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The Effects of Violent Video Games on Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior
While video game manufactures are quick to deny the possibility that violent video games can have a negative impact on children and adults, a wealth of scientific research exists which points clearly to the conclusion that violent video games do indeed have a negative impact on children, adults, and society. While it is easy to point fingers and note that many troubled teens who have gone on shooting sprees in places like Littleton, Colorado, Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas were all avid players of violent video games such as Doom and Grand Theft Auto, skeptics claim that this connection is merely anecdotal. However, such anecdotal evidence is backed up by numerous empirical investigations, both experimental and correlational in design, carried out over the last two decades in both laboratory and real world settings.
Early research exploring the impact of violent video games on behavior was rooted in the findings of a much older literature exploring the impact of violent media such as television and movies on behavior. This research points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that exposure to violent media leads to increases in aggression and decreases in prosocial (helping) behavior in children who are exposed to it, both in the short term immediately after viewing violent material, and in the long term after repeated viewing of such material. Though this relationship is not so simple as to say that exposure to violent programming causes all children to become violent criminals, partaking of violent media initiates a complicated series of interactions between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which can lead children down a dangerous path to delinquency and criminality later in life (Bushman & Huesmann, 2001, also, see Husemann, 1994 for a review).
Violent video games, however, are a relatively recent media phenomenon compared to violent television and movies. These games began to emerge in the early 90’s when titles such as Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom became available. Today, games which involve inflicting violence on others, including lifelike characters which bleed and scream, remain incredibly popular and widely available. However, the effects of these games on violent behavior are likely even more pronounced than the effects of viewing violent television content on behavior. This is because videogames ask the player to assume the role of a hero who commits violent acts. Previous research has shown that when people identify with the perpetrator of aggression, they are more likely to commit subsequent acts of aggression and to feel less empathy toward victims of violence (Leyens & Picus, 1973; Perry & Perry, 1976). Further, rather than reinforcing the positive consequences of violence vicariously through the perspective of an actor as occurs in movies and television, violent video games reward players immediately and personally through the distribution of more points, the unlocking of new characters, and exciting cut scenes, making the perceived rewards of violence seem more real than is the case with other violent media. While for a time some argued that engaging in a minor form of aggressive behavior (such as punching a punching bag, or later playing video games) could relieve aggressive impulses by helping people to “cool off,” research has not supported this notion, and has actually demonstrated that behaving aggressively in one context only increases the likelihood of behaving aggressively in another (Geen, Stonner, & Shope, 1975).
Early experimental research exploring the impact of video games on behavior conducted in the late 1990’s produced relatively mixed results. This is because these studies failed to control for factors such as how exciting violent games were compared to controls, the difficulty of the games, and how enjoyable the games used were (Griffiths, 1998). Modern studies controlling for these factors, however, have found more conclusive results. For example, Anderson and Dill (2003) found that college students who played violent video games had committed more aggressive and non-aggressive delinquent acts and also had lower GPA’s. In a follow up experimental study, they also found that after playing a violent video game, participants were more able to access aggressive thoughts and were more likely to aggress against another participant. While it is has been empirically supported that individuals who are more predisposed toward aggression are more likely to gravitate toward violent video games, this by no means fully explains the results of such studies.
The study described above was one of 35 similar studies which were included in a meta analysis conducted by Anderson and Bushman (2003). Meta analysis is a statistical technique which allows researchers to combine the results of many different experiments in order to generate an overall conclusion about the impact of a factor on another factor. Anderson and Bushman used this technique to show that the experimental evidence available at the time clearly indicated that exposure to video game violence was clearly associated with heightened tendencies toward aggression. This effect, when combine across studies, was more powerful than the effect of regular condom use on HIV prevention (Weller, 1993). This effect appears to primarily stem from increases in aggressive thoughts, as well as an increase in aggressive feelings. Such effects are seen in men, women, children, and across both experimental and real world settings.
The results of such studies are taken as support for the General Aggression Model (GAM), which proposes that factors related to an individual such as personality or socioeconomic status AND exposure to violent media such as television and video games, combine with situational factors such as conflicts with peers or difficulty in school to create scenarios in which violence is a possible outcome. A combination of these factors affects the degree to which a person will think violent thoughts, feel aggressive feelings, and become aroused enough to act on such feelings. These factors in turn lead a person to make either carefully thought out decisions or impulsive decisions, which can potentially result in aggressive action.
While this might sound like a lot of steps to go through before a person makes a decision, seemingly trivializing the impact of violent video games on action, violent video games are potentially dangerous because they affect the process of decision making at many places along the way. Individuals who score high on general trait irritability and aggressive personality, factors which are often linked to violent behavior (Anderson, 1997; Bushman, 1995), are particularly likely to play violent video games. Playing video games in general leaves people feeling more aroused and more aggressive than not playing video games (Anderson & Dill, 2003). Through time spent playing violent video games, people form stable hostile expectations, meaning that they are more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as being threatening and to see violence as an appropriate response to ambiguous situations (Bushman & Andeson, 2002; Uhlmann & Swanson, 2004).This means that in a conflict situation, such as during a disagreement with peers or during a confrontation with an authority figure, people who have spent considerable time playing violent video games are more likely to behave aggressively than people who have not. This leads to the observed patterns in which habitual players of violent video games get into more arguments with teachers, more often become involved in physical fights, and do not perform as well in school (Gentile, Lynch, Ruh Linder, & Walsh, 2002).
Thus, while it is perhaps still a bit premature to say that violent video games are should be ban because they are horribly deleterious to society, it is certainly worthwhile to advise that parents be cautious about the games they allow their children and teens to play. While there is no substitute for thoughtful analysis of the contents in any games ones children play and open discussion about the themes and meanings of such games, the ESRB rating system can be a useful tool for parents seeking to at least minimally monitor their children’s gaming habits. Future research will further elucidate the ways in which violent video games influence people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, although until such time as an inarguable conclusion can be reached, the exact impact of violent video games will remain a hot topic of discussion.