Do Video Games Influence Violent Behavior?

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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 (  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 (

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.