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Feeling Angry? You Might be Bad at Games


It’s an opinion long held by soccer moms and people that refuse to learn that video games are the source of all evil in the world. Specifically violent videos games, in which, they believe, young children are taught that shooting someone in the face has no consequences. They watch as Little Jimmy becomes indifferent, angry and aggressive, and then ask themselves why the government allows them to keep buying this stuff for their kids.

It does explain an awful lot, not least why older people often refuse to play more than the odd section of a title. They don't understand it, so they feel the game is being unfair to them

A new study indicates Little Jimmy might not want to kill everybody indiscriminatingly, but just might not be especially good at the game they’re playing. How does this hold up, and how does it affect gaming for adults?

The Study

Take several groups of people, make some of them play non-violent versions of a violent game, see if they remain calmer than the groups playing the original. It’s a simple idea born out of the fact that so far studies on violence in video games have failed to fully grasp the idea of what happens when someone plays something, and what those reactions mean. 

That’s exactly what this new study did. Run by Oxford University, those involved ran a modded version of Half-Life 2 in which, instead of killing enemies, you tagged them and they evaporated. Some groups played the original version, others played the mod. Within both groups, some were told how to play and others weren’t, and the study confirmed that the only people showing signs of aggression were the people who were ‘losing.’

From Dr Przybylski, who was involved in the study:

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.

Players of games without any violent content were still feeling pretty aggressive if they hadn’t been able to master the controls or progress through the levels at the end of the session.


The Effect

It certainly rings true. It’s not unusual to quickly become frustrated with a game that doesn’t seem fair. Ride to Hell: Retribution wasn’t hard to finish because it was difficult, but because it took the power away from the player. You were more likely to die falling through the road or because it didn’t accept your QTE entry than you were because you’d genuinely made a mistake.

The realization that this might play a part in how we rate and enjoy games is a surprising one. Do I find X game unenjoyable because the developers haven’t properly introduced me to their core concepts, or are there flaws in those ideas? Do the developers, who have spent hundreds of hours with a game that you’ll only play for ten, realize that there is indeed a problem that complete beginners will have?

This brings another great point. Ask the average internet commenter how they think the trend for video game difficulty is and they’ll tell you about the glory days, before auto-save and endless tutorials. The study shows that there absolutely has to be a balance, that it’s easier to annoy people with a thirty second tutorial or a set of easy levels than it is to throw people into the experience blind and hope they enjoy themselves.

Most importantly, it points out that developers absolutely need to be tight in their gameplay design. If you shoot someone in the head and that person doesn’t get blown into pieces, your expectation and what is actually happening on screen is going to diverge and you’re going to start asking why. It’s not a case of wanting it to be easier, but that things should happen for a reason. 

If that head doesn’t become bullet pate, you’ll have done a good reason to have explained why at some point. Is it an RPG system, perhaps? Do you have to hit a specific part of the head for it to count as a headshot? Pointing out the design in some way may stop play frustration in the long run. And if there’s no good reason your targets can take multiple bullets to the brain? Expect the player to not only become angry, but even aggressive.

Call of Duty

There’s one franchise that stuck out whilst reading information on the study. Call of Duty is the butt of frequent jokes, and while year-in-year-out it remains one of the biggest titles of the gaming calendar, there are many that become angry over its very existence. Call of Duty, at its best, can be an immensely skilled game that requires both an intimate knowledge of maps and gameplay features, or it can be a twitch shooter dominated by people that are better than you.

Under the right circumstances it can be bliss or it can be controller-breakingly awful. And the key part of that sentence is “controller-breakingly.” 

The problem is that Call of Duty does little to explain to the player what is actually going on. Thanks for lag compensation, it’s impossible for every single player to see exactly the same game as everybody else, and these small differences are a constant source of frustration. Shooting at somebody in plain sight but they just won’t die? Frustration. Suddenly drop dead after jumping around a corner even though there’s no way anybody should have been able to get you? Frustration.


What should happen and what is happening is once again at odds, which explains a lot about Call of Duty’s dual fame/infamy. If those that are playing games want to win, it implies there are also losers. Winners top the leaderboards, they have a great time and the enjoyment continues. Losers complain, they get angry, they kick off about why they lost… 

What should happen and what is happening is once again at odds, which explains a lot about Call of Duty's dual fame/infamy

You could also stretch the idea to the sudden prevalence of multiplayer titles. Single player games are often limited to a single experience, although they have the advantage of (hopefully) always allowing the player to win (or at least to be tight enough that they can be blamed for their loss). A good single player takes more time to build as well, especially if those playing expect side quests and a true open world, so that a player might suddenly stop, just because, means the risk might not be worth it.


On the other hand, shorter multiplayer games allow a constant supply of instant win, a feeling of competence so long as you can just remain better than the other guys. Games are less of a time-sink, so losers keep coming back for more. And the cycle continues.


If you’re angry at the game you’re playing and there are no major faults in its design, it’s possible that you’re just bad at that game. It does explain an awful lot, not least why older people often refuse to play more than the odd section of a title. They don’t understand it, so they feel the game is being unfair to them.

At the very least it helps support the idea that games definitely do not support violence. Unless it’s justified by a really frustrating section of gameplay, anyway.

(Warning! Video below contains bad language and horrible violence against gaming equipment)



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Article By

Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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