011).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Video games have been presented for years as having negative affects for players because of the negative research bias. This is a rather controversial stance as many researchers have found mixed or completely opposing results (Ferguson, 2015). Video games can be viewed more evenly as more positive research surfaces about the benefits players receive from these games. Negatively, there is a correlation between video games and aggression. Positively, video games give people a sense of autonomy and control, which could make them very effective at combating things like depression, stress, and anxiety (Krämer et al., 2011). Future studies should continue to look at the benefits of game playing.

Theories of emotion tend to agree that emotion is linked to behaviour and motivation. Someone who is sad will want to leave that state while someone who is happy will try to continue whatever activity made them happy (Gordijn et al. 2003). Video games create a different situation. Players will continue to endure negative emotions such as anger or fear, but will continue to play regardless. In line with the self-determination theory, it appears that the enjoyment and gratification that the player experiences from their game overrides their want to withdraw or avoid the negative emotions (Jansz, 2005).

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Blanchard, A. L. (2008). Testing a model of sense of virtual community. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 2107-2123. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2007.10.002

Bennerstedt, U., Ivarsson, J., Linderoth, J. (2011). How gamers manage aggression: Situating skills in collaborative computer games. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 7(1), 43-61. doi:10.1007/s11412-011-9136-6

Demirok, M., Ozdamli, F., Hursen, C., Ozcinar, Z., Kutguner, M., & Uzunboylu, H. (2012). The relationship of computer games and reported anger in young people. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 22(1), 33-43.

Devilly, G. J., Callahan, P., & Armitage, G. (2012). The effect of violent videogame playtime on anger. Australian Psychologist, 47(2), 98-107.

Ekman, P. (1992). Are there basic emotions? Psychological Review, 99(3), 550-553. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.99.3.550

Ekman, P., & Cordaro, D. (2011). What is meant by calling emotions basic. Emotion Review, 3(4), 364-370.

Engels, R. C. M. E., Granic, I., & Lobel, A. M. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), 66-78. doi:10.1037/a0034857

Entertainment Software Association (2015). Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry: ESA Retrieved from:

Ferguson, C. J. (2015). Do angry birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game influences on children's and adolescents' aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 10(5), 646-666. doi:10.1177/1745691615592234

Gaudiosi, J. (2015, January 15). Mobile game revenues set to overtake console games in 2015. Fortune

Gordijn, E. H., Yzerbyt, V., Dumont, M., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2003). I feel for us: The impact of categorization and identification on emotions and action tendencies. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42(Pt 4), 533-549.

Hofmann, S. G. (2014). Interpersonal emotion regulation model of mood and anxiety disorders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38(5), 483-492. doi:10.1007/s10608-014-9620-1

Izard, C. E. (2009). Emotion theory and research: Highlights, unanswered questions, and emerging issues. Annual Review of Psychology, 60(1), 1-25. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163539

Jansz, J. (2005). The emotional appeal of violent video games for adolescent males. Communication Theory, 15(3), 219-241. doi:10.1093/ct/15.3.219

Jin, S. A. (2009). Avatars mirroring the actual self versus projecting the ideal self: The effects of self-priming on interactivity and immersion in an exergame, wii fit. Cyberpsychology & Behavior : The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, 12(6), 761.

Krämer, N., Klatt, J., & Reinecke, L. (2011). Entertaining media use and the satisfaction of recovery needs: Recovery outcomes associated with the use of interactive and noninteractive entertaining media. Media Psychology, 14(2), 192-215. doi:10.1080/15213269.2011.573466

Keltner, D. (1995). Signs of appeasement: Evidence for the distinct displays of embarrassment, amusement, and shame. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(3), 441-454. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.68.3.441

Lull, R. B., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Immersed in violence: Presence mediates the effect of 3D violent video gameplay on angry feelings. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, doi:10.1037/ppm0000062

Mahood, C., & Hanus, M. (2015). Role-playing video games and emotion: How transportation into the narrative mediates the relationship between immoral actions and feelings of guilt. (2015). Psychology of Popular Media Culture, doi:10.1037/ppm0000084

Nauroth, P., Gollwitzer, M., Bender, J., & Rothmund, T. (2014). Gamers against science: The case of the violent video games debate: Gamers against science. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(2), 104-116. doi:10.1002/ejsp.1998

Panee, C. D., Ballard, M. E., Nivens, E. E., & Hamby, R. H. (2006). Repeated exposure to video game play results in decreased blood pressure responding. Media Psychology, 8(4), 323-341. doi:10.1207/s1532785xmep0804_1

Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344-350

Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 154-166. doi:10.1037/a0019440

Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N., Murayama, K., Lynch, M. F., & Ryan, R. M. (2012;2011;). The ideal self at play: The appeal of video games that let you be all you can be. Psychological Science, 23(1), 69-76. doi:10.1177/0956797611418676

Rieger, D., Wulf, T., Kneer, J., Frischlich, L., & Bente, G. (2014). The winner takes it all: The effect of in-game success and need satisfaction on mood repair and enjoyment. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 281-286. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.07.037

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68

Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 139-170. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9023-4

Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), 344-360. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9051-8

Shapiro, J (2014, August 27). A Surprising New Study On How Video Games Impact Children. Forbes

Sinclair, B. (2015, April 22). Gaming will hit $91.5 billion this year - Gaming will hit $91.5 billion this year - Newzoo. Newzoo

Tassi, P. (2014, December 11). 'GTA 5' And The Ethics Of Mass Murder. Forbes

Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2004). Putting the self into self-conscious emotions: A theoretical model. Psychological Inquiry, 15(2), 103-125.

External links[edit | edit source]