Violent video games:
An evidence-based guide
© 2009 -2014, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Are violent video games bad for kids?
Maybe there’s no reason for worry. Kids have always engaged in games that simulate violence, and video games aren’t all bad.
In fact, some
games promote social responsibility.
help sharpen your child’s spatial skills.
But there are good reasons to suspect that video game violence can contribute to behavior problems or anti-social attitudes.
For instance, a number of experiments show that people feel
more hostile after playing violent games—especially games that
simulate real-life situations (Bartlett et al 2007; Bartlett and
There is also evidence that playing violent games can make people behave more aggressively immediately afterwards.
In one recent experiment, researchers randomly assigned 77 adult volunteers to play either a violent video game or non-violent alternative. Then, after 20 minutes, the researchers gave players an opportunity to blast a stranger with loud noise. Players who'd spent time with the violent game chose longer, louder blasts (Hassan et al 2012).
Would children react similarly? The experiment hasn't been done. But when researchers assigned school kids to play violent video games, they found that afterwards, during a free play session, boys who'd played the violent game were rated by their peers as more
aggressive (Polman et al 2008). The game experience did not appear to
affect peer ratings of the behavior of girls.
And then there is the possibility that violent games have a numbing effect -- that they make players feel less sympathetic to people in trouble.
Video game violence make people less responsive to victims
In a clever experiment on college students, researchers Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson assigned participants to play either
- a violent video game (e.g., Duke Nukem or Mortal Kombat)
- a nonviolent video game (e.g., Glider Pro, 3-D Pinball)
20 minutes of play, the participants were left alone in a room while
they filled out a lengthy (and bogus) questionnaire about video games.
researchers played a little trick: They staged a fake fight in the
hallway outside using professional actors. The fight was loud and
disruptive. Actor 1 was heard to threaten Actor 2. Next, participants
could hear a chair crashing to the ground and the door to the hallway
was kicked twice.
They also heard this dialogue:
Actor 2: (groan)
Actor 1: Ohhhh, did I hurt you?
Actor 2: It’s my ankle, you bastard, it’s twisted or something…I can’t even stand up!
Actor 1: Don’t look to me for pity.
Actor 2: You could at least help me get off the floor.
Actor 1: You’ve gotta be kidding. Help you? I’m outta here [slams the door and leaves].
The study participants didn’t know that the fight was phony. How would they react?
depended on which video game that had been playing. People who had been
playing violent games were more likely to pretend they didn’t hear the
fight. When they did acknowledge the fight, they rated it as less
serious and they took longer to help the victim (Bushman and Anderson
Do these studies imply that violent games cause lasting behavior problems? That’s less clear.
Christopher Ferguson has complained that the case against violent video games is inconclusive (Ferguson 2007).
He notes that published experiments have tested only short-term effects.
There haven’t been any experimental tests of the long-term effects of video games.
Some observational studies—which tracked the same kids for many months—have reported correlations between gaming and aggression. But of course we have to be cautious about interpreting these studies.
It’s likely, for instance, that aggression makes people more interested in playing violent games.
a study of kids in Belgium and the Netherlands found that boys who were
rated as less empathic and more aggressive were especially attracted to
violent video games (Lemmens et al 2006).
A study of Korean
youth found that aggressive and narcissistic personalities were more
likely to become addicted to online games (Kim et al 2008).
maybe the link between aggression and violent video games merely reflects the
fact that aggressive people seek out violent games to play.
In support of this idea, Ferguson has published several studies measuring long-term outcomes in adolescents (Ferguson and Olson 2014; Ferguson et al 2013; Ferguson 2011), none of which have linked exposure to violent games with acts of real violence.
concerns are reasonable. However, it would be wrong to limit our concerns to such acts. As noted above, there's reason to think that violent games may change behavior in more subtle ways, like one's willingness to help a victim of violence. And it would also be wrong to conclude that
observational studies can’t help us tease apart cause and effect.
Do aggressive kids like violent games? Or do video games make kids aggressive?
One way to answer these questions is to measure aggression at two
points in time. If violent games cause aggression, we might expect
gamers—relative to kids who don’t play violent games—to become more aggressive over time.
Psychologist Craig Anderson and colleagues did this (Anderson et al 2008).
tracked kids and teenagers in two countries—Japan and the United
States—for up to 6 months. By measuring aggressive tendencies at the
beginning of the study, researchers controlled for prior aggressiveness
(which might reflect all sorts of influences, including family violence,
socio-economic status, and genetics).
Then, 3 or 6 months later,
researchers asked kids to report on how often they show physical
aggression, like hitting or kicking another person.
The results? The
more time kids spent playing violent games at baseline, the more
likely kids were to confess to physically aggressive acts 3 or 6 months
Researchers in Germany completed a similar longitudinal study (Möller and Krahé 2009).
Teenagers who spent more time playing violent video games at the beginning of the study were more likely to have committed acts of physical aggression 30 months later.
By contrast, teenagers who were more physically violent at the beginning of the study were not more likely to play violent video games 30 months later.
other words, playing violent games was a predictor of later aggression.
But being aggressive wasn’t a predictor of playing violent games.
takes issue with such studies, arguing that self-reports aren’t the
same as objective measures of aggression and that—in any case—the
effects reported by the studies are rather weak, explaining no more than
2% of the difference between aggressive and non-aggressive youth.
Another criticism raised by Ferguson concerns publication bias. We don’t often hear about the studies that fail to find a link between gaming and aggression. That’s because they are less likely to get published.
has analyzed published studies on video game violence and aggression.
When Ferguson controlled for family aggression and publication bias, he
found insufficient evidence to conclude that violent video game playing
causes aggressive behavior (Ferguson 2007).
Video game violence and behavior problems: Something is going on
Other investigators have also noted that the research on video game
violence is inconclusive (Mitrofan et al 2009). But that’s because many
studies fail to control adequately for alternative explanations.
When I consider the high-quality studies reviewed here, I’m persuaded that something is going on. Indeed, even Cristopher Ferguson acknowledges the short-term effects of playing violent games.
also seems clear that many kids have a self-destructive video game
“addiction." Surveys suggest that an alarming number of kids are
pathological gamers, playing games so obsessively that they neglect
their social lives and school work (Gentile 2009). For more information,
see this article on
the pathological overuse of video games.
Finally, I am bothered by something that most researchers haven’t
addressed—namely, the effect of certain video games on a child’s
developing sense of morality. Some popular video games glamorize
gangsters and criminals. Do such games teach
I hope future studies address that question.
For more information, I recommend psychologist Douglas Gentile's website about the
effects of violent television and violent video games on children.
References: Violent video games and parenting
Anderson CA, Sakamoto A, Gentile DA, Ihori N, et al. 2008
Longitudinal Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression in Japan and
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