The satisfaction of lining up the perfect headshot proves just why military shooters are so popular.

The debate about the psychological effects of violent video games doesn’t need any more fuel, but it can’t be denied that the industry is filled to the brim with violence. Look no further than the wild popularity of tactical military shooters for proof of what sells in the gaming market. The question, then, is why do we find it so enjoyable to gun down enemy after enemy on the virtual battlefield? Psychology writer Jamie Madigan has some ideas, and it goes beyond the thrill of getting to be a hero.

Madigan cites a concept known as “self-determination theory,” which seeks to explain what makes people want to do enjoyable things on their own volition. According to the theory, there are three factors that make us psychologically drawn to rewarding activities: competence rewards our progressing skill level, autonomy gives us meaningful choices, and relatedness lets us use these skills in a way that impacts others. Military shooters happen to provide all three of these desires in one package, which could explain why they’re top dog in the industry at the moment.

The formula fits. Competence is reinforced in the short term by end-of-round scoreboards and the gradual unlocking of new toys. Autonomy can take a variety of forms, from customizable loadouts to multiple tactical avenues to an objective. Topping it off is the addictive component of relatedness through team-based multiplayer modes that make every player a vital part of a group effort.

While many game genres address at least one of these psychological needs, shooters tie them together more neatly than most. The next question, then, is whether or not the violent nature of these games is strictly necessary. A modified version of Half Life 2: Deathmatch was used in a psychological experiment to examine the value of violence in these kinds of games. Some participants played the unmodified game, while others played a changed version in which the weapons were replaced with laser tag-style zappers that nonlethally removed opponents from the fight until they respawned. Interestingly, both versions proved equally enjoyable on the same psychological scales, regardless of the presence of simulated violence. The factors of competence and autonomy trumped the “bloodlust” that critics associate with violent games.

The addicting properties of shooters are probably very familiar to most of us, but it’s interesting to drill deeper and examine what makes that the case. This formula isn’t a guaranteed algorithm for a great game, but it’s easy to see how the popular games of today have designs that hit every part of the checklist. Of course, it’ll be up to developers to prove that other mediums can be just as fundamentally satisfying as the shooters that dominate the market.

Source: Games Industry

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