The Uncanny Violence of Video Games, PART IIa: “The Thin Red Line Between Violent- and Competitive-Aggression.”

Figure 4: "Researchers," took the game out of "video games."
Figure 4: “violent-aggression can often be confused with competitive-aggression.”

As a result, we believe that they have mischaracterized the violent and aggressive acts depicted in the games as motivated by a real sense of aggression and will to do literal violence on the part of the player (see Figure 4). That is not to say that violence and aggression do not exist in the realm of violent-video games, some players have, “certain predispositions [to aggression and violent behavior],” which they express in their behavior while playing[6]. But just like in other rewards-based, competitive activities, violent-aggression can often be confused with what we have termed, “competitive-aggression.

For example, take the “non-violent sport” of professional American football[7]. Imagine a running back with the ball in open field. As he approaches the goal line, (his, “reward.”), he sees an opposing defensive back closing in. In response, he grabs the opposing player by the facemask, and violently throws him to the ground, before crossing the goal line.

Figure 5: Violent- or competitive-aggression?
Figure 5: An example of “violent-” or, “competitive-aggression”?

Even though he may have injured the opposing player, and committed a penalty, it would be unreasonable to immediately interpret the running back’s actions as violent-aggression. The opposing player in the context of the game was no longer perceived as merely an innocent bystander but the obstruction towards receiving a reward. Removing the obstacle was in agreement with the competitive-behavior scripts the running back had formed after many decades of playing football and receiving rewards for his performance.

Though the player acted aggressively, and though his actions seem, in their execution and result, violent, it would be presumptuous to call the actions of either the running back, or the opposing player, the results of violent-aggression. Both acted aggressively and with the intent of eliminating the obstacle to achieving their respective goals, but in the context of achieving a reward performing a competitive-based task, their actions are deemed, by definition, as non-violent, as is the sport[8].

Likewise, though the actions of those who play so-called, “violent-video games,” can rightfully be termed as depicting aggressive-violence, they are motivated, not by aggression, but by the receiving of rewards[9]. Since violent films and TV have no equivalent function, they lack the same underlying motivations for participation, and therefore cannot and should not be evaluated in the same context (see Figure 6).

Figure 6 Battlelog’s “Divisions” of high achievers.
Figure 6 The “rewards’ of Battlefield 4= global recognition.

Yet some will argue that numerous fMRI studies demonstrate that playing violent video games activates the same areas in the brain associated with aggression and violence, which is true.

However, the same areas are also important in the performing of rewards-based tasks. In other words, one would expect to see similar activity in the pre-frontal regions of the brain, between those behaving aggressively in a violent-video game environment, and those who act with competitive-aggression to achieve a reward, just like in “chess” or American football[10]. Research into the neurological activity of those performing rewards-based activities confirms this[11].

But what of the aggressive affect and arousal that has been observed in those that play violent-video games? Proponents of the anti-violent video game position claim their research proves conclusively that even short-term exposure to violent-video games increases aggressive affect and arousal. Again, the statement is true, but aggressive in what context? Violently aggressive, or competitively aggressive? (see Video below).

As stated in the previously cited meta-analytic review, “Even nonviolent games can increase aggressive affect…Similarly, exciting nonviolent games can increase arousal…” One reason given by the article was, “frustration,” which can express itself in aggressive and seemingly violent ways. Recalling the chess RL model provided earlier, it is easy to see how someone, who must endure loss after loss in the pursuit of a reward, might act aggressively out of frustration.

Viewed in this context, it is at least possible, if not likely, the aggression observed in the research at the heart of the anti-violent video game argument, was not violent, but competitively-motivated, rewards-based behavior. Thus its fatal flaw, we believe, is not in the veracity of the research results or methods, but in the premise upon which that research is based. By equating video games with violent depictions, with violent media, and thus emphasizing a superficial aspect of the gaming experience, they ignored the competitive, rewards-based methodology that is fundamental to the construction of these games, and in so doing, may have undermined the conclusions of their results.

In Part IIb of the Uncanny Violence of Video Games we discuss how these “rewards-based” algorithms, inherent in most violent-video games, act to further distinguish them from other types of so-called “violent media” in the formulation of what is known as the META of video gaming. Moreover, we demonstrate the impracticality of equating the consumption-behavior related to passive-media types, like TV and film, with interactive forms, like video games.

[1] See, “Computational Cognitive Psychology;” “Computational Cognitive Psychology;”

[2] See, “Reinforcement learning in the brain;”

[3] For more information on, “internal states,” see Part I of the Uncanny Violence of Video Games;

[4]See their website for more information:

[5] For more on the development of strategy or META see Part IIb: The Meta of Video Gaming, below.

[6] Dr. Matthews interview, June 11, 2015, 11:38.

[7] Dr. Wang interview, June 18, 2015, 30:03.

[8] For a clinical definition of violence, see Part I of the Uncanny Violence of Video Games,

[9] For a detailed example of the rewards-based methodology underlying Battlefield 4, see Part I and II of, “The Panopticon in My Bedroom;”

[10] Dr. Matthews interview, June 11, 2015, 30:27.

[11] See, Neural Basis of Motivational and Cognitive Control, “Part 1: Anatomical Basis Of Control,” by Mars, Rogier B., Sallet, Jérôme, Rushworth, Matthew F.S., PUBLISHER: MIT Press, DATE: January 2012, ppg 1-5.

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