Watching violent video games instead of playing them: Does streamers’ aggressive commentary increase adolescents’ aggression?

Aggression and violent video games are frequently linked in both scientific and non-scientific literature. However, the relationship between aggression and violent video games remains a subject of ongoing debate, yielding mixed findings. Throughout the 2010s, with the surge in e-sports' popularity, new opportunities for exposure to the violent aspects of gaming emerged, extending beyond direct gameplay. Many individuals began live-streaming video games. Surprisingly, investigations into whether observing others engage in violent gaming through live streams might lead to increased aggression are basically nonexistent. This lack of research evidence has inspired our recent study, now published in New Media & Society, and conducted by David Lacko, Hana Machackova, and Eliška Dufková.

January 2024 David Lacko

Image by Freepik

Around 2010, the digital gaming revolution was about to happen. Live streaming services became immensely popular due to the broadcasting of major e-sports tournaments. This new media format has redefined the entertainment landscape and combines elements of television, computer gaming, the internet, and computer-mediated communications that are not present in simple video gameplay or traditional media content. Its audience is getting bigger each year. For example, in 2021,, the largest live-streaming service, had an average of 2.78 million concurrent online viewers and 8.46 million monthly broadcasters (TwitchTracker, 2022).

While previous research has focused on viewers' motivations and the potential benefits of streaming services, live streaming services may also have some drawbacks. Children and adolescents can be exposed to problematic content during streams, including elements like gamblification of engagement, gender-based harassment, offensive communication, hostile humor, cyberbullying, and violent video games that may not be suitable for their age. And since the aggressiveness of streamers is one of the factors for their popularity (Hamari & Sjöblom, 2017), they might be motivated to be more aggressive in their commentaries. Hence, we decided to explore the short-term effects of streamers and their commentaries during live-streaming on the aggression of their viewers.

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In our pre-registered research, we assigned approx. 600 participants to three experimental conditions: a control group without a streamer, a group with commentary from a streamer who encouraged and enjoyed violent gameplay, and a group with commentary from a streamer who favored a non-violent style. Then we exposed participants to 2-minute length clips (“records of live streaming”). These clips were prerecorded and designed to look similar to the popular platform. In all cases, the same gameplay from the first-person shooter (FPS) video game Superhot: Mind Control Delete was used and only the streamer’s presence or his commentary varied.

The results showed that neither the presence of streamers nor their aggressive commentary led to an increase in aggression. Importantly, the commentary also did not moderate the relationship between personal and environmental factors and aggression (i.e., for instance, whether the effect did not differ for those with generally higher aggression or empathy). It appears that short-term exposure to aggressive commentary does not significantly influence aggressive feelings and thoughts, and non-aggressive commentary does not decrease such feelings and thoughts.

These findings suggest that concerns about aggressive narration in streamed games should not be overstated. With regulated non-problematic use of live-streaming services (cf. Cabeza-Ramírez et al., 2022), aggression in children should not be exacerbated. Instead, these services can offer social benefits, helping children cope with various life situations (e.g., De Wit et al., 2020).

However, our data indicated that adolescents who are generally more aggressive or sensitive may experience increased negative and aggressive emotions after exposure to a streamed violent video game. Therefore, we recommend that parents of such adolescents be cautious about the content their children watch, as they may be more prone to short-term negative responses. This recommendation is particularly relevant for parents of children with higher affective empathy because similar recommendations are usually stated only for children with a higher general aggressive trait.

Our article can be found online at the website of the publisher. Free preprint (i.e., not the final published version) can be found at PsyArXiv.

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