Do Violent Video Games Really Cause Violent Behavior?

After the recent tragedy in Newtown, CT, some commentators and - notably - the National Rifle Association (NRA) remarked that video games played a role in a "culture of violence" and detachment that can ease the path to violent behavior. This, in turn, has given new life to the debate about the role of media violence – particularly, violent video games – on real-world aggression. It's a serious topic, so ReadWrite thought it was important to to recap the latest on the discussion and see where scholarly studies and popular opinion fall.

Understanding The Numbers

We all know the guy who plays Call of Duty eight hours a day, then goes home to a world of puppies and rainbows. We've also heard of the kid who plays a game for an hour or two, then goes on a shooting spree. There are exceptions to any rule, and if we're going to find real answers, we need to look at trends and averages, not statistical outliers.

It's also important to remember that even if there is a link between violent games and aggressive behavior, that does not imply causality. Violent criminals may well choose violent games, but tens of millions of gamers play those games every week, and the vast majority are law-abiding, normal citizens.

At the same time, it might be shortsighted to ignore such links. According to a recent publication by Iowa State University professor Dr. Craig Anderson, "Correlational studies are routinely used in modern science to test theories that are inherently causal. Whole scientific fields are based on correlational data (e.g., astronomy). Well conducted correlational studies provide opportunities for theory falsification. They allow examination of serious acts of aggression that would be unethical to study in experimental contexts. They allow for statistical controls of plausible alternative explanations." In other words, short of placing a subject in a dangerous situation, correlation is often the best evidence available, and it can be useful debunking other theories.

The State Of Research

At the moment, studies are all over the map, largely because just about every study of video game violence uses different definitions of the terms. The Legend of Zelda, Grand Theft Auto and Missile Command are all violent games in their own ways, but they're not at all similar. Likewise, throwing a fake roundhouse kick at your buddy, checking a box describing "elevated feelings of aggression," and setting fire to a building are all extremely different violent expressions. Unfortunately, current studies span both spectrums, so anyone with a vested interest can easily find a study to support their position. Worse, this makes meaningnful meta-analysis across multiple studies is effectively impossible. 80% of studies agreeing with a certain position doesn't mean much if half of those studies were poorly structured and the other half were measuring something completely different.

5 Emerging Truths

With that said, there seem to be five theories gaining traction. Each has its naysayers, of course, but they have real data to back them up:

1. At-Risk Populations Are Vulnerable To Violent Stimuli

One popular theory holds that some people are more vulnerable to the effects of gaming violence than others. This resonates with our gut instincts, and provides a happy, reasonable-sounding middle ground for both sides. In the Review of General Psychology, Drs. Patrick and Charlotte Markey outline the three most predictive traits for vulnerability:

  • high neuroticism
  • low agreeableness
  • low conscientiousness

This doesn't mean that games cause violent behavior. It suggests that violent games are among the many influences that can be linked to violent behaviors. We've seen copycat murders modeled after television newscasts, Mark David Chapman's obsession with The Catcher in the Rye, and thousands of years of killings based on stories from holy works. Violence and rebellion in media have always been lightning rods for the mentally ill, and video games are a popular medium for the young male demographic most likely to commit violent acts.

The upshot? Young people who are emotionally upset, detached or combative, and impulsive should probably not be exposed to violent games. Unfortunately, that describes a fair portion of teenagers, so use discretion applying the rule to your own kids.

2. Video Game violence Is Not A Significant Danger To The General Population

Even the most damning studies don't claim that video games will create violent monsters of your children. They can't. If that were true, we'd have blood running in the streets. For the majority of "normal" gamers, the worst claims seem to be short-term aggression without substantial consequence, and a general lessening of communication and empathy skills – but again, without specific consequences attached.

The majority of research on the subject seems to indicate a fairly tenuous link between in-game and real-world violence. For example, two studies conducted by Texas A&M and the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater, respectively, found no conclusive evidence. "Structural equation modeling suggested that family violence and innate aggression as predictors of violent crime were a better fit to the data than was exposure to video game violence."

In other words, a predisposition to violence or a violent homelife is very likely a predictor of future violent behavior, while video games are not.

3. Fantasy Violence Is Less Dangerous

Killing Falatacot Raiders won't make you murder humans, though we're not sure about Hitman. Some people have pointed to studies showing that even E-rated games can lead to imitation (e.g., children punching or kicking) for a period following play, but it appears that transference of aggression from aliens, orcs, or Pokemon to humans is minimal, at worst.

4. Violent Games Do Increase Simulation

Just like watching action movies or sprinting down a street, violent video games (and other competitive or action games) increase stimulation and adrenaline production, which can produce short-term disruptions and enhanced moods. Some studies claim short-term affects can last long enough to disrupt sleep when played before bedtime, while others saw certain effects lingering up to 24 hours. At the very least, the "amp up" factor is real – it's kind of the point. For parents of children who may be particularly affected by such things (e.g., those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD), this can be a concern.

5. Content Ratings Matter

People on both sides of the issue agree that content ratings are important. Even absent a long-term impact on violent behavior, graphic scenes of violence, nudity and other adult situations can impact developing minds. Video game access should be restricted like access to any other type of media.

The Easy Answer

Anyone who wants the government to step in and make the call on what to do about video game violence will be sorely disappointed. There simply isn't enough evidence linking video games and violence to even start that discussion, particularly when films and images of far more graphic violence are readily accessible.

The answer to the problem seems to be the same as the answer to concerns about TV rotting your kid's brain in the 1960s: personal responsibility. If you're a parent, pay attention to the ratings, research the content of games online before you buy them, and above all, know your child's sensitivities and limitations. If you're in doubt about the effect of a game or other piece of media, say no.

That won't end the debate, of course. Truly troubled teens often don't have the parental supervision they need to limit their gaming or other media consumption. But it's unclear exactly what the right strategy would be to deal with that issue.