A new study published in the science journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests men who play “violent” multiplayer games are more aggressive toward strangers than friends. The study, conducted by evolutionary psychologists at the University of Missouri, involved 42 young men divided into 14 teams of three each, whose testosterone and cortisol levels were tested twice before and after competing in “within-group” (against friends) and “between-group” (strangers) competitive male vs. male video games.
The result? The players’ testosterone response varied depending on whether they played “ingroup” or “outgroup” games, and was actually lower or “muted” during the former. In other words: Players were more aggressive toward players they didn’t know than players they did.
Participants played Epic’s Unreal Tournament 2004, a first-person shooter with a wealth of ballistic and incendiary weapons, “because it provides detailed graphics and two appropriate game types.” The part about “detailed graphics” as a qualifier may be misleading, as aggression research suggests the visual “realism” of a game has less to do with aggression level increases than the actions performed by the player. That is: Hammering cartoon characters with an exaggerated mallet may be as likely to increase aggression as using a photorealistic sledgehammer on something that looks virtually human.
Ingroup gamers played Unreal Tournament 2004’s multiplayer “Death Match” mode (kill everyone else for points) while outgroup gamers played “Onslaught” (teams work together to destroy the opposing team’s power core). To promote a sense of camaraderie, teams practiced together for three sessions of two hours each during the week leading up to the tournament battles.
Going in, the study had hypothesized that
aggressive multiplayer video games are appealing to men because the games engage men’s motivational disposition to participate in coalitional male–male competition and engage the systems that enable the mental simulation of corresponding social strategies: these video games create competitive situations that mimic the mental strategizing that evolved, in part, to support male–male competition. If this hypothesis is correct, then during simulated coalitional competition men will show testosterone responses similar to those found with competitive male–male challenge in other species
and also that
this competitive testosterone response will be muted when men compete against members of their ingroup
The conclusion–that gamers are in fact more aggressive playing against strangers than friends–seems to mesh with results from studies in other competitive venues. In 1999, a study of professional basketball games showed that men on the winning teams who contributed most to their teams’ win experienced a significant increase in testosterone. Another study in 2002 involving competitive domino players revealed that men playing “ingroup” members experienced decreased testosterone levels, while playing against “outgroup” members caused testosterone levels to rise.
The Evolution and Human Behavior article summarizes:
We suggest that violent video games appeal to young men because the games tap their evolved motivation to engage in male–male competition and engage the same systems that evolved to allow them to engage in military and political strategizing. The corresponding hypothesis — men will show the testosterone winner effect found with meaningful male–male competition — was partially supported for the between-group tournaments.
Anyone surprised? The suggestion–that video games draw on behavioral aggression mechanics in ways similar to those employed in military and political strategizing–sounds almost like common sense to me.