Violent video games: What are the effects?

© 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. Others may 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 Rodeheffer 2009).

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)

After 20 minutes of play, the participants were left alone in a room while they filled out a lengthy (and bogus) questionnaire about video games.

Then 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?

It 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 2009).

Do these studies imply that violent games cause lasting behavior problems? That’s less clear.

Reasonable doubts

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.

Indeed, 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).

So 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.

Ferguson’s 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).

They 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 later.

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.

In other words, playing violent games was a predictor of later aggression. But being aggressive wasn’t a predictor of playing violent games.

Ferguson 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. (Ferguson 2007).

Publication bias?

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.

Ferguson 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.

It 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 Machiavellian values? 

I hope future studies address that question.

More information 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 the United States. Pediatrics 122(5): 1067-1072.

Barlett C, Branch O, Rodeheffer C, and Harris R. 2009. How long do the short-term violent video game effects last? Aggress Behav. 35(3):225-36.

Barlett CP, Harris RJ, and Baldassaro R. 2007. Longer you play, the more hostile you feel: examination of first person shooter video games and aggression during video game play. Aggress Behav. 33(6):486-97.

Barlett CP and Rodeheffer C. 2009. Effects of realism on extended violent and nonviolent video game play on aggressive thoughts, feelings, and physiological arousal. Aggress Behav. 35(3):213-24.

Bushman BJ and Anderson CA. 2009. Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychol Sci. 20(3):273-7.

Ferguson CJ, Garza A, Jerabeck J, Ramos R, and Galindo M. 2013. Not worth the fuss after all? cross-sectional and prospective data on violent video game influences on aggression, visuospatial cognition and mathematics ability in a sample of youth. J Youth Adolesc. 42(1):109-22.

Ferguson CJ and Olson CK. 2014. Video game violence use among "vulnerable" populations: the impact of violent games on delinquency and bullying among children with clinically elevated depression or attention deficit symptoms. J Youth Adolesc. 43(1):127-36.

Ferguson CJ. 2011. Video games and youth violence: a prospective analysis in adolescents. J Youth Adolesc. 40(4):377-91.

Ferguson CJ. 2007. The good, the bad and the ugly: a meta-analytic review of positive and negative effects of violent video games. Psychiatr Q. 78(4):309-16.

Gentile D. 2009. Pathological video-game use among youth ages 8 to 18: a national study. Psychol Sci. 20(5):594-602.

Gitter SA, Ewell PJ, Guadagno RE, Stillman TF, and Baumeister RF. 2013. Aggress Behav. Virtually justifiable homicide: the effects of prosocial contexts on the link between violent video games, aggression, and prosocial and hostile cognition. 39(5):346-54.

Greitemeyer T and Mügge DO. 2014. Video Games Do Affect Social Outcomes: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Effects of Violent and Prosocial Video Game Play. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014 Jan 23. [Epub ahead of print]

Greitemeyer T. 2014. Playing violent video games increases intergroup bias. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 40(1):70-8

Hasan Y, Bègue L, Bushman BJ. Violent video games stress people out and make them more aggressive. Aggress Behav. 39(1):64-70.

Kim EJ, Namkoong K, Ku T, and Kim SJ. 2008. The relationship between online game addiction and aggression, self-control and narcissistic personality traits. Eur Psychiatry. 23(3):212-8

Lemmens JS, Bushman BJ, and Konijn EA. 2006. The appeal of violent video games to lower educated aggressive adolescent boys from two countries. Cyberpsychol Behav.;9(5):638-41.

Mitrofan O, Paul M, and Spencer N. 2009. Is aggression in children with behavioural and emotional difficulties associated with television viewing and video game playing? A systematic review. Child Care Health Dev. 35(1):5-15.

Möller I and Krahé B. 2009. Exposure to violent video games and aggression in German adolescents: a longitudinal analysis. Aggress Behav. 35(1):75-89

Polman H, de Castro BO, and van Aken MA. 2008. Experimental study of the differential effects of playing versus watching violent video games on children's aggressive behavior. Aggress Behav. 34(3):256-64.

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