In The Motivating Role of Violence in Video Games, motivational psychologists Andrew Przybylsky, Richard Ryan and video game psychology expert, Scott Rigby, present a tour de force of 6 studies engaging nearly 3000 game players to investigate the role of violence in motivating gameplay. What they found was well...gamechanging.
The evidenceThe researchers found overwhelming evidence that violence doesn't increase enjoyment of video gameplay (not even for people who score high in aggression traits). Those high in aggression are more likely to select a game for violent content, but do not proceed to enjoy it more. Furthermore, there are others who avoid games for their violence, so violence doesn't seem to have a net commercial advantage. Author, Scott Rigby, summed it up in an article for the University of Rochester:
"Much of the debate about game violence has pitted the assumed commercial value of violence against social concern about the harm it may cause. Our study shows that the violence may not be the real value component, freeing developers to design away from violence while at the same time broadening their market."
So what is motivating gameplay in violent games?According to the studies, the two things consistently correlated with game enjoyment and long-term engagement were the extent to which a game supported a player's feelings of autonomy and competence. To put it another way, players stick with games that allow them to overcome obstacles, acquire mastery, feel effective and have choice about the actions and strategies they take. This may not seem like news to game designers, but the fact that violence isn't an additional factor fostering enjoyment, certainly is.
In short, engagement boils down to the fulfillment of basic human needs (ie. the pillars of motivation identified by Self-determination Theory: autonomy, competence and relatedness). While the studies by Przybylsky, Ryan and Rigby targeted autonomy and competence and not relatedness, it's easy to imagine relatedness accounting for some of the stickiness of the social games that allow for it. Stay tuned for research on that.
So GFT and COD would be just as popular without the violence?All massively successful games succeed in ways that have nothing to do with their violence. If the makers of famously violent games were able to devise non-violent contexts with the same level of autonomy and mastery-supportive game mechanics then, research suggests, they would be just as engaging, possibly more so as they would open themselves up to a broader audience. The wild success of non-violent, and excellently well-crafted, games like Journey and Portal 2 provide perfect examples.
Battle and conflict have provided easy plug-in settings for obstacles and challenge, but this well-worn theme is by no means inevitable. What we need is new creativity and innovation in game writing combined with game mechanics that foster the heck out of a player's sense of autonomy, competence and even connectedness.
It may take a while for the penny to drop since the epic pleasure of gaming is so frequently paired with violent content, but once people realize that violence is a red herring motivationally-speaking, (even for serious gamers) we will increasingly see creative and novel game concepts topping the charts and providing enjoyment to ever greater numbers.