I'd like to share with you a paper I wrote around a year ago for the fair play alliance initiative (
If you want to download the paper in PDF you can find it here: https://www.playingwithnetworks.it/assets/PDF/GA_two_levels_at_play.pdf
WARNING: Long read!
I’ve been studying video game and aggression (defined as “a hostile behaviour or a threat of attack”,
Harwood, 2017) on and off for a couple of years and I’ve been a gamer since forever. I’ve decided
to share some of my thoughts with the hope to contribute to the discussion on a topic that I feel
particularly attached to. This paper is by no mean exhaustive nor strictly academic: its aim is to fuel
a constructive conversation offering, hopefully, an additional point of view.
The paper will focus on the role of individual and group characteristics on aggression in online
competitive video games, specifically in MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena).
In a phenomenological perspective there is always a cause for a phenomenon. In the case of
aggression the cause will be a combination of factors intrinsic to the player, such as personality or
mental distress (individual level), and extrinsic factors, like attitudes and behaviours shown by other
players (group level) (Harwood, 2017).
A good starting point is to assume that any aggression indicates a player’s distress, or an attempt to
communicate unmet needs, in someone whose coping abilities have been exceeded (Harwood,
To better understand this phenomenon we should then consider this two different, interlaced, levels:
individual level and group level. Both levels interact and influence each other in a circular way.
Each person will bring, consciously or not, his past and presence experiences in each of his games
and will influence and be influenced by other players experiences.
There is also a third level, the social/cultural one, but it exceeds the aim of the present work.
Luckily for us, online games usually tend to divide players by region, effectively putting the
majority of players with a common cultural background on the same servers.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that cultural differences may exists when focusing on a
particular region and that this differences can influence both the individual and group level.
1.1 An example of circularity in a MOBA
Player A decide to play a quickmatch with an assassin. He had a really bad day and is quite
frustrated (individual level). All players are from NA and speak English. In NA it is also culturally
accepted to openly express feelings (cultural level, we assume it is the same for all team members).
After a couple of deaths player A gets angry (individual level) and starts to verbalize his anger,
attacking the healer, player B (group level). The healer can’t be bothered because he had a bad day
as well (individual level) and silence player A, shutting down communication with Player A (group
level). The tank, player C, had a really nice day and feels supportive (individual level) and decides
to step into the discussion. He somehow manages to contain and defuse player’s A anger (group
level). Player A calm down and is more relaxed (individual level): as a result the whole team works
better (group level) and proceed to win the game.
In this example the group, especially player C, had a positive impact on player A and on the group
as a whole. However the opposite may happens as well: one individual can compromise the playing
experience of the group.
Why, then, sometimes a group can contain a player distress and other times a player’s distress can
disrupt the group? To try to understand what’s going on it may be useful to examine some
individual and group characteristic that may have a role on aggression.
2. Individual level
Each one of us is an unique individual with some peculiar characteristics. Some of this
characteristics are more visible, like the colour of the hairs or the height, while other are more
complicated to grasp as they are not directly measurable, like the sense of humour (trait) or the mood
Additionally some of those characteristic are more easily modifiable while others are way harder: I
can easily cut my hair if I want a new look but I can’t easily “grow” my eight if I want to be taller.
This is also quite true for psychological characteristics: I can easily change my mood (unless I’m
depressed!) but I can’t easily change my sense of humour (insert funny joke here).
In this paper I will focus on some of the psychological characteristics that can have a role on
aggression and are “easy” to modify (states) as the others (traits) far exceeds the aim of this paper:
they may require the aid of a specialist and/or a big personal involvement (i.e psychotherapy).
Still, is important to keep in mind that traits do exist and influence and are influenced by states.
Additionally some traits can have an effect on aggression and may need additional attention in a
future work (e.g. coping mechanisms, locus of control, decision making, risk taking, etc).
2.1 Need satisfaction/frustration
It may be important to identify WHY a person is playing a specific video game. Is he
playing for fun? Is he playing to evade everyday life? Is he playing to socialize? Is he playing to
win? Is he playing to vent frustration? (De Grove et al., 2016, 2017; Kahn, 2015; Przybylski et al.,
In a phenomenological perspective people act to try to satisfy a need, it may be the need for
relatedness (i.e. feeling a sense of belonging to a group) or the need for competence (i.e. the
experience of efficacy). Blocking the reaching of a need (frustration of a need) may elicit an
increase in aggression (Przybylski et al., 2014).
Additionally, repeated frustrations in a short time may increase the change to actually act out the
aggression (i.e. break a keyboard, verbally attack another team member, etc) (Berkowitz, 1989).
Although it is not really possible to control “external” frustrations (i.e. bad day at work) it may be
possible to help preventing accumulating additional frustrations.
For example, if a person had a really bad day at work and wants to vent frustration, playing single
player Doom, possibly on easy, may be better than playing a MOBA. Killing monsters left and right
with a heavy metal soundtrack may have a cathartic effect while competing to win a game, with a
chance of loosing it, may elicit an increase in aggression (Ammannato et al., 2017; Breuer et al.,
2.2 Emotional state
Emotions are linked with performances: negative emotions (anger, anxiety) are linked with
poorer performances and poorer performance may arise negative emotions (e.g. Campo et al.,
2016). Performances are then influenced by emotions and, if the goal is to win, we may have to
keep this in mind.
For example, if a person is already angry from a bad day at work or from an argument with her
partner it may be better to calm down doing something else before playing a competitive video
game as her performances may be hindered by her emotional state.
3. Group level
There is a vast literature about groups and different definition have been given to the word “group”.
The topic is really large and complex and I think that a common definition is needed to better
understand this part; I personally find this definition really good: “a group is a social and dynamic
unit consisting of at least three members who perceive each other as more or less interdependent
for some aspect and can be structured in different ways to achieve certain goal (Marocci, 2011)”.
To put it simpler: to exists a group needs at least three members that feel a sense of belonging to the
group, share a common goal, depend on each other to reach the goal, share a set of norms and a
structure. Additionally the group is not static, something more (phenomena) happens during group
Each group is then something unique as it is made by different people that interact with each other
in a peculiar way.
Still, some characteristic and group phenomena are constant between similar groups and can be
observed (e.g. Marocci, 2011).
With characteristics here I intend the set of norms and the structure of the group (i.e. each team is
made by 5 players, players can’t attack their team mates, etc).
With phenomena I intend the “things” that happens during group interactions. A phenomenon have
two interlaced and interdependent levels, the “content” level and the “process” level.
The content level is the explicit one (i.e. “Kill the healer!”) while the process level is how the
interaction happens (i.e., after saying “kill the healer!” player A proceed to spam ping player B).
Both content and process have a role in group interactions: it is possible to say something
potentially useful but in an inappropriate way and so the message can be perceived as an attack.
In a online group interaction it is however not possible to see what player C thinks of the
aforementioned interaction (player A pinging player B) unless he types or says something: in the
real world it would be possible to look at his non verbal communication.
Processes are then extremely hard to observe in an online environment as a lot of cues, (i.e. the
gaze, the facial expressions, etc) are not accessible.
It would be possible to study the group phenomena in an online setting using a reverse-engineering
approach as most typical phenomena have been categorized (e.g. Marocci, 2011) but I think that it
may exceeds the aim of the paper.
Instead I will try to look for peculiar characteristics (norms and structure) of this particular group,
that I will call “MOBA team”, that may be useful to better understand aggression in online,
competitive, team, video games.
With “MOBA team” I intend a team of 5 players made of total strangers that don’t know each other
but have to work together, as a team, to reach a goal.
3.1 What if..?
What would happens if we apply the peculiar group characteristics that will be discussed below to a
real world group?
Player A decide he wants to play 5-a-side football. He instantly arrive in a place where there is
already a lot of people ready to play. For some weird reasons Player A and all the other players are
wearing a ski mask that completely cover their face and their eyes: they can still see without any
He proceed to queue up for a game and after a minute or two he is with his new team mates. He
doesn’t know any of them and he have 5 minutes to decide who is going to play on what role. He
start communicating with his new teammates to decide who is going to play what but one of them,
player B, doesn’t respond, it looks like he is minding his own business.
Player A starts negotiating roles with his other teammates and in the end he got the goal keeper role
for himself: his favourite role and the one he feels more confident playing as. Just before the time is
up the missing teammate, player B, comes back and say he is going to be the goal keeper, “lock” his
role and proceed to mind his own business again. Player A is a team player and he decide that he is
going to fill the missing role, the defender, because two goalkeeper won’t be optimal.
Player A is not really a good defender. The game starts and his team takes a few goals. The
goalkeeper start to verbally attack him because he did not properly cover the opposite team striker.
Player A apologize saying that it’s not his best role but no one else wanted to do it. He also ask if
the midfielders, player C and D, can play more defensively because he may need some help in the
Player A also realize that for some weird reasons when he talks to the other payers he cannot move.
His team take another goal for this reason. All of his team mates start to verbally attack him (“go
5play Frisbee”, “Remove your shoes and never put them on again”, etc), he tries to explain himself
but none seem to listen to his replies.
Player A stoically just keeps going. The game finish after 15 min with a sound loss. Immediately
after the game he receives a text that notify that he has been silenced.
He does not feel tired at all and want a rematch. He looks and finds a new team in no time but he
can’t speak with them. He makes some signs to communicate what role he would prefer to play. He
is able to play goalkeeper but during the game he can’t ask the defender to play a little bit more
safe. He starts to take a lot of goals. The rest of the team starts to blame player A but he can’t really
ask for help nor explain his reasons.
He starts to become angry and his performances starts to decrease. The game ends with a loss and
player A is now quite angry. He decides to stop playing for a while to vent his frustration.
Player A did not really have a nice game experience and may do something else next time.
3.2 The group is created automatically and effortlessly
The player logins, he selects a hero, he clicks play and in no time he is playing in a “group”.
He doesn’t have to actively look for it, create it (i.e. call his friends, book a pitch, etc) or be invited
by someone. The system create the group for him with a set of pre-defined rules (i.e. it is not
possible to talk to the other team, to attack your team members, etc ). This characteristic has the
Players don’t have to put any effort in keeping a relationship with the group members, they
just have to not miss-behave and then they can have virtually an infinite number of people to play
with. Additionally, If they miss behave just a couple of times there won’t be any repercussion, they
will not have to apologize to their team members because they are probably not going to see them
In the real world a player usually plays with the same people for more than one game and if he
miss-behave one time there is a good chance he will probably apologize the next time. If he
continue to have a disruptive behaviour chances are that his friends/teammates will not call him
again to play together and, if he doesn’t take any action, he will have to actively look for a new
There is no need to actively work to be a part of a group. It just happens when a button is pressed.
3.2.2 Lack of control
In some games a player may have no control on who does he play with. He doesn’t know the
other players and the other players don’t know him. They may have a different sense of humour and
perceive as offensive his jokes and report him at the end of the game.
One team member may just go AFK all the game and it won’t be possible to avoid him in the next
game. It is not possible to know what roles other members play: it is possible to have 3 support
mains and no tanks in a team and there is no way to prevent this.
The lack of control can be a big source of frustration (i.e., learned helplessness, Abramson,
Seligman, Teasdale 1978)
It may be useful to allow players to select a preferred role (i.e. tank, support etc) and to avoid a few
players, à la Overwatch.
3.2.3 (Lack of) shared goal
It is hard to evaluate what is the goal of each team member. One of the key point to have a
group is to have a common goal. It can be assumed that the goal in a competitive video game is to
win the game but that may not always be the case. Someone may play just to have fun while
someone else may play just to harass other players.
Not sharing the same goal may be a cause of frustration and/or arguments between group members.
It may be functional to allow players to select what goal do they have at that moment (i.e. “try new
hero”, “compete”, “want to have fun”, etc)
3.3 Virtual space
The group lives and exists in an online, virtual, space. This has some implications:
3.3.1 Lack of traditional non verbal communication
It is not possible to see the other team members’ face and gestures. It is more difficult to
understand if someone is joking in a written message. In face to face communication a large part of
the meaning of the message is conveyed by non verbal signals (i.e. facial expression, tone of voice,
Voice chat can help mitigate this as the tone of voice can help understand if someone is serious or is
joking, reducing misunderstanding.
Additionally if one team member decide to not communicate the rest of the team will have no clue
about how he is doing. He may be really happy or really angry but unless he vocalize himself in a
written or verbal way it will be in a “neutral” state.
However, as observed before, performances are influenced by emotions and the team is influenced
by all of his members’ performances, even if they don’t communicate their emotional state.
It may be then beneficial to promote a “safe place” where people can communicate also their
negative emotions, in a civil way.
It is interesting to note that creative non verbal communication have been developed to
communicate with the opposite team also when it is “not allowed” (i.e. teabagging, B-stepping etc).
3.3.2 Possible to manipulate some communication rules/channels
In the real world it is not possible to “mute” another person nor to decide that players from
two competing team will not be able to verbally communicate to each other.
Deciding that one team will not be able to communicate with the other team will have some
consequences: for example the aggression may be redirected to the in-group (your team mates)
instead of the out-group (the enemy team).
Is there any empirical evidence to prove that one way is better then the other?
Also, it is useful to silence a player?
Silenced players can still miss-behave (i.e. spam ping, feed, etc) and will not be able to express their
frustration and communicate with the team (in a team game where communication is really
important), is there any evidence to prove that silencing a player is actually useful?
Silencing a player may be an additional source of frustration for an already frustrated player and the
fear of a silence may also inhibit constructive criticism between team members (not promoting the
It may then be more functional to ban someone for a short period of time (30 minutes?) instead of
3.3.3 Different physical requirements
The physical requirement to play a video games are vastly inferior to the one needed to play
a traditional sport (i.e. football, rugby etc).
After a 80 minutes rugby game, for example, a rugby player will probably be exhausted and will not
want to play any more, no matter the result. He may be happy because they have won or sad because
they have lost but he would still probably prefer a beer over a rematch.
In an online game a player may keep going for way longer as he won’t be physically exhausted after
a single game: this may result in a vicious spiral of frustrations (just one more game, maybe I can
win this one!) that may lead to acting out the aggression (i.e. break a keyboard, verbally attack team
It may then be functional to take a break after a series of consecutive losses.
3.4 Very short group life
The life of the MOBA team is really short. The game length can vary from game to game
but it’s nonetheless really short compared to the life span of a more traditional group and this has
some really big implications:
3.4.1 A group of individuals and not a individual group
I think this is the most important point. It takes time to create a group, as defined at the
beginning of the paragraph. There is not enough time in a MOBA match for players to feel as
being part of a group.
This results in a quite paradoxical situation where, in each game, there is a group of individuals (the
players), each one trying to reach his personal goal, put together and (more or less) encouraged to
act as a group.
The players are not intrinsically motivated to play as a team, they don’t really feel as being a group,
they are just tossed together and have to play cooperatively to reach the goal that they (may) share.
If something does not work well there is not a strong motivation for the players to find a solution
because after a short time that “group” won’t exists anymore and they won’t probably see each
other again. It is actually functional to not spend too many resources in something so ephemeral.
Giving feedback can be difficult as it may be misunderstood as an attack and reported as
such and/or spark a fight in the team chat.
In the real world it is possible to clarify oneself if there has been a misunderstanding. In a MOBA
game there is usually no time, it won’t be optimal to stop playing to try to clarify oneself, and no
motivation: there is a good chance a player will never see his team mates again.
Moreover his team mates may not be interested at all in hearing an explanation: it is just faster to
report and mute him.
players are not really encouraged to give and receive feedback but feedback would be important to
4. Future directions
Premise: I have no idea whether or not any of this proposed directions have already been taken.
I think it may be useful for both the gaming industry and the player base to define a set of
guidelines for game making “that encourage fair play and healthy communities in online gaming”
(Fair Play Alliance, 2018).
Those guidelines should be identified through a set of scientifically sound experiments to see if one
practice is it really better than the other one.
I will discuss some areas that in my opinion may need further investigation. Each point should be
verified with a (set) of experiment(s) to empirically observe whether or not there is a best practice.
4.1 Best Practices
Game mechanics and/or characteristics can have an effect on aggression. Is it possible to identify
some best practices?
What are the effects of silencing a player? Is it really useful to prevent communication in a
team game? Can’t silence just be another source of frustration that can lead to a more disruptive
behaviour (i.e. feeding, spam pinning, etc)?
Wouldn’t be better to shortly (i.e. 30 min) ban a player, to force him to take a break, instead of
Additionally, the fear of silence ma play a big role in team communication.
Players know that they may be reported and this may refrain them to say something, especially if it
something that goes against the team.
For example: player A is solo laning, the enemy team have a talent advantage but his teammates
decide to engage in a 4vs5 fight, die and proceed to spam ping/flame player A. Player A can explain
why he was doing it (and will be probably be reported), can apologize (less chance to be reported)
or can just ignore them.
Communication is key in team games and removing (the fear of) silence may enable a more sincere
4.1.2 “All” chat
Does impeding communication between the two teams have a positive effect on aggression?
Players may re-direct their aggression to their own team mates instead of the opposite team players
as they can’t communicate with them.
In a team based game is it better to disrupt a team’s communication or to direct the aggression to the
On one hand, if Player A, red team, attacks player B, blue team, player B can just mute Player A and
there won’t be ma repercussions.
On the other hand, if Player C, red team, attacks Player D, red team, and player D mutes player C
the communication in the red team will be disrupted and the team’s performance will be affected.
Is it then really functional to not have an all chat?
4.1.3 Preferred role
Allow players to select a (few?) preferred role(s). For example Tank, Support, Assassin.
It may also be useful to create a “role standard” for all MOBAs.
Allow players to avoid a few players for a couple days. Some games already do this
(Overwatch) and I think it is a good option.
4.1.5 Current goal
Persuade (force?) players to select what is their current goal before playing (i.e. “have fun”,
“compete”, “try new hero”): try to match players with the same goal.
4.1.6 Shared xp/gold
Last hitting a minion/champion/creep to get gold/xp/whatever is a core mechanic of some MOBAs
but it can be a source of arguments between team members.
Having the whole team with the same exp/gold, like in Heroes of the Storm, may actually reduce
arguments and in-team fighting.
It may be beneficial to actively intervene to prevent an escalation of aggression. Some area that may
be explored are:
4.2.1 Need identification
In a prevention perspective, If we manage to help a player to understand his motives (i.e. “I
want to vent frustration”) we may be able to help him choose the best suited game (and/or game
mode) for that specific moment, helping him to fulfil a need and hopefully contributing to his
overall well being.
There already are a few assessment tool (e.g. De Grove et al., 2017; Kahn et al., 2015) that may be
used to assess players’ motives but in my opinion it may be better to develop a “gamified”
It is also important to give back the results to the players and allow them to discuss them (i.e. yes, I
think it’s true, no, I think I play for other reasons, etc).
4.2.2 Promote relaxation
In a preliminary study (Ammannato, 2018) I’ve observed that using a relaxation technique
for a very short amount of time (1 min) before playing a competitive video game did have a positive
effect on aggression (i.e. no increase).
After properly verifying the technique’s effectiveness it may be functional to try to promote its use
before playing and/or after a few games.
4.2.3 Promote breaks
A set of consecutive losses may increase aggression and may increase the change to act it
out (Berkowitz, 1989).
11Encouraging players (i.e. bonus XP? Bonus gold? Bonus something?) to take a break after a set of
consecutive losses may have a positive effect on aggression.
4.2.4 Listening space
In a phenomenological perspective assuming that any aggression indicates a player’s
distress, or an attempt to communicate unmet needs, in someone whose coping abilities have been
exceeded is a good starting point (Harwood, 2017).
We can then hypothesize that if a player receive a ban (or a set of repeated bans) there may be
something bigger going on in his life other than a few losses/arguments in a game. Offering a space
to talk with a specialist (psychologist, psychotherapist, etc) may be really beneficial for the player
and, as a reflection, for the gaming community as a whole. Additionally it may help to detect other
sources of frustration not yet identified.
Aggression in video game is a complex topic. To better understand its causes and to try to promote a
healthy game environment a set of scientifically sound experiments should be carried out.
The results of the experiments may help in redacting some guidelines to help players and
developers alike to understand what may be done to encourage team play and positive social
6. BONUS! Research project
I'm currently working on a research project that uses HotS:
- if you'd like to have more information on the project:
- if you want to participate to the study:
- If you want to ask me any questions regarding the project here on Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/heroesofthestorm/comments/avuaaq/research_project_using_hots_i_need_your_help/
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