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If you hear a Call of Duty player cursing at his TV set, it’s more likely that their rage came from their lack of success than from exposure to violent content.

A new study by the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Rochester suggests that incompetence is a major cause of aggressive behavior after playing a video game. Players who struggled with a game were more likely to show aggression. “The study is not saying that violent content doesn’t affect gamers, but … the aggression stems from feeling not in control or incompetent while playing,” said professor Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, a co-author of the study, to BBC News.

Six separate studies were part of the research. One of them used a modified version of Half-Life 2, Valve’s popular first-person shooter. Violent ways of eliminating enemies were replaced by a system where the play would mark enemies, causing them to disappear. The researchers didn’t notice a significant difference in aggression between those who played the unmodified Half-Life 2 and those who played the violence-free version.

However, researchers did notice that players who were went through a tutorial before playing were less likely to show aggression than those who dove in without one. When struggling to control the game got in the way of the players’ efforts, they were more likely to show aggressive behavior. “Players have a psychological need to come out on top when playing,” Dr. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute told BBC News, “… If players feel thwarted by the controls or the design of the game, they can wind up feeling aggressive. This need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material.”


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Richard Wilson, the chief executive of British video game trade body TIGA, was unsurprisingly pleased with the results. “If developers can design more effective gameplay processes, then it could be possible to minimize a player’s feelings of exasperation and irritation — admittedly something good developers will want to achieve in any case,” he said to BBC News. “It’s also important to understand, as part of this debate, that most video games are not violent.”

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