Frustration and the Forbidden – Why People Turn to Violent Video Games

By Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Violent video games seem to be more popular than ever. Companies are creating games with realistic graphics and gory details. While some may find these games shocking, other people find them entertaining. What creates such a strong attraction to violent video games?

Researchers at The Ohio State University and the University of Luxembourg set out to find the answer in a recently published study.[1] While many studies have been done about violent video games, this team saw a gap in the research. They wanted to learn why people were attracted to playing such aggressive games.

The research team did two experiments with college-age males. Each participant was given a multiple-choice history test. They were promised a food reward if they did well. One experiment gave some participants the opportunity to cheat shortly after receiving the test. The other experiment gave participants the opportunity to steal in the same manner. Some of those who could cheat or steal had the opportunity taken away shortly after it was given. This group showed a heightened sense of frustration after finishing their test.

Other participants never had the opportunity to steal or cheat, causing no elevated frustration. Some participants were given the opportunity to steal or cheat for the entire experiment, also resulting in no elevated frustration. No barriers were put between these participants and their goal of doing well on the test.

After the completion of the test, participants were asked to rate their interest in playing several video games with fictitious names. Some were labeled to make them appear violent and others appeared non-violent. Results showed that participants who showed heightened frustration were more attracted to violent video games.[1] The opportunity to do one type of taboo behavior (aggressive acts) through a video game seemed attractive after experiencing frustration over being denied the chance to do another taboo behavior in real life.

Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology from Ohio State, is one of the authors of the study. He said that the most surprising result from the study is that people “become frustrated even when prevented from committing taboo behaviors, such as cheating and stealing.”

Since society frowns upon such behaviors anyway, it would seem that many people already plan to avoid those actions. They would probably fear external consequences or wouldn’t want to go against their morals. So why would someone feel frustrated if they were given the opportunity to cheat or steal at first and were then denied the chance to follow through?

The answer lies in an old but simple truth. Things that are clearly forbidden are strongly desirable, simply because they are not allowed. A person’s sense of curiosity is magnified when they can sense a barrier between them and the forbidden act. They may not think about cheating or stealing very often, unless an opportunity to do so is put right in front of them. Then the person becomes conflicted between indulgence and self-denial.

When the opportunity is pulled away from the person, this conflict ends in frustration. They did not get a chance to indulge their curiosity, so the heightened emotion lingers. One possible explanation comes from the frustration aggression hypothesis, indicating that a person can develop aggressive impulses when frustrated or blocked from a goal.[2] Because of this, many people may choose to play violent video games to manage aggressive impulses.[1]

Bushman noted that many people choose to play violent video games as a way of managing their mood. If this actually worked, he stated that interest in both violent and non-violent games should have increased. However, only interest in violent video games went up.

Bushman said that future studies could determine how women might react to similar circumstances. Also, future experiments could test whether other circumstances like negative feedback on performance also lead to increased attraction to violent video games.

It’s not clear that playing violent video games actually makes a frustrated person feel better. However, the connection between frustration and aggression is being examined more closely. Bushman said, “This study shows that when people experience frustration, they turn to violent games.”


  1. Whitaker, J. L., Melzer, A., Steffgen, G., Bushman, B. J. (2013). The Allure of the Forbidden: Breaking Taboos, Frustration, and Attraction to Violent Video Games. Psychological Science. Published online before print. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457397
  2. Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 59–73.

Erika Krull is a licensed mental health counselor from Nebraska. She has also been a freelance writer since 2006, writing primarily about mental health and parenting topics. She currently works part-time at a psychiatric hospital, and lives with her husband and three daughters.

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Editor on March 19, 2013 at 05:00 AM

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