When you hear about online multiplayer video games, words that often come up are words like “raging”, “flaming” or “rage-quitting”. These 3 words are associated with angrily lashing out at other players, but how can the navigation of situations like these be an asset for a player’s emotional development? As the title suggests, common events in video games that lead to anger and frustration provide ample opportunity to practice emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation: what is it?
Firstly, what is emotional regulation? In short, emotional regulation is the ability to maintain voluntary control of your emotions and keeping yourself at a neutral or positive mindset. Although there are many extreme emotions that might warrant emotional regulation such as overexcitement and fear, in terms of video games, the most common emotions (and the ones we’ll focus on) are anger and frustration.
Anger and frustration, although similar, are two different emotions. Anger is a natural response to some external event. An example would be feeling angry if your friend made a rude comment about your clothing choices that day. On the other hand, frustration is more of an internal response from the inability to do what you intend to do.
An example here would be if you burned your popcorn because you accidentally heated it up for 22 minutes instead of 2. Anger can very much be a response from frustration, but frustration is more of a combination of disappointment and discouragement from the task. In terms of video games, anger and frustration can manifest in both similar and dissimilar ways.
You can get angry at a teammate because they aren’t doing what you asked, resulting in you being frustrated from the inability to win that game. You can also feel frustrated at your own mistakes during a game and yet not feel angry at anyone else. In both these cases, emotional regulation can be a valuable skill to bring the focus back towards future opportunities instead of past mistakes, which can lead to more prosocial teamwork and self-improvement.
Emotional Regulation in Gaming
Why does emotional regulation matter in video games? It’s useful to compare emotional regulation to the physiological process of homeostasis in your body. If you’re cold, you’ll shiver, which tightens and relaxes the muscles rapidly to generate heat. If you’re hot, you’ll sweat so the water vapors cool you down when it evaporates. Both body processes exist because your body optimally functions at body temperature, and health problems will occur if you’re too cold or too hot for an extended period of time.
The same goes for your emotions when you play video games. If you get too frustrated or angry for too long in a multiplayer game, you tend to start focusing your attention on the negative aspects of the game instead. Many players who “rage” tend to start yelling at their teammates for misplays, or blaming their teammates when they lose. When the player starts focusing on aspects of the game besides themselves, they inevitably take focus away from their own performance, and start playing more on impulse rather than making rational, conscious decisions.
However, the key difference between your body’s response to temperature and your brain’s response to anger-inducing events is this: temperature regulation is automatic, while emotional regulation requires conscious effort.
Although your anger does subside on its own after a while, it often won’t subside till after the game is long over. More importantly, what matters in game (and often in everyday situations) is that emotional regulation is something you’ll need to do relatively quickly. In other words, just letting your anger naturally subside isn’t enough, meaning you’ll need to calm yourself down consciously and actively, ergo emotional regulation.
So why is emotional regulation a difficult, yet important skill for youths to master? This is where we can direct our attention towards a psychological theory made by Jane Loevinger. She created a set of life stages related to the development of a person’s ego. In total, there are 9 stages in this theory, the first starting at infancy and the last being developed later in life.
As you can see in the image below, the impulse stage involves the child only being able to differentiate good and bad things by how well it egotistically serves them. If they win, it’s fun and “good”. If the game is too challenging, they would get frustrated and deem it as “bad”. What’s important from an emotional regulation standpoint is to learn self control and perseverance. Basic practices to start teaching the child can involve the introduction of deep breathing to calm the child down, and to encourage the child to openly voice their frustrations while discussing productive ways to vent their frustrations.
Once the child has mastered the requirement of the impulsive stage, typical childhood development would lead towards challenges in the self-protective and conformist stages. Both require some form of self control over the child’s emotions. However, because these are typically stages in which children create friendship groups, they develop a sense of trust within the group to adhere to implicit group norms.
These norms can include things like don’t steal, help each other when someone asks, and to spend time with one another after school. Though the development of these skills can occur naturally in everyday situations, it can be much harder to develop the same sense of trust and norm adhesion when you’re matched against 2-3 complete strangers. The online aspect of video games also makes it difficult to sympathize with their teammates, making it easier to get angry at them.
To rectify this issue, the child then must learn that getting angry at others will be a detriment towards both winning and their own improvement, so they must learn to manage their emotions and conform to the group without the ability to physically interact with their teammates. This is a much more difficult task as we humans have evolved to be social when physically interacting with others in person. When there is a screen in between people, it’s much harder to sympathize with the struggles of others, and thus much easier to lose one’s temper at them.
How does this manifest in gaming?
Learning the ways to manage their frustrations at an early age gives them the toolset to manage anger and frustration from more complex and nuanced sources later in life, namely in online team games such as Valorant, League of Legends and Fortnite.
In these games, there are vastly more variables outside the control of the player that can lead to a loss. Because frustration is an emotion that’s born from a lack of control, it can be difficult to play any of these online video games without feeling frustration as there are typically 2-3 other players that can potentially make mistakes to the detriment of everyone else in the team. When frustration is inevitable, emotional regulation skills must be actively and consciously learned and developed.
Coaches and parents who interact with the child in the context of the game can be a great resource to teach children skills to manage their emotions. Vanta coaches act as a catalyst for players to learn these skills in a more explicit way through a planned curriculum that they explore together in the span of a two-month season. Here are a few basic strategies we deploy regularly:
Taking deep breaths with the player
Getting the player to step away from the game and openly discuss their frustrations with the coach
Encouraging players to embrace the chaos associated with a lack of control in team games
Establishing trust between teammates and creating team agreements like never yelling at anyone
All of these skills can also be applied outside of video games too. Taking deep breaths will always be a good way to calm yourself down, and openly discussing their frustrations with teachers, friends and work supervisors can lead to meaningful connections with others. Expecting the unexpected allows people to develop flexibility and adaptability, and emphasizing the value of trust and empathy with others fosters the development of prosocial behaviors.
All in all, although games do create situations that can frequently get frustrating, learning how to manage those frustrations leads to the development of emotional regulation skills. These emotional regulation skills are not just useful in the confines of video games, but are guaranteed to be generalized outside of video games too.
Carlson is an ongoing League of Legends coach, writer and streamer at Vanta Leagues. With a Psychology and Counselling background, he hopes to highlight the mental benefits of team video games in his writing, as well as having a healthy mindset when playing ranked games.