Why Playing FIFA Causes So Much Aggression

“I’ve been playing FIFA competitively since 09 but it’s only as of about January this year I learned to control my aggression towards it,” says David Bytheway. Bytheway, a competitive FIFA player from Wolverhampton, reached last year’s FIFA Interactive World Cup final in Rio De Janeiro, but fell at the last hurdle to Denmark’s August Rosenmeier.

The game finished 3-1 with Bytheway squandering a first half lead, compounding the disappointment of missing out on not just the $20,000 prize money, but also an invitation to the 2014 Ballon D’or – FIFA’s prestigious real life world player of the year awards ceremony.

When Rosenmeier netted the third goal just 14 in-game minutes from time, the match was all but over. The jubilant Dane lept from his seat, roared in a fit of triumph, and thrust a fist into the air. He sat back and let out a sigh of relief. He knew he’d done enough. Bytheway, on the other hand, stared straight ahead. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, glanced momentarily at his opponent, then fixed his gaze back on his screen.

“When you’re side by side with someone you always want to keep your anger under control,” explains Bytheway. “You don’t want to let your opponents know you’re starting to get frustrated – some players can sense that and make it worse by talking you out of the game.”

In 2014, a staggering 1.9 million players entered the FIFA Interactive World Cup. Needless to say, reaching the final two is an achievement in itself and winning would’ve been the perfect precursor to Bytheway’s 21st birthday celebrations the following day. Instead, he went home empty handed. Although it’d be easy for him to dwell on his defeat, he now looks to future competitions in the hope of going one better. It’s just a game, he assures himself, which is a simple but effective adage to live by.

Bytheway’s awareness regarding his conduct in-person seems natural. Social scenarios tend to govern our behaviour for fear of being viewed in a negative light, should we act untowardly. Losing the plot whilst sat next to someone is far less likely than, say, playing at home online, and seclusion in familiar surroundings has the power to stir powerful emotions in players as demonstrated here and here and here.

Bytheway admits he was always able to telegraph his past mood swings, but was helpless to prevent them. He knew it was affecting his life outside of FIFA, that he wasn’t a nice person to be around in the aftermath of defeat, yet it wasn’t until he gave himself a lasting injury that he recognised something had to give.

“I knew I needed to change [my behaviour] when I punched a wall,” he says. “I now have permanent damage to one of my knuckles which isn’t great. It also got to the point where I’d have a massive outburst of anger then think to myself: I’m 22, why am I acting like such a child?”

Dr Daniel Wann is a professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who specialises in the psychology of sport fandom. He suggests aggression in real life sports fans stems from a strong connection with a team, to the point where it becomes part of their identity.

If something important to you fails, suggests Wann, you in turn feel a sense of personal failure. Where this differs from video games is that a real life sports fan has no control over their favoured team’s performance.

“In some ways aggression can be magnified to fans because the reality is they can’t do anything about it,” Wann explains. “The fan is sort of a helpless pawn as they’re watching this thing that they care so much about go down the drain. That can be very frustrating.”

Perhaps the correlation between real life sports fandom and playing sports simulators is stronger than first meets the eye, though. As far as identity is concerned, competitive FIFA players almost always commit to one team. They’ll pore over tactics, formations and swear by idiosyncratic tweaks away from default settings. When the chips are down, certain substitutes are introduced – relied upon to reverse misfortune. There’s a routine. A distinct plan of action. A ritual, almost.

Although FIFA offers players direct influence in each game, it’s exactly that: influence, not control. FIFA, like other football simulators, cleverly frames play via the guise of live television coverage, meaning only one in-game player – normally the one in possession of the ball – can be controlled at any given time. Autonomy in the game, then, is governed by a mechanic, which in essence relates Wann’s suggestion, that anger equals lack of control, to both real and digital play.

“WIth FIFA I can understand why so many people get frustrated as it is such a luck based game,” says Bytheway. “Some pros would often go as far as to say its around 60 per cent skill, 40 per cent luck. Losing to a piece of luck is what sends a lot of people over the edge.”

Furthermore, Wann suggests that when you contextualise these odds within the bounds of the online spectrum, players are far more likely to act aggressively in defeat – safe in the knowledge that their opponents don’t know them or can’t witness their resultant behaviours. This wall of anonymity, or rather the security it facilitates, is something Wann and his Murray State colleagues have investigated at length.

Their studies have shown that if given the opportunity to participate in unscrupulous behaviour without getting caught – ie the perpetrator would remain anonymous to the victim, without negative consequence – a large portion of sports fans would happily do so.

“We’re always amazed at just how high those numbers are,” says Wann. “We get between 30 and 40 per cent of individuals who admit a willingness to engage in these anonymous acts of aggression – to trip the opposing team’s best player; to break the leg of the opposing team’s coach; to harm another fan for the sake of the team – and certainly the numbers are higher when the individual cares more about ‘their own’ team.

“What’s going on here is the psychological and sociological phenomenon known as de-individuation, where if you think that no one knows you are the person acting you’re far more likely to think that, well, since [you] can get away with it, some of the societal stigmas, norms and pressures go away. Essentially it feels like there’s not as much to worry about anymore and people tend to get a bit more violent in those situations.”

This idea is certainly reflected in wider society – the London riots of 2011 a pertinent example – however it is especially prevalent online, as Wann continues: “Certainly in online forums, at least with verbal aggression when no one knows it’s you, there are a lot of theories and there’s a lot of data out there that would suggest that you get peak levels of aggression in those instances.”

As for Bytheway, a much simpler explanation lies at the heart of the matter. I ask him why he thinks football simulators are capable of stirring such dramatic and heightened emotions in players.

“I think the answer to this one is pretty simple,” he says. “No one ever wants to lose. It’s a game that makes you want to win every match and brings out the competitive side of even the most reserved people.”

And he’s got the scars to prove it.

40 Comments

  1. Jediben says:

    I would suggest that this bloke has serious chemical addictions and an unsatisfactory relationship with women. No one who is getting regular sex would give a shit.

    • Beanbee says:

      That’s an aggressive thing to say, anonymously, on the internet, with no possible recompense.

      Are you a super hero?

      Are you in fact, mirror man?!

      Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?!?! No, it’s me staring back at myself! *Mirror Maaaan*

      • Jediben says:

        Aggressive? Read the article. Permanent knuckle injury is aggression. Sharing an opinion based on a career in psychosexual therapy and law enforcement is nothing of the sort.

        • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

          A law enforcer passing cursory judgement with barely any knowledge of the individual and situation in question? Well I never.

        • Universal Quitter says:

          Psychosexual therapy? Surely, you’re familiar with the “law of the instrument.”

          And if anything, law enforcement experience would make you more prone to rash judgments, and reinforce trust in “gut feelings,” because those work well in a law enforcement environment.

          On the other hand, they do not have any place in a lab or clinical setting.

        • Philopoemen says:

          Not sure what your experience with law enforcement is, but the only psychosexual therapy I’ve seen is chemical castration for dangerous sex offenders.

          Not really applicable to a guy that ragequits FIFA.

          I blame society though – it’s just a symptom of how the younger generation has been brought up with the idea that they’re special, and getting awards for participation, and everyone gets a present at Johnny’s birthday party because don’t want anyone feeling left out.

    • Devan says:

      That’s a pretty broad and counterintuitive statement. Much of this article compares aggression of sports fans with aggression of players of competitive video games. It may be easy to scoff at gamers as having “unsatisfactory relationships with women”, but can you make the same blanket statement about all of the aggressors we see in sports stadiums? It’s relatively tame in North America, but in many places it is prevalent and can get downright scary. I don’t see a difference between the aggression you see from real-life sports fans and that you see from video game or other competitive participants.
      Can you really say it’s all just a chemical addiction and lack of sex? I think that misses the mark by quite a bit.

      • Jediben says:

        I have a pretty good grasp on the chemical dependencies and sexual frustrations of football fans too. 5 years dancing as the mascot for a Premier League football team is a real eye opener.

      • lglethal says:

        I have to agree with Devan on this one, anyone who’s been to a Rangers v Celtic game (or even just happened to be in the wider Glasgow area on the same day) can tell you about the insane levels of aggression that you will encounter.

        60,000 overly aggresive Scots are not something thats going to make your day, and that agro certainly doesnt come down to chemicals and lack of sex…

        • Sian says:

          Alcohol is a chemical, and judging by the matches I’ve seen, it’s probably present in Rangers v Celtics games too. It probably has its part in the aggression, though the reasons stated in the article and the emotional tide of a large mass of people are also quite powerful.

    • Truckse says:

      I believe your statement to have quite a few leaps in logic, Jediben. While sexual frustration and aggressiveness can come in a package, they are not exclusive. And you can’t jump to that conclusion just by reading his short statements in this article.

      That, and you assume that he is unmistakeably heterosexual, for some reason. It has nothing to do with the matter at hand, and it’s rude to make assumptions about people’s sexuality.

      • Jediben says:

        I didn’t mention any sexual relationship with specific genders. LEAP THAT!

        • tanith says:

          […]and an unsatisfactory relationship with women. No one who is getting regular sex[…]

          […]I didn’t mention any sexual relationship with specific genders.[…]

          Trolls are gonna troll.

    • iucounu says:

      That’s such an obnoxious post to see immediately after reading a very interesting article.

    • PoulWrist says:

      Rather condescending and generalising post, this. But whatevs, it’s the Internet, the place for such things.

  2. Big Murray says:

    Is his name genuinely “Bytheway”?

    • mr.black says:

      You forgot obligatory BTW in front.

      • Jediben says:

        Pronounced “Bith-ooh-aay”. 12 years in the dictionary corner on Countdown lends itself to deciphering 17th century surnames.

        • iucounu says:

          I presume that’s also where you get your piercing psychological insight.

          • Jac says:

            Didn’t realise Susie Dent posted on RPS. Her opinions are evidently best digested in bitesize chunks and only on topics that involve making the biggest 9 letter word possible.

        • Crane says:

          There is nobody who has both served for 12 years in the dictionary corner on countdown and danced as a premier league football mascot for five years.

          If you’re going to invent things about your background to provide you with “qualifications”, perhaps you shouldn’t reach so far. :-)

          • Sian says:

            Don’t forget their “career in psychosexual therapy and law enforcement”. That’s one busy person, this Jediben.

  3. turtle says:

    Fifa sucks

  4. neoncat says:

    Actually, I think this generalizes well beyond “sports” to all small-sided competitive play.

    In particular, the tension between control and randomness leaves the player feeling as though a loss is an insult to their skill, when in fact there’s often little they could have done. When both players are highly-skilled and capable of near-perfect play, the outcome is then primarily determined by randomness.

    I know this rage well, having recently wiped my Card Hunter account after 2.5 years because I couldn’t deal with the RNG-hate. I also don’t really play competitive small-sided games any more.

    Games like WoT or Tribes are okay most of the time, because larger teams and more manageable randomness dilute the psychological impact of losing.

    • PoulWrist says:

      Yeah, you’re right. In my own experience, which I posted below, the more relatable what’s going on is, a.e. the randomness has been reduced as much as possible, the more it’s your own inadequacy or “stupidity” that’s put on display when you lose, and that’s more enraging than rolling a die and getting an undesirable result.

      You mention a cardgame, and I know from my own playing Hearthstone recently, which is a brilliant game, that it’s just too stressful for me to handle more than a few games in a row. The intensity felt by the 1v1 action is just too much to handle for me for any duration.

  5. amateurviking says:

    True story, I haven’t played a fifa game since, in 2001, beating my flatmate caused him to go berserk and flip the coffee table and sofa.

  6. rcguitarist says:

    Fans of sport be crazy.

  7. Gothnak says:

    I stopped myself playing Trials because i was getting so angry at it and i’m over 40 (And getting laid)…

    Any game where you expect to be able to do something and fail at an important moment creates rage because you want to singularly blame the game but at the same time you blame yourself, because someone else clearly hasn’t had the same problem as you, either the guy you are playing against, or the friend that managed to bunny hop over that bloody box on an uphill ramp that you never could. The game makes you feel stupid, ‘why can’t i do X’ and that really isn’t a pleasant sensation.

  8. alms says:

    This one was a little like the Photorealism post in that, after finishing it, I asked myself: does this leave me with anything more than I started with?

    And the reply was no.

  9. Spacewalk says:

    The narrative that I’m getting from these screenshots is that the chap in the first one got yellow carded for his hairdo which caused everyone else’s world to collapse in on itself.

  10. Marblecake says:

    I used to play a lot of FIFA, as in, every day for 2 years. And boy, did I get angry. Stopped playing because it just wasn’t *fun*, which is what a game should be.
    Picked up Rocket League this year, but never get angry. That’s because in Rocket League you’re always in absolute control. If something goes wrong, you know exactly why it went wrong and what your mistake was. There are no hidden stats and calculations that decide that – even though you’re in the right place and press the right button – the ball just bounces off you and your opponent gets the ball and scores.
    FIFA is a bad game and a bad approximation of football.

  11. ripolin says:

    Hi everyone,

    I think there’s an important thing left out of this conversation, it’s about the 60/40 luck vs skills ratio.

    In my experience, that’s what gets me. To punch my bed in frustration, to get really pissed off to the point i have to quit playing, uninstall the game to feel better.

    Watching sports as a fan, i guess you can get really pissed off by (what you see as) bad calls, the other team outplaying yours, opposite fans being a bit too vehement, etc. But right from the start you (have to) know you’re not in control. The result of the game, of your entire experience as a sports fan is entirely up to somebody else’s talent, behavior and what not.

    FIFA, on the other hand, wants you to believe that you’re in control. You have 360° ball handling control. You can use smart defence tactics, you can tell your goalie to get out of his position, etc. If you’re stupid enough to believe it (and all of us are when they begin to play each new iteration of the game), you’re in total control of your fate in this game. If you’re a better player than the other guy, you’ll win 100%.

    Except when you won’t, which is half the times. Because FIFA relies more and more on hidden stats and numbers that tend to control the pace of each game, to prevent a lesser player from being so outmatched, so humiliated that he will quit playing definitively, meaning a loss in sales in the long run.

    IMHO, FIFA is now an orchestrated game where two players are played by the numbers and supposed to have fun in the very little windows of control they have left. Games are manipulated to offer the maximum of spectacle (= goals), each team having gross momentum boosts, etc.

    And so this is where I tend to punch things. Because this game tells me that i do have control, and my everyday experience proves me that at least half of what i do on the pitch doesn’t matter. Psychologicaly, i think this is something that the brain can’t handle very well, hence the anger and flying fists…

    I guess many won’t agree with me, but as a seasoned FIFA player, i see that evolution being more and more tangible as EA Sports wants FIFA to beats its sales numbers every year. To ensure a gratifying experience for every type of players (= newcomers), they manipulate the outcome of online games to make those players feel good.

    Sorry for the long post and sometimes poor english.

  12. PoulWrist says:

    Aggression over a game isn’t relevant to just FIFA, although I guess as a study it’s interesting. As a kid I remember throwing my NES controller so hard at the TV that I put dents in the glass. Those things were built like bricks… Never broke. Luckily my TV didn’t, either.

    After I got back in to playing FPS online with Bad Company 2, it was a return for me to the rage inducing gameplay. I loved the game, but whenever a failure was caused by what I could obviously tell was my own lack of skill or worse yet, the result of stupidly repeating something I knew would lead to defeat, I’d get so pissed. I would smack myself upside the head as a punishing reminder to get things under control and not do something as stupid as I just did again.

    I destroyed my desk (which was this shelf-arrangement with a keyboard drawer under it, set in a shelfholder), reassembled the broken pieces, destroyed it again, bought new stuff, nearly destroyed that as well. Punched my monitor, which was sorta-OK when I had a 21″ CRT, but the Samsung LCD I got after that was not as durable, but somehow survived multiple hits so hard the colors would look weird for 5 minutes in an imprint of my knuckles. I would shout profanities and scream in rage, probably loud enough that my neighbours would wonder wtf was going on.
    I threw bottles around, destroyed glasses and whatever else was within reach at the time.

    At some point I realised how much of a bad habbit this behaviour was, and I started to make a very conscious effort to just laugh it off, and maybe just turn off the game, whenever something that threatened to send me in to a rage would happen.
    It’s been a couple years now since I destroyed anything and I only occassionally let out a shout of frustration.

    • PoulWrist says:

      Oh, and to add, I’m not an aggressive person. I don’t think you’d ever imagine me flying in to a fit of rage like this if you knew me. At least a couple friends I told about the problem were absurdly surprised as they found it really hard to believe that someone as mellow and generally un-competitive as me could possibly act as crazy as that.

      Who knows, maybe it’s an outlet of other frustrations, dunno.

      • gunny1993 says:

        You know that old cliche of the serial killer being “Oh what, that nice boy from down the road, never would have thought he could do something like that”

        DO you have the body of any cats in your garden, if so, I suggest you seek help.

      • ankh says:

        Maybe we all have to rage sometime? Ive noticed in my group of friends that the mellow ones who never played rugby at school and make a point of avoiding social conflict are more likely to rage because of games.

  13. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    If you think this is bad then you evidently have never seen a losing solo queue player on League of Legends.

  14. canis39 says:

    Very interesting. I’ve been playing PC and video games for 30+ years, and FIFA is the only one that inspires this type of rage in me. Specifically, giving up ridiculous goals. Sometimes the computer is just going to score, whether you play perfect defense or not. I’ve always had a hard time accepting that.

    I try not to hit anything that would result in permanent injury, though.