Do Video Games Influence Violent Behavior?

By:  Roanna Cooper, MA and Marc Zimmerman, PhD, MI-YVPC Director

An op-ed article appeared recently in the The New York Times  discussing the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down California’s law barring the sale or rental of violent video games to people under 18.  The author, Dr. Cheryl Olson,   describes how the proposed law was based on the erroneous assumption that such games influence violent behavior in real life.

Dr. Olson suggests that the deliberately outrageous nature of violent games, though disturbing, makes them easily discernible from real life and suggests that the interactivity could potentially make such games less harmful.

She raises the question of how these two behaviors can be linked if youth violence has declined over the last several years while violent video game playing has increased significantly during the same period.

This analysis ignores the fact that such variation may be explained by factors other than the link between the two. A spurious variable–a third variable that explains the relationship between two other variables—may explain the negative correlation of video game playing and violent behavior. As one example, socioeconomic status may explain both a decline in violent behavior and an increase in video game playing. More affluent youth have the means and time to buy and play video games, which keeps them safely inside while avoiding potentially violent interactions on the street.  Dr. Olsen also cites several studies that have failed to show a connection between violent video game playing and violent behavior among youth.

This conclusion, however, may not be as clear cut as it appears.

Youth violence remains a significant public health issue.

The decline of youth violence notwithstanding, it remains a significant public health issue that requires attention.Youth homicide remains the number one cause of death for African-American youth between 14 and 24 years old, and the number two cause for all children in this age group. Furthermore, the proportion of youth admitting to having committed various violent acts within the previous 12 months has remained steady or even increased somewhat in recent years (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/5/1222.full.pdf+html).  Although the Columbine tragedy and others like it make the headlines, youth are killed everyday by the hands of another.  A more critical analysis of the link between video game playing and violence is necessary for fully understanding a complex problem like youth violent behavior that has many causes and correlates.

Studies support a link between violent video games and aggressive behavior.

Researchers have reported experimental evidence linking violent video games to more aggressive behavior, particularly as it relates to children who are at more sensitive stages in their socialization.  These effects have been found to be particularly profound in the case of child-initiated virtual violence.

  • In their book, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents, Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley provide an in depth analysis of three recent studies they conducted  comparing the effects of interactive (video games) versus passive (television and movies) media violence on aggression and violence.
    • In one study, 161 9- to 12-year olds and 354 college students were randomly assigned to play either a violent or nonviolent video game.  The participants subsequently played another computer game in which they set punishment levels to be delivered to another person participating in the study (they were not actually administered).  Information was also gathered on each participant’s recent history of violent behavior; habitual video game, television, and move habits, and several other control variables.  The authors reported three main findings: 1) participants who played one of violent video games would choose to punish their opponents with significantly more high-noise blasts than those who played the nonviolent games; 2) habitual exposure to violent media was associated with higher levels of recent violent behavior; and 3) interactive forms of media violence were more strongly related to violent behavior than exposure to non-interactive media violence.
    • The second study was a cross-sectional correlational study of media habits, aggression-related individual difference variables, and aggressive behaviors of an adolescent population.  High school students (N=189) completed surveys about their violent TV, movie, and video game exposure, attitudes towards violence, and perceived norms about violent behavior and personality traits.  After statistically controlling for sex, total screen time and aggressive beliefs and attitudes, the authors found that playing violent video games predicted heightened physically aggressive behavior and violent behavior in the real world in a long-term context.
    • In a third study, Anderson et al. conducted a longitudinal study of elementary school students to examine if violent video game exposure resulted in increases in aggressive behavior over time.  Surveys were given to 430 third, fourth, and fifth graders, their peers, and their teachers at two times during a school year.  The survey assessed both media habits and their attitudes about violence.  Results indicated that children who played more violent video games early in a school year changed to see the world in a more aggressive way and also changed to become more verbally and physically aggressive later in the school year.  Changes in attitude were noticed by both peers and teachers.
  • Bushman and Huesmann, in a 2006 Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine article, examined effect size estimates using meta-analysis to look at the short- and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults.  They reported a positive relationship between exposure to media violence and subsequent aggressive behavior, aggressive ideas, arousal, and anger across the studies they examined.  Consistent with the theory that long-term effects require the learning of beliefs and that young minds can easier encode new scripts via observational learning, they found that the long-term effects were greater for children.
  • In a more recent review, Anderson et al. (2010) also analyzed 136 studies representing 130,296 participants from several countries.  These included experimental laboratory work, cross-sectional surveys and longitudinal studies.  Overall, they found consistent associations between playing violent video games and many measures of aggression, including self, teacher and parent reports of aggressive behavior.  Although the correlations were not high (r=0.17-0.20), they are typical for psychological studies in general and comparable with other risk factors for youth violence suggested in the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on youth violence.

Violent video games may increase precursors to violent behavior, such as bullying.

Although playing violent video games may not necessarily determine violent or aggressive behavior, it may increase precursors to violent behavior.  In fact, Dr. Olson points out that violent video games may be related to bullying, which researchers have found to be a risk factor for more serious violent behavior. Therefore, video game playing may have an indirect effect on violent behavior by increasing risk factors for it.  Doug Gentile notes that the only way for violent video games to affect serious criminal violence statistics is if they were the primary predictor of crime, which they may not be.  Rather, they represent one risk factor among many for aggression (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/12/virtual-violence.aspx).

Should video games be regulated?

L. Rowell Huesmann (2010) points out that violent video game playing may be similar to other public health threats such as exposure to cigarette smoke and led based paint .  Despite not being guaranteed, the probability of lung cancer from smoking or intelligence deficits from lead exposure is increased.  Nevertheless, we have laws controlling cigarette sales to minors and the use of lead-based paint (and other lead-based products such as gasoline) because it is a risk factor for negative health outcomes.  Huesmann argues the same analysis could be applied to video game exposure.  Although exposure to violent video games is not the sole factor contributing to aggression and violence among children and adolescents, it is a contributing risk factor that is modifiable.

Violent behavior is determined by many factors.

Finally, most researchers would agree that violent behavior is determined by many factors which may combine in different ways for different youth. These factors involve neighborhoods, families, peers, and individual traits and behaviors. Researchers, for example, have found that living in a violent neighborhood and experiencing violence as a victim or witness is associated with an increased risk for violent behavior among youth. Yet, this factor alone may not cause one to be violent and most people living in such a neighborhood do not become violent perpetrators. Similarly, researchers have found consistently that exposure to family violence (e.g., spousal and child abuse, fighting and conflict) increases the risk for youth violent behavior, but does not necessarily result in violent children. Likewise, researchers have found that first person killing video game playing is associated with increased risk for violent behavior, but not all the time. Yet, constant exposure to violence from multiple sources, including first person violent video games, in the absence of positive factors that help to buffer these negative exposures is likely to increase the probability that youth will engage in violent behavior.

Despite disagreements on the exact nature of the relationship between violent video game playing and violent or aggressive behavior, significant evidence exists linking video game playing with violent behavior and its correlates.  Although we are somewhat agnostic about the role of social controls like laws banning the sale of violent video games to minors, an argument against such social controls based on the conclusion  that the video games have no effect seems to oversimplify the issue. A more in-depth and critical analysis of the issue from multiple perspectives may both help more completely understand the causes and correlates of youth violence, and provide us with some direction for creative solutions to this persistent social problem.

Comments

  1. Pete Hutchison says:

    Regardless of the ambivalence towards legislation regulating video games, there is clearly the opportunity and necessity for parental monitoring of their children’s video gaming. The market for violent video games is clearly driven by the fact that people are buying them, assuming that most young people depend on their parents for their expendable income, we can assume that parents are buying the games for their children either directly or indirectly, therefore the ultimate regulation of thier use must come from within the family. I would suggest that the best prevention intervention would involve educating parents about the effects of these games and keeping them abreast of the latest offerings.

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  3. Julian Serrano says:

    Being a college student who plays video games from time to time, I can honestly say that violence in video games has come a long way. When looking at video game history there was once a time where such a game as pong was entertaining as well as non-violent. My first encounter with violence in any video game let alone any kind of violence dates back to around 1995, when my uncle would let me play Doom on a computer. This game although very graphic was quite entertaining for a five year old like myself at the time. The only thing was that it did not have some of the settings that most violent games have now. Now we are seeing games such the infamous Grand Theft Auto allowing you to car jack individuals and do multitudes of drive-byes while trying to escape the police. In some ways I will agree with the fact that rating video games has done some good, but we still have young kids acquiring violent games through other means. Like stated by prior comments the change that would greatly impact how violent games are controlled has to come from parents and the household. At the end of the day we need hard evidence that will deter parents from letting their kids play these games as well as some kind of movement that includes game manufactures who need to realize that there games are impacting younger individuals differently then there intended audience.

  4. pokefan548 says:

    This is a really good article! It shows both the positive and negative affects of games, while showing the other factors and the proper way to address them.

  5. i play video games all the time and i have never changed no matter how graphic the game is and i dont think games cause eny missbehavior im 16 and i think that games have nothig to do with anger stress or bulling

    • it just depends…

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree with Elizabeth

      • Thats the point of this whole article. It just depends on everything. Honestly, its the peers that cause the violent behavior. All seriousness. We go by what we are taught when we are young. Video games are a peer. And if you have a negative personal peer and a negative object peer, you are tend to be more aggressive than one who has only one negative input.

    • Agreed. I play a lot of games and I have never changed behavior. I actually think it helps me to relieve stress caused by school and now work.

  6. The effect of games depends on the person. I play violent games, and yet would probably be scarred for life if I watched someone be brutally murdered.

  7. i play video games like grand theft auto and to be honest, i havent changed from it, infact im currently a student at college and im a well mannered person, i am a kind friendly person and will only fight or be violent if someone starts a fight with me or is violent towards me!

  8. I am fifteen and against violent video games because of my past and nature. I know for a fact that I enjoy non-graphic violence and that I receive it through anime and two differnet video games, but if I didn’t limit myself and didn’t stay away from graphic first person shhoting games I would be totally different. I would definitely NOT be an all A student or the president of a club. I would be the smart ass girl with purple hair, a knife in her pocket, all F’s and picking a fight with anyone stupid enough to even say my name in the morning. So….it’s difficult to say which, but, I think I agree with this article, but it definitely isn’t all media, it also depends on the person and their environment and personality.

    • Are you kidding? You think your middle school success is because of your lack of violent video games? Are you just typing so you can be included in the thread? I was valedictorian of my High School and a team leader of my football team, that of which we won cites three years in a row. Yet, all through High School i played Call of Duty (probably one of the most violent video games out there today) competitively and still managed to achieve everything I did.

      It isn’t the games that make a person’s personality, but on the other hand, at a younger age I could see how it MAY be a contributing factor to slight aggression. Adolescence have parents for a reason. They need to take on some responsibility not preventing their child from playing certain games if they can see a emotion change in their child.

      Personally, I find the accusation of video games being the reasoning behind violence in real life absurd, and a little insulting. Honestly, it is just a stereotype formed by some people.

      • No thats wrong get your kids off those dang video games and spend time with them like the good old days you know? im pretty sure you remeber those days right?

        • kkaayyllaa says:

          my brother plays online games such as call of duty black ops and he gets abused because he wins games agenced other they threaten him like saying ” im going to find where u live and kill you”. he is 20 and they are like 17 plus it shows how other people are useing weak behaviour and my brother is showing strong behaviour by not saying nothing back to them weak people.

      • CoD….really… those are for the kids. The God of War Series are one of the bloodiest games. CoD…not so much. Video games can have an effect on people if they allow them to. It’s a choice. All psychological.

        • NotSoGoodOfAGamer says:

          true true. also, the games tht are most violent dont even have human phisics included in them. Like Mortal Kombat, can you rip someone in half with your bare hands (if you can i dont wanna see tht)? Grand Theft auto is anyone’s only come back to if videogames cause violent behavior. What I’m trying to say is basically, you cant even do most of the stuff in games. Also, it’s not like everyone tht plays a violent video game goes out and says, “Huh, tht game was awesome. I think im gonna go out and run over people with my car and all of a sudden buy a gun. Yeah that’ll just make my day…”

  9. you know i think its pretty retarted how people think that video games cause violence, NO PEOPLE IT DOES NOT!!! Dumb people dp things on their own get your kids off the games and go spend time with them fools!

  10. Video games can be pretty violent…

    • mackenzey says:

      yeah my friend/sister is like a video game that keeps geting restarted she talks about her boyfriend all the time!

  11. parents should at least make sure that the game their kids play are appropriate for their age. i dont think a 3rd grader should be playing halo.

    • Please Halo is the Least of your worries, though I do agree. If not for a little swearing and blood, it could be teen rated, basically Star Wars Battlefront.

  12. mackenzry says:

    ffyt

  13. mackenzry says:

    i think that vilence in video games kill kids just think about all the kids that go coco because of them! ther all becawse of dam video game

  14. Anonymous says:

    I uhh wona no ANYONE OUTTHERE!

  15. mackenzey says:

    does anyone come to this dame website anymore

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  18. People.I’m truly amused by how mixed this article is. First of all, violent video games don’t create violent children. Proof of this is all over where most studies find that violent children tend to prefer violent video games. If there is a predisposition to a behavior, simple psychology shows you that a subject will tend to go towards that behavior in any way possible. Also, a few studies I found (Ten-country comparison suggests there’s little or no link between video games and gun murders inside the Washington Post is one of them) show the EXACT OPPOSITE correlation. Just some info from a HS senior working on a trend paper.

  19. I would really like to point something out here. If violent video games cause violence now, then what caused it before? Was there a significant rise in domestic violence when video game violence was introduced? Also, what would really drive a person to kill others? Playing a game that involved killing virtual people, or severe mental\physical trauma caused by real people that they interacted with in person on a regular basis. What really caused violence is mental instability, not violent video games. Although, someone who was mentally unstable who played a violent video game might become provoked, the general population would not. What most people see as “violence” while playing is often just frustration, which can cause violent behavior, no matter the source. Chess could cause violence in the same way.
    What really needs to be done is this: improve the reliability and effectiveness of out mental health institutions, and pay more attention to those who need it. More thorough tests and more ease of access to help. Because almost all violence can be traced back to a point when someone needed help, but did not, or could not, get it.

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  21. I always wondered what people thought about this. It’s interesting to see the different opinions.

  22. Violent video games definitely are regulated, which is why they have a rating and require ID before purchase, but I think it’s almost entirely up to the parents to prevent violent behavior. Great read.

  23. My friend just pointed me to this article since we were looking for some arguments on regulating video games. This article brings up some valid points about children who play video games. For example, kids which act violent tend to act violently more often when given access to violent media.

  24. do you have any recent studies that correlate video games with violent behaviour in children?

  25. Some children are just bad seeds, some are products of their environments, but they all need a trigger. Video games can be both an influence to violent behavior or a stress relief

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  32. Hi Nerf, thanks for your comment. We agree about the important roles that parents play in influencing their children. Positive parent-child relationships have been shown to promote cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and adolescents. We also know that social influences in the family context account for a considerable amount of the variation in behavioral outcomes, above and beyond individual predisposition. We appreciate you bringing up the crucial role that parents play in deterring children from engaging in delinquent behavior and violence.

  33. Thanks for your comment. We weren’t suggesting a causal association between videogames and violent behavior. Rather, we were pointing out that the association between these constructs is complex and worthy of more attention.

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