Mind Games: Tetris as a Tool for Neuroscience #2




From Penicillin to Pulsars, sometimes great discoveries come from the most unlikely of sources. Here are three neat little advances in neuroscience that are thanks to a clunky, classic videogame – Tetris.


Part Two: Tapping into aggression


The media know that violent videogames are causing a generation of violent youth. News outlets rarely stop to look for solid evidence of this – blaming the darker side of humanity on modern culture is nothing new, and videogames provide a neat, ready-made scapegoat for unfathomably monstrous acts.


Back in the lab, things are far more complicated than that. Studies have produced very mixed results, and as with any emotive topic, bias exists on both sides. Even when evidence of a relationship is found, its often unclear whether videogame use is higher amongst people already prone to aggression, and the role of outside influence is hard to pin down. Studies looking directly at the effects of gaming have also often failed to describe the exact process by which videogames might give rise to aggressive behaviour.


The general argument for gaming-induced violence is that exposure to violent content is pleasurable, enticing the player to seek out such content more often. This in turn desensitises the player to violence and suffering, but its not clear how the step from being numb to brutality to actually behaving more violently is taken.


On spotting these flaws in research, a team of scientists at the universities of Oxford and Rochester decided that a new approach was needed. Andrew Pryzbylski, of Oxford, noted that previous research in this area had treated videogames like violent films, neglecting the fact that videogames are interactive. Taking inspiration from incidences of rage-quitting, Pryzbylski came up with a new idea: perhaps there was something about the difficulty of a videogame, rather than its content, which could incite violence.


In line with this idea is Self-determination Theory, the idea that aggression occurs when one of our basic psychological needs are thwarted, such as the need for competence, choice or social connectedness. With in-game chat features and multiple options for exploring, it’s easy to see how any or all of these needs could be affected by gaming, but Pryzbylski and his team were especially interested in what happens when a game is too difficult. If thwarting of competence did have an effect on aggression, then Pryzbylski reasoned that the game might not need any violent content to spark aggression.



To test this idea, Pryzbylski needed to get people to play a game with non-violent content that would be relentlessly unfair without being noticeably rigged. Enter Bastet, or ‘Bastard Tetris,’ as enticing as its classic cousin, except for an algorithm guaranteed to drive you to distraction. Unlike normal Tetris, which chooses the sequence of bricks at random, Bastet is rigged to give you the least convenient piece each time, so the player is forced to fight a losing battle. From the four least useful pieces for each move, Bastet selects the least useful piece 75% of the time, the second worst 17% of the time, the third worst 6% of the time and fourth worst 2% of the time. Pryzbylski wondered whether the frustration of having one’s competence challenged whilst playing Bastet would make people more complicit in inflicting pain on others.



First of all, the researchers got some people to try out Bastet in a pilot study, which confirmed that playing Bastet made people feel that their competence was undermined. Then the real experiment began.



When they arrived at the lab, participants were asked to hold one hand in icy water for 25 seconds before gameplay commenced. They were told that this length of time had been decided by the previous participant, but, in true psychology style, this was a fib; the time was fixed for all participants. Generally, participants agreed that this was somewhat painful. Despite this experience, those who had played Bastet assigned the next person over seven more seconds in the chilly water, whereas those who played classic Tetris assigned the next participant around 3 seconds of pain less than they had experienced themselves. It seemed that the ego-thrashing from playing Bastet really did make people nastier.



There’s no rush boycott the blocks though; in a more naturalistic follow-up, the researchers also found that competent gamers were more likely to return to gaming after a break, and that better competence was related to lower post-game aggression, so there is still little evidence that chronic gaming leads to actual real-world violence. But if there is a link between gaming and violence in the long-term, this study shows that there is a need to look beyond graphic content into different aspects of gaming experience and their impact on human needs. Need-thwarting doesn’t just occur in gaming though, so perhaps gaming should be viewed in perspective.


Just don’t overestimate yourself when it comes to setting the difficulty – it’s for your own good.

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