Do Video Games Make Us Violent?

Image of controller depiciting violence in video games debate

For years, the debate on video games and their impacts on the psyches of players has dominated social and political discourse, especially around industry regulations. The question of whether or not video games cause violence is certainly controversial and its fierce debate particularly arises in the aftermath of school shootings and mass murders. Naturally, people seek reasons to explain why these events occur and look for ways our society can stop them from happening again.  What fuels these debates is that In many cases, investigations reveal that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes spent enormous amounts of time playing violent video games.

For some, it is clear that video game violence contributed to these tragedies. Yet research shows that the incidence of youth violence in particular, is at an all time low, falling by half between 1994 and 2010 while video game sales have more than doubled in this since 1996.

Some politicians are convinced that pervasive violence in video games contribute to real acts of violence. Last month, Business Insider reported on a tax reform presented by the House GOP which sought to prevent creators of violent video games from receiving an R&D tax credit for research and experimentation.

Last year, the Obama administration sought to develop a $10 million research program to investigate the relationship between video game content and actual violence (it did not come to fruition thanks to low public interest around gun control measures).

Despite the strong anti-violent video game rhetoric and biases of the federal government, the Supreme Court ruled (in Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants, 2011) that video game content is protected under the First Amendment and can’t be regulated by government. The Court also dismissed psychology research as unpersuasive as some studies seem to support a causal relationship between violence in video games and aggressive behavior in real life while others support no clear link.

In an age when violence in video games is more vivid and graphic than ever before, it is natural for parents and educators to question if their kids and young adults should be left to play and watch what they want.

Peer-reviewed research is looked to as a source of objective truth but, as it stands now, the findings have not pointed to any clear answers. Though lack of clarity continues to dominate the debate, here are a few notable studies that can help guide your own thinking on this issue.

Research Supporting a Connection between Video Games and Violence

A study at Iowa State University was published in the 2013 issue of Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. Researchers examined 227 young offenders in Pennsylvania. Most of them were guilty of committing an average of nine “serious acts of violence.” This included gang fights or assaults on people. According to the study’s analysis, each research participant shared the same high frequency affinity for playing violent video games.

Many psychologists agree that these particular results do not illustrate that violent video games constitute a singular and leading cause for aggression as there are many other contributing variables that must be examined as well such as: social isolation, mental disorder, domestic issues, etc. However, the psychologists maintain that violent media is still a significant contributor, if not the smallest, or the largest factor.

Another 2013 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science showed that teens who played violent video games demonstrated lower levels of self control. 172 Italian high school students between 13-19 took part in the study. One group was given non-violent games to play such as Pinball 3D or MiniGolf 3D.  The other played Grand Theft Auto III or Grant Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Self control was monitored in three scenarios.

(1) While the subjects played, they were given a bowl of chocolate along with the instruction that they should not eat too much within a short period of time.

(2) The participants were also told that the winner of a two-player game was allowed to blast the loser with a loud megaphone.

(3) The students were also given a logic test. For every correct answer they would win a raffle ticket to exchange for prizes. They were then trusted to take the correct number of tickets from an envelope.

The participants who played the violent games ate more chocolate, blasted their opponents much louder and more aggressively with the megaphone, and took more tickets than they were supposed to than those participants in the non-violent control group (both groups had the element of competition meaning that the competitive drive was factored in the research).

The researchers also measured the subjects and their level of moral disengagement. They found that the players who tested high for this variable were more likely to be affected by violent video games and demonstrate dishonest and aggressive behavior.

Research Disproving a Connection between Video Game Violence and Aggression

A study conducted by Cheryl Olson  and Christopher Ferguson (Stetson University) observed the effect of violent video games on 377 American thirteen year olds who were clinically diagnosed with ADHD or depression. The assumptive premise was that these conditions would predispose these kids towards violent behavior. The researchers allowed the subjects to play video games with violent themes. Their results showed that the games actually had a slight calming, cathartic effect, lowering the group’s aggression and anti-social bullying behavior in some participants.

According to a Brock University study, researchers found that competition, as opposed to violent themes, contributed more significantly to increases in aggression when they tested one group of subjects with another by having them the former participants play a violent game while the latter group played a non-violent game. When the researchers compared games they found that higher levels of observed aggressive behavior were attributed to higher levels of competitiveness (as determined by the video games mechanics and design).

So which is it? Do Violent Video Games Make us More Aggressive?

One of the major challenges in trying to answer this question is in ruling out standard biases and narrowing study parameters. When, how, and for whom do violent video games have the most negative effect and can this be attributed by other variables beyond media? According to psychologist Romeo Vitelli, many research studies have been conducted with biased premises and search parameters. Problematic factors include:

(1) Not knowing how to officially measure violence and aggression, due to a lack of commonly accepted tests which measure these social traits and effects.

(2) Biases in publication, where positive results tend to be published more so than research outcomes which support negative results.

(3) The concept of statistically significant differences. 0.15 is  considered to be a statistically significant measure but it is still a small difference that may not warrant an official conclusion that should be widely generalized to larger populations.

(4) Sponsorship. Studies commissioned by the video game industry as well as research commissioned by anti-violence groups are likely to be biased in terms of the conclusions that emerge.

These issues continue to complicate research and policy discussions. We may even being targeting the wrong issue.

It may be that heinous video game content by itself does not lead to higher aggression but instead draws players that already have higher proclivity towards actual violence. Therefore, as regulators attempt to address social morality and ethics by targeting a lightning rod industry like video games, the prohibition of such games may cause these types of individuals to seek other types of outlets.

It is clear that research has not conclusively answered the question of whether or not violent video games are harmful to society. Vitelli’s view on this is that  “the lack of a clear answer after decades of research suggest that the real problem may lie with our not being able to answer the right question.”

For what it’s worth, my personal opinion on the subject is that violence in video games is like violence in movies- it is all about context.

Just because you see or in, some sense, embody evil characters in movies, games, or books does not mean you are naturally inclined to that type of personality. It’s about how you make sense of the violence and how you relate to its impact yourself. As powerful as games can be, I don’t think they can force you into being someone you are not.

I would recommend that parents spend time with their children playing their favorite games. This will give parents the opportunity to clarify right from wrong, and provide their children with the right education and context. This will help children balance what they see and do in games and in life. Ultimately, parents can be the best guides in helping their kids understand all the information and experiences they will have growing up. Video games, like the playground, school, church, and restaurants are just one more venue to share this wisdom and experience.

While the debate rages and the research remains indeterminate as whole, I would love to hear your own thoughts on the effects of violence in video games on social behavior in the comment field below.

4 thoughts on “Do Video Games Make Us Violent?”

  1. I’m not a big fan of all the gratuitous violence and such on tv, so I choose simply not to watch it. I cut the cable years ago (7?) and have never regretted it.

  2. I really got a lot out of your article, it answered several of the questions I had on the subject.  It broke it down into plain English and not all of the technical speak.  Keep up the good work look forward to other articles on the subject.

  3. A very interesting post that should make us think twice over those traditional misconceptions on video-games and young violence; many thanks Yukai for spreading your knowledge 😉

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