Competition, Cooperation, and Play

One of the topics that’s conspicuously absent from this blog is that of the relationship between violence and video games. The short version of the reason why is that I think the issue is too polarizing and too much tends to get read into findings on either side.

Something I did recently find worth discussing, however, is a kind of inversion of that topic: does playing cooperative games make you less likely to be aggressive and more likely to cooperate with people outside of the game? A big tip of the hat to Wai Yen Tang over at the blog VG Researcher, who recently wrote about three recent studies that explored this topic.

The earliest of these studies was by Mike Schmierbach (2010), who was interested in how game mode (single player, coop, or competitive) affected aggression. He shoved subjects into rooms to play games of Halo on the Xbox either campaign solo, campaign coop, or Slayer mode. After playing for a while, the researcher gave subjects surveys that measured various cognitions and emotional states. One part of the survey involved a word completion task where perplexed respondents were given two letters –KI, DE, BL, etc.– and then asked to use them to complete any word they liked. If you wrote KILL, DEATH, and BLUDGEON then you got more points than someone who said KISS, DEAN, and BLOKBUSTER. Also, you’re a better speller.

Schmierbach found that, as expected, people who played a coop mode were far more likely to come up with non-violent words, which he took as evidence of less “aggressive cognition.” Other self reported measures of frustration and arousal (in the general physiological sense) showed similar results.

This is interesting, but like most people I’m generally more interested in actual behavior than simple internal thoughts or emotional states. Fear not, because this year has seen the publication of two other studies that follow the same basic reasoning as Schmierback’s research, but which actually look at whether people engage in more cooperative behavior after setting the controller down.

Both Greitmeyer, Traut-Mattausch, and Osswald (2012) and Ewoldson et al. (2012) had subjects start off by playing games like Far Cry, FlatOut, and Halo 2 in either a competitive or cooperative modes. One unlucky group of people in a control condition got to play Tetris and frown at each other. Both sets of studies then had players set down the controllers and take part in social dilemma type games (of the non video game variety) where they had the chance to either cooperate with other players or screw them over.

Ewoldsen et al. found that players who had played the coop video game were more likely to engage in “tit-for-tat” strategies where they would open by cooperating and then either reward or punish the other player depending on if they played competitively or cooperatively in turn. Such a gambit is a very common tactic for players looking to cooperate and maximize outcomes for everyone involved.

Greitemeyer and his colleagues took things a bit further and measured perceptions of things like group cohesion (or dyad cohesion if you want to be pedantic about it; I don’t) and trust between players. Again, after teaming up to do violence to some common foe, people felt more cohesion and were more trusting in the subsequent task. And it’s important to note that these were all violent games –they were just ones that could be played in a helping, cooperative context.

There are some interesting takeaways and ideas from this in terms of crafting your own gaming experiences and for developers looking to capitalize on these findings. One is that timing matters. These effects are typically short lived, so if you want to hit players up for things that require cohesion, trust, and cooperation do it right after they’ve collaborated or interacted with each other in a cooperative way. It’s the ideal time to ask them to do things like send/accept friends requests, bestow gifts, heal each other, join groups, trade items, and so forth. Just finished a quest in a pickup group or successfully defended a capture point with the help of a new buddy? That may be the perfect time to pop up a prompt to “Rate this player” or to trade crafting materials. Better than after one of you won a dogfight or shootout against each other.

Similarly, if you’re a player try not to let the fact that you’re competing against someone keep you from cooperating with them next round or accepting their friend request. They may be a pretty cool dude or gal once you’re wearing the same colored uniforms.


Ewoldsen, D. R., Eno, C. A., Okdie, B. M., Velez, J. A., Guadagno, R. E., & DeCoster, J. (2012). Effect of playing violent video games cooperatively or competitively on subsequent cooperative behavior. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (5), 277-280.

Greitemeyera, T., Traut-Mattauschb, E., Osswaldc, S, (2012). How to ameliorate negative effects of violent video games on cooperation: Play it cooperatively in a team. Computers in Human Behavior, 28 (4), 1465-1470.

Schmierbach, M. (2010). “killing spree”: Exploring the connection between competitive game play and aggressive cognition. Communication Research, 37 (2), 256-274.

19 thoughts on “Competition, Cooperation, and Play

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  2. I think Magicka could be analysed in an interesting way with this sort of thing.

    The game is up to 4 player co-op (parody fantasy setting where you’re out to save the world), but with friendly fire permanently enabled. With the huge array of destructive spells flying about, you’re VERY likely to kill yourself, or your friend multiple times. One of the dev team’s adverts called it playing with your “Friends” (in that you were secretely out to get eachother).

    I wonder whether the general gameplay of most players consists on co-operating as much as possible, or killing eachother for fun. If one player got killed by a misfired meteor from another wizard, would he then get up and exact revenge? Or laugh about it and continue on. If his teammate was then close to a cliff, would he blow him off? Or forgive? etc..

    • If you’ve never purposefully killed a friend as revenge, you’re not playing Magicka right. 😉

      That said, my friends and I generally wait until a lull in the game before respectfully (and violently) settling our scores…

    • That depends on the context and motivations of whether players who want to play cooperatively or not.

      As Pedro mentioned, different behaviors and norms are followed in different games. So Magicka is played in a certain way while TF 2 is played in another way.

      As for player killing, accidents happen. If it’s done or is perceived to be intentional (i.e. griefing), well I think revenge is climbing up the list of priorities unless the PK apologizes or is understandably and sympathetically inept.

  3. Isn’t this (competition/cooperation) pretty much the whole point of army drills? Put the soldiers through fake-hell together so that they’ll bond and be more likely to cooperate when they’re put through real-hell?

    • Only if soldiers understood it that way. When it is played under a different context like a team sport, then that’s different. Players’ egos could clash and ruin the fun (an interesting thought at that).

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  5. Cool comments all. Thanks!

    And I came THIS close to buying Magica on Steam when it was recently on sale. Probably should have, but I have a huge backlog already.

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  7. I’d love to see you revisit cooperation tactics with Guild Wars 2. From my experience playing a lot of MMOs (including GW2), it feels like this is the first MMO to really nail cooperative play.

    Also, I think Borderlands is a strong counter-argument to your thesis that cooperative players prefer less violent games. Borderlands is one of the most comically and egregiously violent games I’ve played (lighting people on fire, blowing people to little pieces, etc), yet it’s also one of the most loved coop games of the last 5 years. My personal opinion is that while “less violent” gamers might lean towards coop, there’s plenty of traditional gamers (ie violent gamers) that just love a good coop experience. This is especially true now that many of us are getting older and entering into relationships (my girlfriend and I play coop games together almost exclusively now).

  8. I found this page through the Gameological site story about cheating and was exited at finding a useful resource, so imagine my surprise at finding a reference to my own work not too far down in the archives. Thanks for the mention. I will say that I found effects on frustration and affect, but not with the same pattern as for cognition. Also, Paul Adachi has been doing some cool work on the psychology of aggression and multiplayer gaming also, with similar results to what I (and the other citations) found — cooperative gaming seems to inhibit aggression, and competitive gaming seems to heighten it. And arguably I wasn’t the first — Anderson and Morrow had a study back in 1995 that at least started to explore the issue.

    Interestingly, though, I would point to another study I carried out with some graduate students, We found that players reported greater enjoyment when playing a competitive game rather than a cooperative game. Now, I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that our design had people playing with strangers — cooperative gaming probably depends more on having social connections with your playing partner, so you can rely on them (and not get angry when they call down a storm in Magika and electrocute your ass yet again). But I don’t think coop is a slam-dunk way to get players to like your game, even if that’s the only way I play multiplayer these days.

    Finally, when we started that Halo study, we were hoping to look at cooperation between playing partners, as Dave Ewoldsen’s study did. But for whatever reason the task we assigned participants didn’t vary between conditions — I think because while it was a team task, doing well hinged on factors other than teamwork (they had to build a tower out of drinking straws).

    Shameless sefl-promotion — here’s that enjoyment citation:

    Schmierbach, M., Xu, Q., Oeldorf-Hirsch, A., & Dardis, F. E. (2012). Electronic Friend or Virtual Foe: Exploring the Role of Competitive and Cooperative Multiplayer Video Game Modes in Fostering Enjoyment. Media Psychology, 15(3), 356-371.

  9. Hey Mike,

    Cool, thanks for the extra information and citation. I’ll check that article out. If you have anything else go into press please let me know; I’m always looking for well done research on video games and psychology to feature here.

    And glad you like the site! Hope to see you around.

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