New Scientist magazine has published a poorly titled article describing what most of us already knew though we may not have consciously examined it before. It describes how gamers, when playing popular multiplayer action game Unreal Tournament 2004 again first an opposing team of strangers and then against their own friends, display markedly raised testosterone levels after a victory in the first condition but lower levels in the second. Simply put - defeating faceless enemies is more physically exciting than defeating your companions.
Anthropologically it makes sense - better to give your all to kill the violent tribe in the next valley and to hold back when slapping your own tribe mates around. Add to that actively reducing testosterone levels and there's only so much you can fight amongst yourselves before everyone gets tired of it. We've all seen it in games - you get more determined to kill an enemy player when he or she is silent and faceless than if you are existing friends or engage in friendly banter during the course of play. It becomes a lot harder to hate someone if you're laughing with each other over voice-chat or across the LAN hall.
The timing of this article is fortuitous - just last Friday I was involved in UT3 LAN party designed to break the ice a little amongst the games designers and programmers freshers at my university (more on that in the future, likely on a separate blog). Before teams were assigned I had struck up conversation and found common ground with a handful of other students and I think we had all enjoyed the company and discussion. We also practiced a little and worked out team dynamics. Playing against each other we were relaxed and laughings. Things got serious and the testosterone was racing, however, when it came to the second round and we were up against a team that could have been any four people in the packed room - we hadn't seen their faces or gotten their names at all. We fought furiously, with a war-like survival mentality though were ultimately defeated. The difference could not have been more profound.
As both a gamer and a student of psychology I see several potential flaws with the study mentioned - the different incentives of $45 for the winning team in the first test and $45 for the winning individual in the second test seem in-balanced. I also have to wonder about the psychological difference between Onslaught (fought over very large maps, using vehicles and using take-and-hold mechanics in the style of Enemy Territory and Battlefield games) and straight Deathmatch (fought over small dependant only upon killing each other). If anything I would think that Deathmatch would be more testosterone-building than Onslaught but the point is there might be a crucial difference that interferes with the results.