The effects of playing violent video games remain controversial as the research studies continue to come in with conflicting views on whether they are harmful or harmless. Although video games have been around since the late 1970’s, violent video games were not prevalent until the 1990’s with the advent of ‘killing games’ such as Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein and Street Fighter. There is an abundance of educational, nonviolent strategy and sports games available but the most heavily marketed and purchased games are the violent ones. Fifty years of research on violent TV and movies produced conclusive documentation of the harmful effects of media on children and young adults.
Theoretically, it would seem safe to assume that violent video games would have the same effect yet the research has continued to give conflicting results.
There are reasons to believe that violent video games might be even more likely to cause aggression:
- Video games are active unlike watching TV or a movie which is passive. People learn better when they are actively engaged in an activity or task.
- Players are more likely to identify with a violent character if they are playing a shooter in a ‘first person’ video game; they have the same visual perspective as the killer. (If the game is in ‘third person’, the gamer controls the actions of the violent character from a more distant visual perspective.)
- Violent games directly reward violent behavior by awarding points or advancing the player to the next level. In some games, the player is even rewarded verbally after killing (such as, “nice shot”). Classic learning theory has conclusively proven that rewarded behavior increases the frequency of that behavior.
- Playing violent video games may increase aggressive behavior because violent acts are continually repeated throughout the game (Gentile and Anderson, 2003). Repetition has been considered an effective teaching method since ancient times and has been further documented in learning theory; it reinforces learning patterns. Each violent episode is essentially one more learning trial.
- Some people have theorized that violent video games are beneficial as they allow for catharsis (release of pent up anger into harmless channels). The scientific evidence does not support this. The studies have either shown an increase in aggression or no effect, but they have not shown a decrease in aggression. Research does support the fact that playing violent video games increases eye-hand coordination. However, video games need not be violent to accomplish this.
Age: Despite the stereotype of gamers being teenage boys, boys under the age of 17 make up only 20% of video game players according to The Entertainment Software Association. Interestingly, the fastest growing segment of the American video game market is adults over 50 (regardless of gender) with 32% reporting that they play video games.
Time: A vast majority of teens admit that their parents do not impose a time limit on the number of hours they are allowed to play video games. Generally, teen girls play an average of 5 hours per week and teen boys average 13 hours per week.
Gender: Video games are pervasive; 99% of boys and 96% of girls reported that they play video games; 65% of boys and 35% of girls are daily gamers. A recent poll found that 50% of boys name an “M” or “AO” rated game (see last paragraph on ratings) as one of their top 3 games but only 14% of girls report the same.
Video games and aggression
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found a clear-cut interrelation between a child’s exposure to violent video games and later hostility in adolescents. The study also found that adolescents who played more violent video games were more likely to get into physical fights or arguments with teachers. Furthermore, adolescents who had both a high hostility rating and were exposed to high levels of video game violence were the most likely to get into altercations.
Is there a reliable association between exposure to violent video games and aggression? A 2004 meta-analytic review of research did indeed uncover the association between violent video games and increased aggression in children and young adults. Experimental and non-experimental studies with males and females supported this conclusion. Across the 33 independent tests of the relation between video game violence and aggression, involving 3,033 participants, the average effect size was positive and statistically significant. High video game violence was ‘definitely associated’ with heightened aggression. The effect of violent video games on aggression is “as strong as the effect of condom use on risk of HIV infection” (Weller, 1993).
Professor Patrick Markey along with Gary Giumetti of Villanova University found that violent video games did indeed make players more aggressive but the effect was very small. “It is not a light switch that either video games do or do not cause aggression. You have to think about the strength of that effect. Most people assume it has a really big effect, but what we found from research is it actually has a very tiny effect.” He also commented,” their personalities made a big difference. People who are extremely angry tend to be much more affected by violent video games….not angry (people) are virtually unaffected by graphically violent video games.”
Also in 2004, the American Psychological Association (APA) summarized the issue as “Psychological research confirms that violent video games can increase children’s aggression, but that parents moderate the negative effects.” In 2010 the APA summarized updated research findings as, “Bad effects depend on certain personality traits; games can offer learning opportunities for others”.
Nevertheless, other studies have contradicted or even challenged these views. Block and Crain (2007) claim that in several studies data was improperly calculated and produced erroneous results. Other meta-analyses by other groups (Ferguson and Kilburn 2009; Sherry 2007) have rejected any links between video game violence and aggression. Recent reviews by the Australian government (2010) and the U.S. Supreme Court (2011) agree that there are no causal links. A recent longitudinal study of German youth found that aggressive children tend to select more violent video games, not the inverse.
Video games and prosocial behavior
Prosocial behaviors are actions that demonstrate empathy and caring about the welfare and rights of others; it includes behaviors such as helping, sharing, volunteering and cooperating. Many of the studies that linked aggressive behavior and violent video games also found a reduction in prosocial behavior as an additional negative consequence. A significant negative effect was found, in both experimental and non-experimental settings, and it could be concluded that exposure to violent video games caused at least a temporary decrease in prosocial behavior; furthermore, it was also negatively correlated with helping in the real world.
Video games and academics
Generally, students who stated spending the most time gaming also reported lower grades. Studies that examined this phenomenon suggested that the time spent playing video games simply replaced time spent studying or doing academic work. Other studies indicated that parents could mitigate this effect by monitoring the time spent on gaming and more importantly, the time spent on academics. Students who reported parental limitations on video game play displayed better academic performance and were less likely to be involved in physical or verbal altercations.
Several studies suggest that parents approach playing violent video games from a “risk factor perspective”, i.e., video game violence leading to aggression is just one of many factors. For example, youth that have a high level of hostility are more likely to get in fights and this risk is compounded by exposure to violent video games and other media. Parental involvement seems to negate the aggression dynamic and also has a positive effect on students’ grades. Video gaming is a part of today’s youth culture and to completely eliminate it would be very difficult. However, you can minimize the negative impact by following these tips:
- Know the ESRB rating of the video games your child plays (see below)
- Don’t allow video game equipment in his or her bedroom
- Impose limits on how often and how long they are allowed to play video games
- Monitor all of their media exposure (video games, internet, TV and movies)
- Supervise internet use (many violent video games are available to play online)
- Talk to your child or teen about what they are playing and watching. Ask their feelings and share your feelings about what they observe in those video games or other media.
- Share information with other parents about certain games to help each other in parenting.
The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) is a self-regulatory body that rates video games in a manner similar to the movie industry. They look at a variety of factors when rating games including violence, sex, controversial language and substance abuse. The current rating symbols are as follows:
- Early Childhood (EC): content suitable for children 3 years of age or older
- Everyone (E): content suitable for 6 and older. It may contain minimal violence and “comic mischief’
- Teen (T): content suitable for 13 and older. More violent than (E) and contains mild or strong language and/or suggestive themes.
- Mature (M): content suitable for 17 and older. It definitely has more mature sexual themes, intense violence and stronger language.
- Adults Only (AO): content suitable only for adults and may contain graphic sex and/or violence. Intended for 18 years and older.