The question of whether playing violent video games causes aggression has long been examined by scientists, parents and psychologists. Teenagers battling and killing animated characters for hours every day may seem vigorous, but does it affect real behavior? In a debate so prevalent yet so indecisive, what’s fact and foe? We are here to get to the bottom of it.
Today, there are over five million video games in existence across different genres. “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Fortnite” and “Mortal Kombat” are among the well-known. And that’s not all they have in common: each of these games contains multiple types of violence, including gun violence.
In 2010, psychologist Craig Anderson did a meta-analysis with 136 well-conducted studies. He concluded that such games increase aggressive behavior, feelings and cognitions and reduce empathy and prosocial behavior. According to a U.S. Senate hearing on video games, the frequency of violence shown in mass media may be a “factor contributing to high levels of violence,” though it’s only conjecture.
Viewing violence — whether in video games or media — teaches new techniques, primes aggressive thoughts or memories, desensitizes viewers to the effect of violence, reduces empathy for victims and weakens inhibitions according to the American Psychological Association.
In studies, it remains unclear whether violent content alone is responsible for elevated levels of aggression in players or if the more competitive aspects of games is to blame. While it’s inaccurate to state that violent video games will lead to aggressive behavior for all players, those with existing aggression may be subject to behavioral changes due to the violent content.
Research studies on this topic have only been correlational. It would be unethical to force one group of children to play violent video games and prohibit another group; therefore, direct causality cannot be inferred.
Dr. Roderick Gillis, a psychology professor at the University of Miami, believes that “just because you play a first-person shooter game, does not mean you will become a first-person shooter,” which is true for the majority.
One World Education, a charitable foundation dedicated to the advancement of writing in children, has provided evidence to show that video games rated M (mature) “have been the blame for school shootings, an increase in bullying and violence toward women.”
Individuals that play violent video games who already have aggressive tendencies and thoughts are likely to, in the long-term, be impacted by the promotion of aggressive scripts, behavior and expectations.
Occurrences such as the Columbine school shooting of 1999 led people to adopt this belief but, then again, it is not directly proven by research.
Gaia Stromokov, 17, routinely plays violent video games and agrees that players can become desensitized to painful images.
“Seeing violent content definitely has made me less sensitive to blood and similar images,” said Stromokov. “But I would say the media, in general, has had the most impact in desensitizing me.”
Stromokov believes that aggressive behavior displayed while playing games stems from the competitive aspect and frustration rather than from the content of the game.
“It really depends on the mood of the game. If I’m doing well, I’m calm. But if someone intercepts me or kills me I will get competitive,” Stromokov said. “The energy is especially competitive when you’re playing online with other people.”
Stromokov also shares how they believe players who adopt aggressive behaviors and thoughts view video games as more than a game and can’t differentiate between the game and reality. Similarly, they believe people who are addicted to playing video games are likely to adopt these behaviors.
During Fortnite’s peak popularity, videos on the internet circulated of parents doing Jimmy Kimmel’s challenge of turning off the TV in the middle of their children playing. In these videos, children throw tantrums and scream, and some even got physical with their parents. Some see this behavior and violence as a result of playing violent games, but others see it as frustration from being competitive and having their game interfered with.
In the infamous bobo doll studies conducted by Canadian psychologist and professor Albert Bandura where children viewed an adult beating up a bobo doll, it was proven that children copy what they see.
APA recommends parents not give their children violent video games until at least the age of 12 due to their proven damaging effects on a young and developing mind. In children, it may be simpler to prevent using these types of games with parental regulation, but with adults it is more difficult. These behaviors cannot be unlearned but rather relearned.
It is known that violent video games have negative effects on the development of a child, yet it is up to parents to make decisions for their children. Many parents cave and buy these games for their children at young ages due to fears of exclusion. They think they are helping the problem when they are escalating it. Evolutionarily, our attention is drawn to what may harm us.
“Negative things draw our attention,” said Gillis. “We are designed to pay more attention to negative things. Video games don’t change your genetics, but it is one environmental input.”
According to Online Counseling Programs, a digital platform dedicated to continuing psychology education, common relationship problems caused by excessive gaming include loneliness, mood and anxiety disorders, infidelity and inability to have sexual and emotional intimacy. Video games damage relationships.
Moreover, professor Reece Akhtar at University College London said that individuals are drawn to violent video games due to a sense of autonomy, competence, reactance and the illusion of control. Kids today have less freedom; with more restrictions, curfews and worries, the demand for violent video games grows.
Without realizing it, it seems violent video games bring forth threats to one’s relationships, mental health and social life. When more time is spent playing games, violent or not, rather than spending time with family or friends, primed aggression, desensitization, reduced empathy and weakened inhibitions occur as a result.
But remember, a lot of the outcomes are speculative. While there is a lot of correlation between the two, that doesn’t equal causation. So, if you or someone you know is a gamer, just make sure to keep the rage in check and that everyone touches grass every once in a while.
words_molly mackenzie & valeria barbaglio. design&photo_ valeria barbaglio.
This article was published in Distraction’s Spring 2023 print issue.