For years, researchers have been trying to tease out the relationship between video game violence and aggressive behavior on the part of people who play such games. So far, it’s seemed that violence in video games may spur aggression in players, at least in the first few minutes after the game is played.

A study published Aug. 17 in the American Psychological Association journal “Psychology of Violence” adds the useful insight that it might not be the games’ violent content itself that sparks aggression but instead their level of competitiveness.

In a series of small experiments involving college undergraduates, researchers had participants play one of two games that were equally matched for competitiveness, difficulty and pace of action. One of the games had been determined to be substantially more violent than the other. When the games ended, participants took part in a second task they thought to be unrelated to the game-playing experiment (which they had been told was about eye movement, not aggressive behavior): They were asked to prepare a hot-sauce mixture for a taster who they knew had reported a dislike for hot and spicy food. Those who played the violent video game were no more likely to create a large quantity of spicy food — an act that has been established in the realm of psychological research as an aggressive act — than those who played the nonviolent game.

But in a second experiment, games were selected on the basis of how competitive they were. After the game playing, participants again took part in the “hot sauce paradigm” portion of the research. Those whose games had been determined to be more competitive were far more likely to create large quantities of very spicy sauce for their poor tasters. They also had significantly higher heart rates.

The authors point out that many violent video games also tend to be extremely competitive. So separating out the effect of the level of competitiveness could open new channels for both understanding the link between video games and aggressive behavior and also, perhaps, figuring out how to blunt that effect.

Now I’m curious to see what kind of hot sauce my son might concoct for me (not a hot-sauce fan) after he plays one of his car-racing games!