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The contagious impact of playing violent video games on aggression: Longitudinal evidence

Tobias greitemeyer.

1 Department of Psychology, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck Austria

Meta‐analyses have shown that violent video game play increases aggression in the player. The present research suggests that violent video game play also affects individuals with whom the player is connected. A longitudinal study ( N  = 980) asked participants to report on their amount of violent video game play and level of aggression as well as how they perceive their friends and examined the association between the participant's aggression and their friends’ amount of violent video game play. As hypothesized, friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 was associated with the participant's aggression at Time 2 even when controlling for the impact of the participant's aggression at Time 1. Mediation analyses showed that friends’ aggression at Time 1 accounted for the impact of friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 on the participant's aggression at Time 2. These findings suggest that increased aggression in video game players has an impact on the player's social network.

1. INTRODUCTION

Given its widespread use, the public and psychologists alike are concerned about the impact of violent video game play. In fact, a great number of studies have addressed the effects of exposure to violent video games (where the main goal is to harm other game characters) on aggression and aggression‐related variables. Meta‐analyses have shown that playing violent video games is associated with increased aggression in the player (Anderson et al., 2010 ; Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2014 ). The present longitudinal study examines the idea that violent video game play also affects the player's social network, suggesting that concern about the harmful effects of playing violent video games on a societal level is even more warranted.

1.1. Theoretical perspective

When explaining the effects of playing violent video games, researchers often refer to the General Aggression Model (GAM) proposed by Anderson & Bushman ( 2002 ). According to this theoretical model, person and situation variables (sometimes interactively) may affect a person's internal state, consisting of cognition, affect, and arousal. This internal state then affects how events are perceived and interpreted. Based on this decision process, the person behaves more or less aggressively in a social encounter. For example, playing violent video games is assumed to increase aggressive cognition and affect, which in turn results in behavioral aggression. An extension of this model further assumes that increased aggression due to previous violent video game play may instigate an aggression escalation cycle in that the victim also behaves aggressively (cf. Anderson & Bushman, 2018 , Figure 5). The present research tested key predictions derived from the GAM and its extension, that (a) violent video game play is associated with increased aggression in the player and that (b) individuals who are connected to the player will also become more aggressive.

1.2. Effects of violent video game play on aggression

The relationship between violent video game play and aggression has been examined in studies employing cross‐sectional, longitudinal, and experimental designs. Cross‐sectional correlational studies typically show a positive relationship between the amount of violent video game play and aggression in real‐world contexts (e.g., Gentile, Lynch, Linder, & Walsh, 2004 ; Krahé & Möller, 2004 ). Several longitudinal studies have been conducted, showing that habitual violent video game play predicts later aggression even after controlling for initial aggressiveness (e.g., Anderson, Buckley, & Carnagey, 2008 ). That violent video game play has a causal impact on aggression and related information processing has been demonstrated by experimental work (e.g., Anderson & Carnagey, 2009 ; Gabbiadini & Riva, 2018 ). Finally, meta‐analyses corroborated that violent video game play significantly increases aggressive thoughts, hostile affect, and aggressive behavior (Anderson et al., 2010 ; Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2014 ). Some studies failed to find significant effects (e.g., McCarthy, Coley, Wagner, Zengel, & Basham, 2016 ). However, given that the typical effect of violent video games on aggression is not large, it is to be expected that not all studies reveal significant effects.

1.3. The contagious effects of aggression

Abundant evidence has been collected that aggression and violence can be contagious (Dishion, & Tipsord, 2011 ; Huesmann, 2012 ; Jung, Busching, & Krahé, 2019 ). Indeed, the best predictor of (retaliatory) aggression is arguably previous violent victimization (Anderson et al., 2008 ; Goldstein, Davis, & Herman, 1975 ). However, even the observation of violence can lead to increased violence in the future (Widom, 1989 ). Overall, it is a well‐known finding that aggression begets further aggression. Given that violent video game play increases aggression, it thus may well be that this increased aggression then has an impact on people with whom the player is connected.

Correlational research provides initial evidence for the idea that the level of people's aggression is indeed associated with how often their friends play violent video games (Greitemeyer, 2018 ). In particular, participants who did not play violent video games were more aggressive the more their friends played violent video games. However, due to the cross‐sectional design, no conclusions about the direction of the effect are possible. It may be that violent video game players influence their friends (social influence), but it is also conceivable that similar people attract each other (homophily) or that there is some shared environmental factor that influences the behavior of both the players and their friends (confounding). That is, it is unclear whether indeed aggression due to playing violent video games spreads or whether the effect is reversed, such that aggressive people are prone to befriend others who are attracted to violent video game play. Moreover, it is possible that some third variable affected both, participants’ reported aggression and their friends’ amount of violent video game play. There is also the possibility that people are unsure about the extent to which their friends play violent video games. In this case, they may perceive their friends as behaving aggressively and then (wrongly) infer that the friends play violent video games. To disentangle these possibilities and to show that the effect of violent video game play (i.e., increased aggression in the player) indeed has an impact on the player's social network, relationships among variables have to be assessed over time while covarying prior aggression (Bond & Bushman, 2017 ; Christakis & Fowler, 2013 ).

Verheijen, Burk, Stoltz, van den Berg, and Cillessen ( 2018 ) tested the idea that players of violent video games have a long‐term impact on their social network. These authors found that participants’ exposure to violent video games increased their friend's aggressive behavior 1 year later. However, given that the authors did not examine whether the violent video game player's increased aggression accounts for the impact on their friend's aggressive behavior, it is unknown whether violent video game play indeed instigates an aggression cycle. For example, players of violent video games may influence their friends so that these friends will also play violent video games. Any increases in aggression could then be an effect of the friends playing violent video games on their own.

1.4. The present research

The present study examines the longitudinal association between the participant's aggression and their friends’ amount of violent video game play, employing an egocentric networking approach (Stark & Krosnick, 2017 ). In egocentric networking analyses, participants provide self‐reports but also report on how they perceive their friends. In the following, and in line with Greitemeyer ( 2018 ), the friends were treated as the players and the participant was treated as their friends’ social network. Please note that ties between the participant's friends (i.e., whether friends also know each other) were not assessed (Greitemeyer, 2018 ; Mötteli & Dohle, 2019 ), because this information was not needed for testing the hypothesis that participants become more aggressive if their friends play violent video games. It was expected that friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 would predict the participant's aggression at Time 2 even when controlling for the impact of the participant's aggression and amount of violent video game play at Time 1. It was further examined whether friends’ aggression at Time 1 would account for the impact of friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 on the participant's aggression at Time 2. Such findings would provide suggestive evidence that violent video game play may instigate an aggression cycle. The study received ethical approval from the Internal Review Board for Ethical Questions by the Scientific Ethical Committee of the University of Innsbruck. The data and materials are openly accessible at https://osf.io/jp8ew/ .

2.1. Participants

Participants were citizens of the U.S. who took part on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Because it was unknown how many of the participants will complete both questionnaires, no power analyses were conducted a priori but a large number of participants was run. At Time 1, there were 2,502 participants (1,376 females, 1,126 males; mean age = 35.7 years, SD =  11.8). Of these, 980 participants (522 females, 458 males; mean age = 38.9 years, SD =  12.5) completed the questionnaire at Time 2. Time 1 and Time 2 were 6 months apart. There were no data exclusions, and all participants were run before any analyses were performed. The questionnaire included some further questions (e.g., participant's perceived deprivation) that are not relevant for the present purpose and are reported elsewhere (Greitemeyer & Sagioglou, 2018 ). 1 Given that the questionnaire was relatively short, no attention checks were employed.

2.2. Procedure and measures

Procedure and measures were very similar to Greitemeyer ( 2018 ), with the main difference that individuals participated at two time points (instead of one). After providing demographics, self‐reported aggressive behavior was assessed. As in previous research (e.g., Krahé & Möller, 2010 ), participants indicated for 10 items how often they had shown the respective behavior in the past 6 months. Sample items are: “I have pushed another person” and “I have spread gossip about people I don't like” (5 items each address physical aggression and relational aggression, respectively). All items were rated on a scale from 1 ( never ) to 5 ( very often ), and scores were averaged. Participants were then asked about their amount of violent video game play, employing one item: “How often do you play violent video games (where the goal is to harm other game characters)?” (1 =  never to 7 =  very often ).

Afterwards, participants learned that they will be asked questions about people they feel closest to. These may be friends, coworkers, neighbors, relatives. They should answer questions for three contacts with whom they talked about important matters in the last few months. For each friend, they reported the level of aggression (αs between = 0.90 and 0.91) and the amount of violent video game play, employing the same questions as for themselves. Responses to the three friends were then averaged. Finally, participants were thanked and asked what they thought this experiment was trying to study, but none noted the hypothesis that their friend's amount of violent video game play would affect their own level of aggression. At Time 2, the same questions were employed. Reliabilities for how participants perceived the level of aggression for each friend were between 0.89 and 0.90.

Descriptive statistics, intercorrelations, and internal consistencies of all measures are shown in Table ​ Table1 1 .

Means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations

Note : For Time 1, N  = 2,502; for Time 2, N  = 980. All correlation coefficients: p  < .001. Where applicable, α reliabilities are presented along the diagonal.

3.1. Time 1 ( N  = 2,502)

The relationship between the amount of violent video game play and reported aggression was significant, both for the participant and the friends. That is, violent video game play was associated with increased aggression in the player and participants perceived their friends who play more violent video games to be more aggressive than their less‐playing friends. Participant's and friends’ amount of violent video game play as well as their level of reported aggression, respectively, were also positively associated, indicating that participants perceived their friends to be similar to them. Most importantly, participant's aggression was significantly associated with friends’ amount of violent video game play. 2

It was then examined whether friends’ amount of violent video game play is still associated with the participant's aggression when controlling for the participant's amount of violent video game play. Participant sex (coded 1 = male, 2 = female) and age were included as covariates. In fact, a bootstrapping analysis showed that the impact of friends’ amount of violent video game play remained significant (point estimate = 0.08, SE  = 0.02, t  = 4.72, p  < .001, 95% confidence interval [CI] = [0.05, 0.11]). Participant's amount of violent video game play (point estimate = 0.03, SE  = 0.01, t  = 2.18, p  = .029, 95% CI = [0.00, 0.05]) and the interaction were also significant (point estimate = −0.01, SE  = 0.00, t  = 2.41, p  = .016, 95% CI = [−0.02, −0.00]). At low levels of the participant's amount of violent video game play (− 1 SD, equals that the participant does not play violent video games in the present data set), friends’ amount of violent video game play was associated with the participant's aggression (point estimate = 0.07, SE  = 0.01, t  = 5.06, p  < .001, 95% CI = [0.04, 0.10]). At high levels of the participant's amount of violent video game play ( + 1 SD), friends’ amount of violent video game play was also associated with the participant's aggression (point estimate = 0.03, SE  = 0.01, t  = 3.14, p  = .002, 95% CI = [0.01, 0.06]), but the effect was less pronounced. Participants were thus most strongly affected by whether their social network plays violent video games when they do not play violent video games themselves (Figure ​ (Figure1). 1 ). Participant sex was not significantly associated with the participant's aggression (point estimate = −0.04, SE  = 0.02, t  = 1.95, p  = .052, 95% CI = [−0.09, 0.00]), whereas age was (point estimate = −0.01, SE  = 0.00, t  = 7.84, p  < .001, 95% CI = [−0.009, −0.005]).

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Simple slopes of the interactive effect of friends’ amount of violent video game play and the participant's amount of violent video game play on the participant's aggression, controlling for participant sex and age (Time 1, N  = 2,502)

3.2. Time 1 and Time 2 ( N  = 980)

To examine the impact of friends’ amount of violent video game play on the participant's aggression over time, a cross‐lagged regression analysis was performed on the data. Participant's amount of violent video game play, friends’ amount of violent video game play, participant's aggression at Time 1, as well as participant sex and age were used as predictors for participant's aggression at Time 2. The overall regression was significant, F (5,974) = 68.92, R 2  = 0.26, p  < .001. Most importantly, friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 significantly predicted participant's aggression at Time 2, t  = 2.60, β  = .09, 95% CI = (0.02, 0.16), p  = .009. Participant's aggression showed high stability, t  = 16.77, β  = .48, 95% CI = (0.42, 0.53), p  < .001, whereas the participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1 did not significantly predict the participant's aggression at Time 2, t  = 1.77, β  = −.07, 95% CI = (− 0.14, 0.01), p  = .077 (Figure ​ (Figure2 2 ). 3 , 4 Participant sex also received a significant regression weight, t  = 2.08, β  = −.06, 95% CI = (−0.12, −0.00), p  = .038, whereas age did not, t  = 1.93, β  = −.06, 95% CI = (−0.12, 0.00), p  = .054. The reverse effect that the participant's aggression at Time 1 predicts their friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 2 when controlling for the participant's amount of violent video game play and friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1, as well as participant sex and age, was not significant, t  = 0.67, β  = .02, 95% CI = (−0.03, 0.06), p  = .504.

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Participant's aggression at Time 2 simultaneously predicted by friends’ amount of violent video game play, participant's aggression, and participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1. Participant sex and age were controlled for, but were not included in the figure (see the main text for the impact of participant sex and age). * p  < .01, ** p  < .001 ( N  = 980)

Finally, it was examined whether the impact of friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 on the participant's aggression at Time 2 would be mediated by friends’ level of aggression at Time 1 (while controlling for the participant's aggression and amount of violent video game play at Time 1 as well as participant sex and age). A bootstrapping analysis (with 5.000 iterations) showed that the impact of friends’ level of aggression at Time 1 on the participant's aggression at Time 2 was significant (point estimate = 0.16, SE  = 0.04, t  = 4.28, p  < .001, 95% CI = [0.09, 0.23]). Participant's aggression at Time 1 was also a significant predictor (point estimate = 0.34, SE  = 0.03, t  = 10.19, p  < .001, 95% CI = [0.27, 0.40]). Friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 (point estimate = 0.03, SE  = 0.01, t  = 1.82, p  = .069, 95% CI = [−0.00, 0.05]) and participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1 (point estimate = −0.01, SE  = 0.01, t  = 1.65, p  = .099, 95% CI = [−0.03, 0.00]) were not significant predictors. Participant sex significantly predicted the participant's aggression at Time 2 (point estimate = −0.06, SE  = 0.03, t  = 2.31, p  = .021, 95% CI = [−0.11, −0.01]), whereas age did not (point estimate = −0.00, SE  = 0.00, t  = 1.90, p  = .058, 95% CI = [−0.00, 0.00]). The indirect effect was significantly different from zero (point estimate = 0.01, 95% CI = [.00, 0.02]), suggesting that participants are more aggressive if their friends play violent video games for the reason that these friends are more aggressive. Figure ​ Figure3 3 displays a simplified version of this mediation effect, based on regression coefficients and without controlling for the participant's aggression at Time 1, the participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1, participant sex, and age.

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Mediation of the impact of friends’ violent video game exposure (VVE) at Time 1 on the participant's aggression at Time 2 by friends’ aggression at Time 1. All paths are significant. β * = the coefficient from friends’ VVE at Time 1 to the participant's aggression at Time 2 when controlling for friends’ aggression at Time 1 ( N  = 980)

4. DISCUSSION

Violent video games have an impact on the player's aggression (Anderson et al., 2010 ; Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2014 ), but—as the present study shows—they also increase aggression in the player's social network. In particular, participants who do not play violent video games reported to be more aggressive the more their friends play violent video games. Mediation analyses showed that the increased aggression in the friends accounted for the relationship between friends’ amount of violent video game play and the participant's aggression. Because changes in aggression over time were assessed, the present study provides evidence for the hypothesized effect that violent video game play is associated with increased aggression in the player, which then instigates aggression in their social network. Importantly, the impact of the participant's amount of violent video game play was controlled for, indicating that the relationship between friends’ amount of violent video game play and the participant's aggression is not due to the friends being similar to the participants. Moreover, the reverse effect that aggressive people will become attracted to others who play violent video games was not reliable. The present research thus documents the directional effects that violent video games is associated with increased aggression in the player and that this increased aggression then has an impact on people with whom the player is connected.

Overall, the present study provides comprehensive support for key hypotheses derived from the GAM and its extension (Anderson & Bushman, 2018 ). It shows that violent video game play is associated with increased aggression in the player and it documents that others who are connected to players might be also affected even when controlling for their own amount of violent video game play. To the best of my knowledge, this study is the first that shows that because violent video game players are more aggressive their friends will become aggressive, too. Previous research either employed a cross‐sectional design and thus could not address the direction of the effect (Greitemeyer, 2018 ) or did not examine whether the effect of violent video game play (i.e., increased aggression) indeed spreads (Verheijen et al., 2018 ). As proposed by the GAM and its extension (Anderson & Bushman, 2018 ), increased aggression in violent video game players appears to instigate an aggression escalation cycle (cf. Anderson et al., 2008 ).

It is noteworthy, however, that the longitudinal effect of the participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1 on the participant's aggression at Time 2 was not reliable. Hence, although there were significant correlations between participants’ aggression and their violent video game use at both time points, the present study does not show that repeatedly playing violent video games leads to long‐term changes in aggression. However, a recent meta‐analysis of the long‐term effects of playing violent video games confirmed that violent video game play does increase physical aggression over time (Prescott, Sargent, & Hull, 2018 ), although the effect size was relatively small ( β  = 0.11) and thus single studies that produce nonsignificant results are to be expected. Importantly, in the present study, a single‐item measure of violent video game play was employed. In contrast, previous research on the relationship between violent video game play and the player's aggression has often employed multi‐item measurement scales that are typically more reliable and precise (for an overview, Busching et al., 2015 ). Hence, it may well be that due to the limitations of the single‐item measure of the participant's amount of violent video game play the relationship between participants’ violent game play and their aggressive behavior was artificially reduced.

Even though the longitudinal design allows ruling out a host of alternative explanations for the impact of violent video games on the player's social network, causality can only inferred by using an experimental design. Future research may thus randomly assign participants to play a violent or nonviolent video game (players) and assesses their aggression against new participants (partners). It can be expected that the partners suffer more aggression when the player had played a violent, compared to a nonviolent, video game. Afterwards, it could be tested whether the partner of a violent video game player is more aggressive than a partner of a nonviolent video game player. Given that the partner is not exposed to any video games, firm causal conclusions could be drawn that violent video game play affects aggression in people who are connected to violent video game players. It could be also tested whether the partner of a violent video game player would not only be more likely to retaliate against the player, but also against a third party. In fact, previous research into displaced aggression has shown that people may react aggressively against a target that is innocent of any wrongdoing after they have been provoked by another person (Marcus‐Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000 ). It may thus well be that the effect of playing violent video games spreads in social networks and that even people who are only indirectly linked to violent video game players are affected.

An important limitation of the present egocentric network data is the reliance on the participant's perception of their social network, leaving the possibility that participants did not accurately perceive their friends. It is noteworthy that participants perceived their friends to be highly similar to them. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that participants always provided self‐ratings first, followed by perceptions of their friends. It is thus conceivable that participants used their self‐ratings as anchors for the perceptions of their friends. Such a tendency, however, would reduce the unique effect of friends’ amount of violent video game play on the participant's aggression when controlling for the participant's amount of violent video game play. The finding that participants in particular who do not play violent video games reported to be more aggressive if their friends play violent video games also suggests that the impact of violent video games on the player's social network is not due to participants providing both self‐reports and how they perceive their friends. Finally, rather than by their friends’ objective qualities, people's behavior should be more likely to be affected by their subjective perceptions of their friends.

As noted in the introduction, participants may not be aware of the extent to which their friends play violent video games and hence used the perception of how aggressive their friends are as an anchor for estimating their friends’ amount of violent video game play. Importantly, however, the participant's aggression at Time 2 was significantly predicted by friends’ amount of violent video game play at Time 1 even when controlling for friends’ level of aggression at Time 1 (see Figure ​ Figure3). 3 ). Moreover, whereas aggression might be used for estimating violent video game exposure of the friends, participants should be well aware of the extent to which they play violent video games so that anchoring effects for participant's self‐reports are unlikely. However, given that it cannot be completely ruled out that the correlation between violent game play of friends at Time 1 and aggressive behavior of participants at Time 2 reflects a pseudocorrelation that is determined by the correlation between aggressive behavior of friends at Time 1 and aggressive behavior of the participant at Time 2, future research that employs sociocentric network analyses where information about the friends is provided by the friends themselves would be informative.

Another limitation is the employment of self‐report measures to assess aggressive behavior. Self‐report measures are quite transparent, so participants may have rated themselves more favorably than is actually warranted. In fact, mean scores of reported aggressive behavior were quite low. This reduced variance, however, typically diminishes associations with other constructs. In any case, observing how actual aggressive behavior is influenced by the social network's violent video game play would be an important endeavor for future work. It also has to be acknowledged that some participants may have reported on different friends at Time 1 and Time 2. Future research would be welcome that ensures that participants consider the same friends at different time points.

Future research may also shed some further light on the psychological processes. In the present study, the violent video game players’ higher levels of aggression accounted for the relationship between their amount of violent video game play and the participants’ reported aggression. It would be interesting to examine why the players’ aggression influences the aggression level of their social network. One possibility is that witnessing increased aggression by others (who play violent video games) leads to greater acceptance of norms condoning aggression, which are known to be an antecedent of aggressive behavior (Huesmann & Guerra, 1997 ). After all, if others behave aggressively, why should one refrain from engaging in the same behavior.

Another limitation of the present work is that it was not assessed how participants and their friends play violent video games. A recent survey (Lenhart, Smith, Anderson, Duggan, & Perrin, 2015 ) showed that many video game users play video games together with their friends, either cooperatively or competitively. This is insofar noteworthy as there might be some overlap between participants’ and their friends’ violent video game play. Moreover, cooperative video games have been shown to increase prosocial tendencies (Greitemeyer, 2013 ; Greitemeyer & Cox, 2013 ; but see Verheijen, Stoltz, van den Berg, & Cillessen, 2019 ) and decrease aggression (Velez, Greitemeyer, Whitaker, Ewoldsen, & Bushman, 2016 ). In contrast, competitive video game play increases aggressive affect and behavior (e.g., Adachi & Willoughby, 2016 ). Hence, future research should examine more closely whether participants play violent video games on their own, competitively, or cooperatively. The latter may show some positive effects of video game play, both on the player and the player's friends, whereas opposing effects should be found for competitive video games.

To obtain high statistical power and thus to increase the probability to detect significant effects, data were collected via an online survey. The current sample was drawn from the MTurk population (for a review of the trend to rely on MTurk samples in social and personality psychology, see Anderson et al., 2019 ). Samples drawn from MTurk are not demographically representative of the U.S. population as a whole. For example, MTurk samples are disproportionally young and female and they are better educated but tend to be unemployed (for a review, Keith, Tay, & Harms, 2017 ). On the other hand, MTurk samples are more representative of the U.S. population than are college student samples (Paolacci & Chandler, 2014 ) and the pool of participants is geographically diverse. Moreover, MTurk participants appear to be more attentive to survey instructions than are undergraduate students (Hauser & Schwarz, 2016 ). Nevertheless, future research on the impact of violent video game play on the player's social network that employs other samples would improve the generalizability of the present findings.

In conclusion, violent video game play is not only associated with increased aggression in the player but also in the player's social network. In fact, increased aggression due to violent video game play appears to instigate further aggression in the player's social network. This study thus provides suggestive evidence that not only players of violent video games are more aggressive, but also individuals become more aggressive who do not play violent video games themselves but are connected to others who do play.

Greitemeyer T. The contagious impact of playing violent video games on aggression: Longitudinal evidence . Aggressive Behavior . 2019; 45 :635–642. 10.1002/ab.21857 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]

1 Participant's perceived deprivation was positively related to both violent video game exposure, r (2,502) = 0.08, p  < .001, and reported aggression, r (2,502) = 0.14, p  < .001. However, the relationship between violent video game exposure and reported aggression, r (2,502) = 0.15, p  < .001, was relatively unaffected when controlling for perceived deprivation, r (2,499) = 0.14, p  < .001.

2 Given that the measures of violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior violated the normal distribution, Spearman's ρ coefficients were also calculated. However, the pattern of finding was very similar (e.g., the crucial relationship between the participant's aggression and friends’ amount of violent video game play was 0.18 [Pearson] and 0.17 [Spearman]). All these analyses can be obtained from the author upon request.

3 When dropping friends’ amount of violent video game play from the analysis, the participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1 still did not predict participant's aggression at Time 2, t  = 0.44, β  = −.01, 95% CI = (− 0.02, 0.01), p  = .657 (when controlling for participant's aggression at Time 1, participant sex, and age).

4 Given that violent video games primarily model physical aggression, violent video games should have a stronger effect on the player's physical aggression than on other types of aggression. In fact, the impact of the participant's amount of violent video game play at Time 1 on the participant's physical aggression at Time 2, t  = 1.49, β  = .04, 95% CI = (− 0.00, 0.02), p  = .136 (when controlling for the participant's physical aggression at Time 1), was more pronounced than the impact on the participant's relational aggression at Time 2, t  = 0.52, β  = .02, 95% CI = (− 0.01, 0.02), p  = .603 (when controlling for the participant's relational aggression at Time 1), but both effects were not significant.

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essay about violence in video games

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  • Published: 13 March 2018

Does playing violent video games cause aggression? A longitudinal intervention study

  • Simone Kühn 1 , 2 ,
  • Dimitrij Tycho Kugler 2 ,
  • Katharina Schmalen 1 ,
  • Markus Weichenberger 1 ,
  • Charlotte Witt 1 &
  • Jürgen Gallinat 2  

Molecular Psychiatry volume  24 ,  pages 1220–1234 ( 2019 ) Cite this article

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It is a widespread concern that violent video games promote aggression, reduce pro-social behaviour, increase impulsivity and interfere with cognition as well as mood in its players. Previous experimental studies have focussed on short-term effects of violent video gameplay on aggression, yet there are reasons to believe that these effects are mostly the result of priming. In contrast, the present study is the first to investigate the effects of long-term violent video gameplay using a large battery of tests spanning questionnaires, behavioural measures of aggression, sexist attitudes, empathy and interpersonal competencies, impulsivity-related constructs (such as sensation seeking, boredom proneness, risk taking, delay discounting), mental health (depressivity, anxiety) as well as executive control functions, before and after 2 months of gameplay. Our participants played the violent video game Grand Theft Auto V, the non-violent video game The Sims 3 or no game at all for 2 months on a daily basis. No significant changes were observed, neither when comparing the group playing a violent video game to a group playing a non-violent game, nor to a passive control group. Also, no effects were observed between baseline and posttest directly after the intervention, nor between baseline and a follow-up assessment 2 months after the intervention period had ended. The present results thus provide strong evidence against the frequently debated negative effects of playing violent video games in adults and will therefore help to communicate a more realistic scientific perspective on the effects of violent video gaming.

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The concern that violent video games may promote aggression or reduce empathy in its players is pervasive and given the popularity of these games their psychological impact is an urgent issue for society at large. Contrary to the custom, this topic has also been passionately debated in the scientific literature. One research camp has strongly argued that violent video games increase aggression in its players [ 1 , 2 ], whereas the other camp [ 3 , 4 ] repeatedly concluded that the effects are minimal at best, if not absent. Importantly, it appears that these fundamental inconsistencies cannot be attributed to differences in research methodology since even meta-analyses, with the goal to integrate the results of all prior studies on the topic of aggression caused by video games led to disparate conclusions [ 2 , 3 ]. These meta-analyses had a strong focus on children, and one of them [ 2 ] reported a marginal age effect suggesting that children might be even more susceptible to violent video game effects.

To unravel this topic of research, we designed a randomised controlled trial on adults to draw causal conclusions on the influence of video games on aggression. At present, almost all experimental studies targeting the effects of violent video games on aggression and/or empathy focussed on the effects of short-term video gameplay. In these studies the duration for which participants were instructed to play the games ranged from 4 min to maximally 2 h (mean = 22 min, median = 15 min, when considering all experimental studies reviewed in two of the recent major meta-analyses in the field [ 3 , 5 ]) and most frequently the effects of video gaming have been tested directly after gameplay.

It has been suggested that the effects of studies focussing on consequences of short-term video gameplay (mostly conducted on college student populations) are mainly the result of priming effects, meaning that exposure to violent content increases the accessibility of aggressive thoughts and affect when participants are in the immediate situation [ 6 ]. However, above and beyond this the General Aggression Model (GAM, [ 7 ]) assumes that repeatedly primed thoughts and feelings influence the perception of ongoing events and therewith elicits aggressive behaviour as a long-term effect. We think that priming effects are interesting and worthwhile exploring, but in contrast to the notion of the GAM our reading of the literature is that priming effects are short-lived (suggested to only last for <5 min and may potentially reverse after that time [ 8 ]). Priming effects should therefore only play a role in very close temporal proximity to gameplay. Moreover, there are a multitude of studies on college students that have failed to replicate priming effects [ 9 , 10 , 11 ] and associated predictions of the so-called GAM such as a desensitisation against violent content [ 12 , 13 , 14 ] in adolescents and college students or a decrease of empathy [ 15 ] and pro-social behaviour [ 16 , 17 ] as a result of playing violent video games.

However, in our view the question that society is actually interested in is not: “Are people more aggressive after having played violent video games for a few minutes? And are these people more aggressive minutes after gameplay ended?”, but rather “What are the effects of frequent, habitual violent video game playing? And for how long do these effects persist (not in the range of minutes but rather weeks and months)?” For this reason studies are needed in which participants are trained over longer periods of time, tested after a longer delay after acute playing and tested with broader batteries assessing aggression but also other relevant domains such as empathy as well as mood and cognition. Moreover, long-term follow-up assessments are needed to demonstrate long-term effects of frequent violent video gameplay. To fill this gap, we set out to expose adult participants to two different types of video games for a period of 2 months and investigate changes in measures of various constructs of interest at least one day after the last gaming session and test them once more 2 months after the end of the gameplay intervention. In contrast to the GAM, we hypothesised no increases of aggression or decreases in pro-social behaviour even after long-term exposure to a violent video game due to our reasoning that priming effects of violent video games are short-lived and should therefore not influence measures of aggression if they are not measured directly after acute gaming. In the present study, we assessed potential changes in the following domains: behavioural as well as questionnaire measures of aggression, empathy and interpersonal competencies, impulsivity-related constructs (such as sensation seeking, boredom proneness, risk taking, delay discounting), and depressivity and anxiety as well as executive control functions. As the effects on aggression and pro-social behaviour were the core targets of the present study, we implemented multiple tests for these domains. This broad range of domains with its wide coverage and the longitudinal nature of the study design enabled us to draw more general conclusions regarding the causal effects of violent video games.

Materials and methods

Participants.

Ninety healthy participants (mean age = 28 years, SD = 7.3, range: 18–45, 48 females) were recruited by means of flyers and internet advertisements. The sample consisted of college students as well as of participants from the general community. The advertisement mentioned that we were recruiting for a longitudinal study on video gaming, but did not mention that we would offer an intervention or that we were expecting training effects. Participants were randomly assigned to the three groups ruling out self-selection effects. The sample size was based on estimates from a previous study with a similar design [ 18 ]. After complete description of the study, the participants’ informed written consent was obtained. The local ethics committee of the Charité University Clinic, Germany, approved of the study. We included participants that reported little, preferably no video game usage in the past 6 months (none of the participants ever played the game Grand Theft Auto V (GTA) or Sims 3 in any of its versions before). We excluded participants with psychological or neurological problems. The participants received financial compensation for the testing sessions (200 Euros) and performance-dependent additional payment for two behavioural tasks detailed below, but received no money for the training itself.

Training procedure

The violent video game group (5 participants dropped out between pre- and posttest, resulting in a group of n  = 25, mean age = 26.6 years, SD = 6.0, 14 females) played the game Grand Theft Auto V on a Playstation 3 console over a period of 8 weeks. The active control group played the non-violent video game Sims 3 on the same console (6 participants dropped out, resulting in a group of n  = 24, mean age = 25.8 years, SD = 6.8, 12 females). The passive control group (2 participants dropped out, resulting in a group of n  = 28, mean age = 30.9 years, SD = 8.4, 12 females) was not given a gaming console and had no task but underwent the same testing procedure as the two other groups. The passive control group was not aware of the fact that they were part of a control group to prevent self-training attempts. The experimenters testing the participants were blind to group membership, but we were unable to prevent participants from talking about the game during testing, which in some cases lead to an unblinding of experimental condition. Both training groups were instructed to play the game for at least 30 min a day. Participants were only reimbursed for the sessions in which they came to the lab. Our previous research suggests that the perceived fun in gaming was positively associated with training outcome [ 18 ] and we speculated that enforcing training sessions through payment would impair motivation and thus diminish the potential effect of the intervention. Participants underwent a testing session before (baseline) and after the training period of 2 months (posttest 1) as well as a follow-up testing sessions 2 months after the training period (posttest 2).

Grand Theft Auto V (GTA)

GTA is an action-adventure video game situated in a fictional highly violent game world in which players are rewarded for their use of violence as a means to advance in the game. The single-player story follows three criminals and their efforts to commit heists while under pressure from a government agency. The gameplay focuses on an open world (sandbox game) where the player can choose between different behaviours. The game also allows the player to engage in various side activities, such as action-adventure, driving, third-person shooting, occasional role-playing, stealth and racing elements. The open world design lets players freely roam around the fictional world so that gamers could in principle decide not to commit violent acts.

The Sims 3 (Sims)

Sims is a life simulation game and also classified as a sandbox game because it lacks clearly defined goals. The player creates virtual individuals called “Sims”, and customises their appearance, their personalities and places them in a home, directs their moods, satisfies their desires and accompanies them in their daily activities and by becoming part of a social network. It offers opportunities, which the player may choose to pursue or to refuse, similar as GTA but is generally considered as a pro-social and clearly non-violent game.

Assessment battery

To assess aggression and associated constructs we used the following questionnaires: Buss–Perry Aggression Questionnaire [ 19 ], State Hostility Scale [ 20 ], Updated Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale [ 21 , 22 ], Moral Disengagement Scale [ 23 , 24 ], the Rosenzweig Picture Frustration Test [ 25 , 26 ] and a so-called World View Measure [ 27 ]. All of these measures have previously been used in research investigating the effects of violent video gameplay, however, the first two most prominently. Additionally, behavioural measures of aggression were used: a Word Completion Task, a Lexical Decision Task [ 28 ] and the Delay frustration task [ 29 ] (an inter-correlation matrix is depicted in Supplementary Figure 1 1). From these behavioural measures, the first two were previously used in research on the effects of violent video gameplay. To assess variables that have been related to the construct of impulsivity, we used the Brief Sensation Seeking Scale [ 30 ] and the Boredom Propensity Scale [ 31 ] as well as tasks assessing risk taking and delay discounting behaviourally, namely the Balloon Analogue Risk Task [ 32 ] and a Delay-Discounting Task [ 33 ]. To quantify pro-social behaviour, we employed: Interpersonal Reactivity Index [ 34 ] (frequently used in research on the effects of violent video gameplay), Balanced Emotional Empathy Scale [ 35 ], Reading the Mind in the Eyes test [ 36 ], Interpersonal Competence Questionnaire [ 37 ] and Richardson Conflict Response Questionnaire [ 38 ]. To assess depressivity and anxiety, which has previously been associated with intense video game playing [ 39 ], we used Beck Depression Inventory [ 40 ] and State Trait Anxiety Inventory [ 41 ]. To characterise executive control function, we used a Stop Signal Task [ 42 ], a Multi-Source Interference Task [ 43 ] and a Task Switching Task [ 44 ] which have all been previously used to assess effects of video gameplay. More details on all instruments used can be found in the Supplementary Material.

Data analysis

On the basis of the research question whether violent video game playing enhances aggression and reduces empathy, the focus of the present analysis was on time by group interactions. We conducted these interaction analyses separately, comparing the violent video game group against the active control group (GTA vs. Sims) and separately against the passive control group (GTA vs. Controls) that did not receive any intervention and separately for the potential changes during the intervention period (baseline vs. posttest 1) and to test for potential long-term changes (baseline vs. posttest 2). We employed classical frequentist statistics running a repeated-measures ANOVA controlling for the covariates sex and age.

Since we collected 52 separate outcome variables and conduced four different tests with each (GTA vs. Sims, GTA vs. Controls, crossed with baseline vs. posttest 1, baseline vs. posttest 2), we had to conduct 52 × 4 = 208 frequentist statistical tests. Setting the alpha value to 0.05 means that by pure chance about 10.4 analyses should become significant. To account for this multiple testing problem and the associated alpha inflation, we conducted a Bonferroni correction. According to Bonferroni, the critical value for the entire set of n tests is set to an alpha value of 0.05 by taking alpha/ n  = 0.00024.

Since the Bonferroni correction has sometimes been criticised as overly conservative, we conducted false discovery rate (FDR) correction [ 45 ]. FDR correction also determines adjusted p -values for each test, however, it controls only for the number of false discoveries in those tests that result in a discovery (namely a significant result).

Moreover, we tested for group differences at the baseline assessment using independent t -tests, since those may hamper the interpretation of significant interactions between group and time that we were primarily interested in.

Since the frequentist framework does not enable to evaluate whether the observed null effect of the hypothesised interaction is indicative of the absence of a relation between violent video gaming and our dependent variables, the amount of evidence in favour of the null hypothesis has been tested using a Bayesian framework. Within the Bayesian framework both the evidence in favour of the null and the alternative hypothesis are directly computed based on the observed data, giving rise to the possibility of comparing the two. We conducted Bayesian repeated-measures ANOVAs comparing the model in favour of the null and the model in favour of the alternative hypothesis resulting in a Bayes factor (BF) using Bayesian Information criteria [ 46 ]. The BF 01 suggests how much more likely the data is to occur under the null hypothesis. All analyses were performed using the JASP software package ( https://jasp-stats.org ).

Sex distribution in the present study did not differ across the groups ( χ 2 p -value > 0.414). However, due to the fact that differences between males and females have been observed in terms of aggression and empathy [ 47 ], we present analyses controlling for sex. Since our random assignment to the three groups did result in significant age differences between groups, with the passive control group being significantly older than the GTA ( t (51) = −2.10, p  = 0.041) and the Sims group ( t (50) = −2.38, p  = 0.021), we also controlled for age.

The participants in the violent video game group played on average 35 h and the non-violent video game group 32 h spread out across the 8 weeks interval (with no significant group difference p  = 0.48).

To test whether participants assigned to the violent GTA game show emotional, cognitive and behavioural changes, we present the results of repeated-measure ANOVA time x group interaction analyses separately for GTA vs. Sims and GTA vs. Controls (Tables  1 – 3 ). Moreover, we split the analyses according to the time domain into effects from baseline assessment to posttest 1 (Table  2 ) and effects from baseline assessment to posttest 2 (Table  3 ) to capture more long-lasting or evolving effects. In addition to the statistical test values, we report partial omega squared ( ω 2 ) as an effect size measure. Next to the classical frequentist statistics, we report the results of a Bayesian statistical approach, namely BF 01 , the likelihood with which the data is to occur under the null hypothesis that there is no significant time × group interaction. In Table  2 , we report the presence of significant group differences at baseline in the right most column.

Since we conducted 208 separate frequentist tests we expected 10.4 significant effects simply by chance when setting the alpha value to 0.05. In fact we found only eight significant time × group interactions (these are marked with an asterisk in Tables  2 and 3 ).

When applying a conservative Bonferroni correction, none of those tests survive the corrected threshold of p  < 0.00024. Neither does any test survive the more lenient FDR correction. The arithmetic mean of the frequentist test statistics likewise shows that on average no significant effect was found (bottom rows in Tables  2 and 3 ).

In line with the findings from a frequentist approach, the harmonic mean of the Bayesian factor BF 01 is consistently above one but not very far from one. This likewise suggests that there is very likely no interaction between group × time and therewith no detrimental effects of the violent video game GTA in the domains tested. The evidence in favour of the null hypothesis based on the Bayes factor is not massive, but clearly above 1. Some of the harmonic means are above 1.6 and constitute substantial evidence [ 48 ]. However, the harmonic mean has been criticised as unstable. Owing to the fact that the sum is dominated by occasional small terms in the likelihood, one may underestimate the actual evidence in favour of the null hypothesis [ 49 ].

To test the sensitivity of the present study to detect relevant effects we computed the effect size that we would have been able to detect. The information we used consisted of alpha error probability = 0.05, power = 0.95, our sample size, number of groups and of measurement occasions and correlation between the repeated measures at posttest 1 and posttest 2 (average r  = 0.68). According to G*Power [ 50 ], we could detect small effect sizes of f  = 0.16 (equals η 2  = 0.025 and r  = 0.16) in each separate test. When accounting for the conservative Bonferroni-corrected p -value of 0.00024, still a medium effect size of f  = 0.23 (equals η 2  = 0.05 and r  = 0.22) would have been detectable. A meta-analysis by Anderson [ 2 ] reported an average effects size of r  = 0.18 for experimental studies testing for aggressive behaviour and another by Greitmeyer [ 5 ] reported average effect sizes of r  = 0.19, 0.25 and 0.17 for effects of violent games on aggressive behaviour, cognition and affect, all of which should have been detectable at least before multiple test correction.

Within the scope of the present study we tested the potential effects of playing the violent video game GTA V for 2 months against an active control group that played the non-violent, rather pro-social life simulation game The Sims 3 and a passive control group. Participants were tested before and after the long-term intervention and at a follow-up appointment 2 months later. Although we used a comprehensive test battery consisting of questionnaires and computerised behavioural tests assessing aggression, impulsivity-related constructs, mood, anxiety, empathy, interpersonal competencies and executive control functions, we did not find relevant negative effects in response to violent video game playing. In fact, only three tests of the 208 statistical tests performed showed a significant interaction pattern that would be in line with this hypothesis. Since at least ten significant effects would be expected purely by chance, we conclude that there were no detrimental effects of violent video gameplay.

This finding stands in contrast to some experimental studies, in which short-term effects of violent video game exposure have been investigated and where increases in aggressive thoughts and affect as well as decreases in helping behaviour have been observed [ 1 ]. However, these effects of violent video gaming on aggressiveness—if present at all (see above)—seem to be rather short-lived, potentially lasting <15 min [ 8 , 51 ]. In addition, these short-term effects of video gaming are far from consistent as multiple studies fail to demonstrate or replicate them [ 16 , 17 ]. This may in part be due to problems, that are very prominent in this field of research, namely that the outcome measures of aggression and pro-social behaviour, are poorly standardised, do not easily generalise to real-life behaviour and may have lead to selective reporting of the results [ 3 ]. We tried to address these concerns by including a large set of outcome measures that were mostly inspired by previous studies demonstrating effects of short-term violent video gameplay on aggressive behaviour and thoughts, that we report exhaustively.

Since effects observed only for a few minutes after short sessions of video gaming are not representative of what society at large is actually interested in, namely how habitual violent video gameplay affects behaviour on a more long-term basis, studies employing longer training intervals are highly relevant. Two previous studies have employed longer training intervals. In an online study, participants with a broad age range (14–68 years) have been trained in a violent video game for 4 weeks [ 52 ]. In comparison to a passive control group no changes were observed, neither in aggression-related beliefs, nor in aggressive social interactions assessed by means of two questions. In a more recent study, participants played a previous version of GTA for 12 h spread across 3 weeks [ 53 ]. Participants were compared to a passive control group using the Buss–Perry aggression questionnaire, a questionnaire assessing impulsive or reactive aggression, attitude towards violence, and empathy. The authors only report a limited increase in pro-violent attitude. Unfortunately, this study only assessed posttest measures, which precludes the assessment of actual changes caused by the game intervention.

The present study goes beyond these studies by showing that 2 months of violent video gameplay does neither lead to any significant negative effects in a broad assessment battery administered directly after the intervention nor at a follow-up assessment 2 months after the intervention. The fact that we assessed multiple domains, not finding an effect in any of them, makes the present study the most comprehensive in the field. Our battery included self-report instruments on aggression (Buss–Perry aggression questionnaire, State Hostility scale, Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance scale, Moral Disengagement scale, World View Measure and Rosenzweig Picture Frustration test) as well as computer-based tests measuring aggressive behaviour such as the delay frustration task and measuring the availability of aggressive words using the word completion test and a lexical decision task. Moreover, we assessed impulse-related concepts such as sensation seeking, boredom proneness and associated behavioural measures such as the computerised Balloon analogue risk task, and delay discounting. Four scales assessing empathy and interpersonal competence scales, including the reading the mind in the eyes test revealed no effects of violent video gameplay. Neither did we find any effects on depressivity (Becks depression inventory) nor anxiety measured as a state as well as a trait. This is an important point, since several studies reported higher rates of depressivity and anxiety in populations of habitual video gamers [ 54 , 55 ]. Last but not least, our results revealed also no substantial changes in executive control tasks performance, neither in the Stop signal task, the Multi-source interference task or a Task switching task. Previous studies have shown higher performance of habitual action video gamers in executive tasks such as task switching [ 56 , 57 , 58 ] and another study suggests that training with action video games improves task performance that relates to executive functions [ 59 ], however, these associations were not confirmed by a meta-analysis in the field [ 60 ]. The absence of changes in the stop signal task fits well with previous studies that likewise revealed no difference between in habitual action video gamers and controls in terms of action inhibition [ 61 , 62 ]. Although GTA does not qualify as a classical first-person shooter as most of the previously tested action video games, it is classified as an action-adventure game and shares multiple features with those action video games previously related to increases in executive function, including the need for hand–eye coordination and fast reaction times.

Taken together, the findings of the present study show that an extensive game intervention over the course of 2 months did not reveal any specific changes in aggression, empathy, interpersonal competencies, impulsivity-related constructs, depressivity, anxiety or executive control functions; neither in comparison to an active control group that played a non-violent video game nor to a passive control group. We observed no effects when comparing a baseline and a post-training assessment, nor when focussing on more long-term effects between baseline and a follow-up interval 2 months after the participants stopped training. To our knowledge, the present study employed the most comprehensive test battery spanning a multitude of domains in which changes due to violent video games may have been expected. Therefore the present results provide strong evidence against the frequently debated negative effects of playing violent video games. This debate has mostly been informed by studies showing short-term effects of violent video games when tests were administered immediately after a short playtime of a few minutes; effects that may in large be caused by short-lived priming effects that vanish after minutes. The presented results will therefore help to communicate a more realistic scientific perspective of the real-life effects of violent video gaming. However, future research is needed to demonstrate the absence of effects of violent video gameplay in children.

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SK has been funded by a Heisenberg grant from the German Science Foundation (DFG KU 3322/1-1, SFB 936/C7), the European Union (ERC-2016-StG-Self-Control-677804) and a Fellowship from the Jacobs Foundation (JRF 2016–2018).

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There is no evidence to support these claims that violent media and real-world violence are connected. Photo by kerkezz/Ad...

Christopher J. Ferguson, The Conversation Christopher J. Ferguson, The Conversation

  • Copy URL https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/analysis-why-its-time-to-stop-blaming-video-games-for-real-world-violence

Analysis: Why it’s time to stop blaming video games for real-world violence

In the wake of the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3 that left 21 dead and dozens injured, a familiar trope has reemerged: Often, when a young man is the shooter, people try to blame the tragedy on violent video games and other forms of media.

This time around, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick placed some of the blame on a video game industry that “ teaches young people to kill .” Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California went on to condemn video games that “dehumanize individuals” as a “problem for future generations.” And President Trump pointed to society’s “glorification of violence,” including “ gruesome and grisly video games .”

These are the same connections a Florida lawmaker made after the Parkland shooting in February 2018, suggesting that the gunman in that case “was prepared to pick off students like it’s a video game .”

Kevin McCarthy, the GOP House minority leader, also tells Fox News that video games are the problem following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. pic.twitter.com/w7DmlJ9O1K — John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) August 4, 2019

But, speaking as a researcher who has studied violent video games for almost 15 years, I can state that there is no evidence to support these claims that violent media and real-world violence are connected. As far back as 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that research did not find a clear connection between violent video games and aggressive behavior.

Criminologists who study mass shootings specifically refer to those sorts of connections as a “ myth .” And in 2017, the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association released a statement I helped craft, suggesting reporters and policymakers cease linking mass shootings to violent media, given the lack of evidence for a link.

A history of a moral panic

So why are so many policymakers inclined to blame violent video games for violence? There are two main reasons.

The first is the psychological research community’s efforts to market itself as strictly scientific. This led to a replication crisis instead, with researchers often unable to repeat the results of their studies. Now, psychology researchers are reassessing their analyses of a wide range of issues – not just violent video games, but implicit racism , power poses and more.

The other part of the answer lies in the troubled history of violent video game research specifically.

An attendee dressed as a Fortnite character poses for a picture in a costume at Comic Con International in San Diego, California, U.S., July 19, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake

An attendee dressed as a Fortnite character poses for a picture in a costume at Comic Con International in San Diego, California, U.S., July 19, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake

Beginning in the early 2000s, some scholars, anti-media advocates and professional groups like the APA began working to connect a methodologically messy and often contradictory set of results to public health concerns about violence. This echoed historical patterns of moral panic, such as 1950s concerns about comic books and Tipper Gore’s efforts to blame pop and rock music in the 1980s for violence, sex and satanism.

Particularly in the early 2000s, dubious evidence regarding violent video games was uncritically promoted . But over the years, confidence among scholars that violent video games influence aggression or violence has crumbled .

Reviewing all the scholarly literature

My own research has examined the degree to which violent video games can – or can’t – predict youth aggression and violence. In a 2015 meta-analysis , I examined 101 studies on the subject and found that violent video games had little impact on kids’ aggression, mood, helping behavior or grades.

Two years later, I found evidence that scholarly journals’ editorial biases had distorted the scientific record on violent video games. Experimental studies that found effects were more likely to be published than studies that had found none. This was consistent with others’ findings . As the Supreme Court noted, any impacts due to video games are nearly impossible to distinguish from the effects of other media, like cartoons and movies.

Any claims that there is consistent evidence that violent video games encourage aggression are simply false.

Spikes in violent video games’ popularity are well-known to correlate with substantial declines in youth violence – not increases. These correlations are very strong, stronger than most seen in behavioral research. More recent research suggests that the releases of highly popular violent video games are associated with immediate declines in violent crime, hinting that the releases may cause the drop-off.

The role of professional groups

With so little evidence, why are people like Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin still trying to blame violent video games for mass shootings by young men? Can groups like the National Rifle Association seriously blame imaginary guns for gun violence?

A key element of that problem is the willingness of professional guild organizations such as the APA to promote false beliefs about violent video games. (I’m a fellow of the APA.) These groups mainly exist to promote a profession among news media, the public and policymakers, influencing licensing and insurance laws . They also make it easier to get grants and newspaper headlines. Psychologists and psychology researchers like myself pay them yearly dues to increase the public profile of psychology. But there is a risk the general public may mistake promotional positions for objective science.

In 2005 the APA released its first policy statement linking violent video games to aggression. However, my recent analysis of internal APA documents with criminologist Allen Copenhaver found that the APA ignored inconsistencies and methodological problems in the research data.

The APA updated its statement in 2015, but that sparked controversy immediately: More than 230 scholars wrote to the group asking it to stop releasing policy statements altogether. I and others objected to perceived conflicts of interest and lack of transparency tainting the process.

It’s bad enough that these statements misrepresent the actual scholarly research and misinform the public. But it’s worse when those falsehoods give advocacy groups like the NRA cover to shift blame for violence onto non-issues like video games. The resulting misunderstanding hinders efforts to address mental illness and other issues, such as the need for gun control, that are actually related to gun violence.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original article . This story was updated from an earlier version to reflect the events surrounding the El Paso and Dayton shootings.

Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University. He's coauthor of " Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong ."

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essay about violence in video games

El Paso shooting is domestic terrorism, investigators say

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A man is surrounded by six screens showing the video game Call of Duty.

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The frustrating, enduring debate over video games, violence, and guns

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In the wake of two mass shootings earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the societal role of video games grabbed a familiar media spotlight. The El Paso shooter briefly referenced Call of Duty , a wildly popular game in which players assume the roles of soldiers during historical and fictional wartime, in his “manifesto.” And just this small mention of the video game seemed to have prompted President Donald Trump to return to a theme he’s emphasized before when looking to assign greater blame for violent incidents.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” he said in an August 5 press conference. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”

Trump’s statement suggesting a link between video games and real-world violence echoed sentiments shared by other lawmakers following the back-to-back mass shootings. It’s a response that major media outlets and retailers have also adopted of late; ESPN recently chose to delay broadcasting an esports tournament because of the shootings — a decision that seems to imply the network believes in a link between gaming and real-world violence. And Walmart made a controversial decision to temporarily remove all video game displays from its stores, even as it continues to openly sell guns.

But many members of the public, as well as researchers and some politicians, have counterargued that blaming video games sidesteps the real issue at the root of America’s mass shooting problem: a need for stronger gun control . The frenzied debate over video games within the larger conversation around gun violence underscores both how intense the fight over gun control has become and how easily games can become mired in political rhetoric.

essay about violence in video games

But this isn’t a new development; blaming video games for real-world violence — any kind of real-world violence — is a longstanding cultural and political habit whose origins date back to the 1970s. It’s also arguably part of a larger recurring wave of concern over any pop culture that’s been perceived as morally deviant, from rock ’n’ roll to the occult , depending on the era. But as mass shootings continue to occur nationwide and attempts to stop them by enacting gun control legislature remain divisive, video games have again become an easy target.

The most recent clamor arose from a clash among several familiar foes. In one corner: politicians like Trump who cite video games as evidence of immoral and violent media’s negative societal impact. In another: people who play video games and resist this reading, while also trying to lodge separate critiques of violence within gaming. In another: scientists at odds over whether there are factual and causal links between video games and real-world violence. And in still another: members of the general public who, upon receiving alarmist messages about games from politicians and the news media, react with yet more alarm.

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essay about violence in video games

What is new, however, is that recent criticism of the narrative that video games lead to real-world violence seems particularly intensified, and it’s coming not just from gamers but also from scientists , some media outlets , even mass shooting survivors: David Hogg, who became a gun control advocate after surviving the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, unveiled a new March for Our Lives gun control initiative in August, pointedly stating in his announcement on Twitter, “We know video games aren’t to blame.”

And on all sides is a sense that frustration is growing because so little has changed since the last time we had this debate — and since the time before that and the time before that.

There’s no science proving a link between video games and real-world violence. But that hasn’t quelled a debate that’s raged for decades.

Historically, video games have played a verifiable role in a handful of mass shootings, but the science linking video games to gun violence is murky . A vast body of psychology research, most of it conducted before 2015, argues strenuously that video games can contribute to increases in aggression . Yet much of this research has been contested by newer, contradictory findings from both psychologists and scholars in different academic fields. For example, Nickie Phillips , a criminologist whose research deals with violence in popular media, told me that “most criminologists are dismissive of a causal link between media and crime,” and that they’re instead interested in questions of violence as a social construct and how that contributes to political discourse.

That type of research, she stressed, is likely to be less flashy and headline-grabbing than psychology studies, which are more focused on pointing to direct behaviors and their causes. “Social meanings of crime are in transition,” Phillips said. “There’s not a single variable. As a public, we want a single concrete explanation as to why people commit atrocities, when the answers can be very complex.”

The debate over the science is easy to wade into, but it obscures just how preoccupied America is with dangerous media. The oldest moral panic over a video game may be the controversy over a 1976 game called Death Race , which awarded players points for driving over fleeing pedestrians dubbed “gremlins.” The game became mired in controversy, even sparking a segment on 60 Minutes . Interestingly, other games of the era that framed their mechanics through wartime violence, like the 1974 military game Tank , failed to cause as much public concern.

In his 2017 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong , psychologist Patrick Markey points out that before concerned citizens fixated on video games, many of them were worried about arcades — not because of the games they contained, but because they were licentious hangouts for teens. (Insert “ Ya Got Trouble ” here.) By the 1980s, “Arcades were being shut down across the nation by activist parents intent on protecting their children from the dangerous influences lurking within these neon-drenched dungeons,” Markey writes.

Then came the franchise that evolved arcade panic into gameplay panic: Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat , infamous for its gory “fatality” moves . With its 1992 arcade debut, Mortal Kombat sparked hysteria among concerned adults that led to a 1993 congressional hearing and the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB . The fighting game franchise still incites debate with every new release.

“Like people were really going to go out and rip people’s spines out,” Cypheroftyr , a gaming critic who typically goes by her internet handle, told me over the phone regarding the mainstream anxiety around Mortal Kombat in the 1990s. Cypheroftyr is an avid player of shooter games and other action games and the founder of the nonprofit I Need Diverse Games .

“I’m old enough to remember the whole Jack Thompson era of trying to say video games are violent and they should be banned,” she said, referencing the infamous disbarred obscenity lawyer known for a strident crusade against games and other media that has spanned decades .

Cypheroftyr pointed out that after the Columbine shooting in April 1999, politicians “were trying to blame both video games and Marilyn Manson. It just feels like this is too easy a scapegoat.”

Politicians have long seized on the idea that recreational fantasy and fictional media have an influence on real-world evil. In 2007, for example, Sen. Mitt Romney (R–UT) blamed “music and movies and TV and video games” for being full of “pornography and violence,” which he argued had influenced the Columbine shooters and, later, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter.

Video games seem especially prone to garnering political attention in the wake of a tragedy — especially first-person shooters like Call of Duty. A stereotype of a mass shooter, isolated and perpetually consuming graphic violent content, seems to linger in the public’s consciousness. A neighbor of the 2018 Parkland shooter, for instance, told the Miami Herald that the shooter would play video games for up to 12 to 15 hours a day — and although that anecdotal report was unverified, it was still widely circulated.

A 2015 Pew study of 2,000 US adults found that even though 49 percent of adult Americans play video games, 40 percent of Americans also believe in a link between games and violence — specifically, that “people who play violent video games are more likely to be violent themselves.” Additionally, 32 percent of the people who told Pew they play video games also said they believe gaming contributes to an increase in aggression, even though their own experience as, presumably, nonviolent gamers would offer at least some evidence to the contrary.

One person who sees a correlation between violent games and a propensity for real-world violence is Tim Winter . Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council , a nonpartisan advocacy group that lobbies the entertainment industry against marketing graphic violence to children. He spent several years overseeing MGM’s former video game publishing division, MGM Interactive, and moved into advocacy when he became a parent. Growing up, his children played all kinds of video games, except for those he considered too graphic or violent.

In a phone interview, Winter told me his view aligns with the research supporting links between games and aggression.

“Anyone who uses the term ‘moral panic’ in my view is trying to diminish a bona fide conversation that needs to take place,” Winter said. “It’s a simple PR move to refute something that might actually have some value in the broader conversation.”

During our conversation, he compared the connection between violent media and harmful real-world effects to that between cigarettes and lung cancer. If you consume in moderation, he argues, you’ll probably be fine; but, over time, exposure to violent media can have “a cumulative negative effect.” (In fact, studies of infrequent smokers have shown that their risk of coronary disease is roughly equal to that of frequent smokers, and their risk of cancer is still significantly higher than that of nonsmokers.)

“What I believe to be true is that the media we consume has a very powerful impact on shaping our belief structure, our cognitive development, our values, and our opinions,” he said.

He added that it would be foolish to point to any one act of violence and say it was caused by any one video game — that, he argued, “would be like saying lung cancer was caused by that one specific cigarette I smoked.”

“But if you are likely to smoke packs a day over the course of many years, it has a cumulative negative effect on your health,” he continued. “I believe based on the research on both sides that that’s the prevailing truth.”

The debate endures because gun control isn’t being addressed — and games are an easy target

Like many people I spoke with for this story, Winter believes that the debate about gun violence has remained largely at a standstill since Columbine, while the number of mass shootings nationwide has continued to increase.

“If you look at the broader issue of gun violence in America, you have a number of organizations and constituencies pointing at different causes,” he said. “When you look back at what those arguments are, it’s the same arguments that have been made going back to Columbine. Whether it’s gun control, whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s violence in media culture — whatever the debate is about those three root causes, very little progress has been made on any of them.”

The glorification of violence is so culturally embedded in American media through TV, film, games, books, and practically every other available medium that there seems to be very little impetus to change anything about America’s gun culture. We can define “ gun culture ” here as the addition of an embrace of gun ownership and a nationwide oversupply of guns to what Phillips described as “ a culture of violence ” — one in which violence “becomes our go-to way of solving problems — whether that’s individual violence, police violence, state violence.”

“There’s a commodification of violence,” she said, “and we have to understand what that means.”

essay about violence in video games

Naomi Clark , an independent game developer and co-chair of New York University’s Game Center program, agreed. “I find it more plausible that America’s long-standing culture of gun violence has affected video games, as a form of culture, than the other way around,” she told me in an email. “After all, this nation’s cultural traditions and attachments around guns are far older than video games.”

In light of incidents like Walmart’s removal of video game displays after the recent mass shootings while continuing to advertise guns, the connection between the shootings and America’s continued valorization of guns feels extremely stark. “We could ban video games tomorrow and mass shootings would still happen,” Cypheroftyr told me.

“What’s new about the current debate is that the scapegoat of videogaming has never been more nakedly exposed for what it is,” gaming sociologist Katherine Cross wrote in an email, “with Republicans and conservatives manifestly fearful of blaming systematic white supremacism, Trump’s rhetoric, or our nation’s permissive and freewheeling gun culture for the recent rash of terrorism.”

Because of the sensitivity around the issue of gun control, it’s easy for politicians to score points with constituents by focusing a conversation on games and sidestepping other action. “Politicians often blame video games because they are a safe target,” Moral Combat author Markey told me in an email. “There isn’t a giant video game lobby like other potential causes of mass shootings (like the NRA [National Rifle Association]). So [by targeting games], a politician can make it appear they are doing something without risking losing any votes.”

And the general public is often susceptible to this rhetoric, both because it’s emotional and because it may feed what they think they already know about games — even if that’s not a lot. “The narrative that violence in video games contributes to the gun violence in America is, I think, a good example of a bad idea that seems right to people who don’t look too closely at the facts,” Zak Garriss , a video game writer and designer who’s worked on a wide range of games, told me in an email.

“Video games are a global industry, dwarfing other entertainment industries in revenue in markets comprised of gamers from the UK, Germany, France, Japan, the US, and basically anywhere there’s electricity. Yet the spree shooting phenomenon seems to be seriously and uniquely a US issue right now. It’s also worth noting that the ratings systems across these countries vary, and in the case of Europe, are often more liberal in many regards than the US system,” Garriss said.

He also pointed out that this conversation frequently overshadows the important, innovative work that many games are engaged in. “Games like Stardew Valley , Minecraft , or Journey craft experiences that help people relax, detox after a day, bond with friends,” he said. “Games like Papers, Please , That Dragon Cancer , or Life Is Strange interrogate the harder and the darker elements of the human experience like love, grief, loneliness, and death.”

In other words, a conversation that focuses on games and guns alone dismisses the vital cultural role that video games play as art. “Play video games and you can jump on giant mushrooms, shoot a wizard on the moon, grow a farm, fall in love, experience nearly infinite worlds really,” Garriss told me. “If games have a unifying organizing principle, I’d say it’s to delight. The pursuit of fun.”

He continued: “To me, the tragedy, if there is one, in the current discourse around video games and violence, lies in failing to see the magic happening in the play. As devs, it’s a magic we’re chasing with every game. And as players, I think it’s a magic that has not just the potential but the actual power to bring people together, to aid mental health, to make us think, to help us heal. And to experience delight.”

But for some members of the public, games’ recreational, relaxational, and artistic values might be another thing that make them suspect. “If they don’t play games or ‘aged out of it,’ they might see them as frivolous or a waste of time,” Cypheroftyr says. “It’s easy to go, ‘Oh, you’re still playing video games? Why are you wasting your life?’”

That idea — that video games are a waste of time — is another longstanding element of cultural assumptions around games of all kinds, Clark, the game developer, told me. “Games have been an easy target in every era because there’s something inherently unproductive or even anti-productive about them, and so there’s also a long history of game designers trying to rehabilitate games and make them ‘do work’ or provide instruction.”

All of this makes it incredibly easy to fixate on video games instead of addressing difficult but more relevant targets, like NRA funding and easy access to guns. And that, in turn, makes it a complicated proposition to extricate video games from conversations about gun violence, let alone limit the conversation around violent games to people who might actually be in a position to create change, like the people who make the games in the first place.

Yet what’s striking when you drill down into the community around gaming is how many gamers agree with many of the arguments politicians are making. As a fan of shooter games, Cypheroftyr told me she routinely plays violent games like Call of Duty and the military action role-playing game (RPG) The Division . “I’m not out here trying to murder people,” she stressed. But like the Parents Television Council’s Winter, Cypheroftyr and many of the other people I spoke with agree that the gaming industry needs to do a lot more to examine the at times shocking imagery it perpetuates.

Many members of the gaming community are already discussing game violence

Multiple people I spoke with expressed frustration that the conversation about video games’ role in mass shootings is obscuring another, very important conversation to be had within the gaming community about violent games.

Clark told me that the public’s lack of nuance and an insistence on a binary reading of the issue is part of the problem. “Most people are capable of understanding that causes are complex,” she said, “that you can’t just point to one thing and say, ‘This is mostly or entirely to blame!’”

But she also cautioned that the gaming community’s reactionary defensiveness to this lack of nuance also prevents many video game fans from acknowledging that games do play a role within a violent culture. “That complexity cuts both ways,” she told me. “Even though it’s silly to say that ‘games cause violence,’ it’s also just as silly to say that games have nothing to do with a culture that has a violence problem.”

That culture is endemic to the gaming industry, added Justin Carter, a freelance journalist whose work focuses on video games and culture.

“The industry does have a fetishization of guns and violence,” Carter said. “You look at games like Borderlands or Destiny and one of the selling points is how many guns there are.” The upcoming first-person shooter game Borderlands 3 , he pointed out, boasts “over a billion” different guns from its 12 fictional weapons manufacturers , all of which tout special perks to get players to try their guns. These perks serve as marketing both inside and outside the game; the game’s publisher, 2K Games, invites players to exult in violence using language that speaks for itself :

Deliver devastating critical hits to enemies’ soft-and-sensitives, then joy-puke as your bullets ricochet towards other targets. ... Step 1: Hit your enemies with tracker tags. Step 2: Unleash a hail of Smart Bullets that track towards your targets. Step 3: Loot! Deal guaranteed elemental damage with your finger glued to the trigger ...

essay about violence in video games

“There are very few [action/adventure] games that give you options other than murdering people,” Cypheroftyr said. “Games don’t do enough to show the other side of it. You shoot someone, you die, they die, you reset, you reload, and nothing happens.”

“I know that if I shoot people in a game it’s not real,” she added. “99.9 percent of people don’t need to be told that. I’m not playing out a power fantasy or anything, but I’ve become more aware of how most games [that] use violence [do so] to solve problems.”

An insistence from game developers on blithely ignoring the potential political messages of their games is another frustration for her. “All these game makers are like, there’s no politics in the game. There’s no message. And I’m like ... did you just send me through a war museum and you’re telling me this?!”

The game Cypheroftyr is referencing is The Division 2 , which features a section where players can engage in enemy combat during a walkthrough of a Vietnam War memorial museum. While she loves the game, she told me the fact that players use weapons from the Vietnam War era while in a war museum belies game developers’ frequent arguments that such games are apolitical.

essay about violence in video games

Another game Cypheroftyr has found disturbing in its attempt to background politics without any real self-reflection is the popular adventure game Detroit Become Human , which displays pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. quotes alongside gameplay that allows players to choose extreme violence as an option. “You can take a more pacifistic approach, but you may not get the ending you want,” she explained.

She noted, too, that the military uses video games for training as part of what’s been dubbed the “ military-entertainment complex ,” with tactics involving shooter games that some ex-soldiers have referred to as “more like brainwashing than anything.” The US Army began exploring virtual training in 1999 and began developing its first tactics game a year later. The result, Full Spectrum Command , was a military-only version of 2003’s Full Spectrum Warrior . Since then, the military has used video games to teach soldiers everything from how to deal with combat scenarios to how to interact with Iraqi civilians .

essay about violence in video games

The close connection between games and sanctioned real-world violence, i.e., war, is hard to deny with any plausibility. “When someone insists that these two parts of culture have absolutely nothing to do with each other,” Clark said, “it smacks of denial, and many game developers are asking themselves, ‘Do I want to be part of this landscape?’ even if they have zero belief that video games are causing violence.”

For all the gaming industry’s faults when it comes to frankly addressing gaming’s role in a violent culture, however, many people are quick to point out that critiques of in-game violence can also come from the video games themselves. In Batman: Arkham Asylum , for example, researchers Christina Fawcett and Steven Kohm recently found that the game “directly implicate[s] the player in violence enacted upon the bodies of criminals and patients alike.” Other games shift the focus away from the perpetrators to the victims — for example, This War of Mine is a survival game inspired by the Bosnian War that focuses not on soldiers but on civilians dealing with the costs of wartime violence.

But acknowledging that critiques of violent games are coming from within the gaming community doesn’t play well as part of the gun control debate. “It’s far too easy to scapegoat video games as low-hanging fruit instead of addressing the real issues,” Cypheroftyr said, “like the ease with which we can get weapons in this country, and why we don’t do more to punish the perpetrators [of gun violence].” She also cites the cultural tendency to excuse masculine aggression early on with a “b“boys will be boys” mentality — which can breed the kind of entitlement that leads to more violence later on.

All these factors combine to make the conversation around violent video games inherently political and part of a larger ongoing debate that ultimately centers on which media messages are the most responsible for fueling real-world violence.

The conversation surrounding violent games implicates violent gaming culture itself — which, in turn, implicates politicians who rail against games

Games journalist Carter told me he feels the gaming community needs to, in essence, reject the whole debate entirely because at this point in its life cycle, it’s disingenuous.

“We’ve been through enough shootings that you know the playbook, and it’s annoying that gamers and people in the industry will take this as a position that needs defending,” he told me. “It’s not a conversation worth having anymore solely on post-traumatic terms.”

Discussions about video game violence need to be held mainly within the games community, Carter said, and held “with people who are actually interested in figuring out a solution instead of politicians looking to pass off the blame for their ineptitude and greed.”

But some gamers told me they don’t trust the gaming community to frame the conversation with appropriate nuance. All of them cited Gamergate’ s violent male entitlement and the effect that its subsequent bleed into the larger alt-right movement’s misogyny and white supremacy have had on mainstream culture at large.

“The framing of that rhetoric that began in Gamergate as part of the ‘low’ culture of niche internet forums became part of the mainstream political discourse,” criminologist Phillips pointed out. “The expression of their misogyny and the notion of being pushed out of their white male-dominated space was a microcosm of what was to come. We’re talking about 8chan now, but [the growth of the alt-right] was fueled by gaming culture.” She points to Gamergate as an example of the complicated interplay between gaming culture, online communities full of toxic, violent rhetoric, and the rise of online extremism that’s increasingly moving offline.

Gaming sociologist Cross agreed. “At this moment, there is urgent need to shine a light on video game culture , the fan spaces that have been infiltrated by white supremacists looking to recruit that minority of gamers who rage against ‘political correctness,’” she told me.

“We treat video games as unreal, as unserious play, and that creates a shadow over gaming forums and fan communities that has allowed toxicity to take root. It’s also allowed neo-Nazis to operate mostly unseen. That is what needs to change.”

The resulting shadow over gaming has spread far and wide — and found violent echoes in the rhetoric of Trump himself . “Look at what the person in the very highest office of the US is cultivating,” Cypheroftyr said. “Toxic masculinity, this idea that men, especially white men, have been fed that they’re losing ‘their’ country.”

essay about violence in video games

“While video games do not influence us in a monkey-see-monkey-do manner, they do, like all media, shape how we see the world,” Cross argues. “Republicans, in broaching that possibility, open themselves up to the critique that their leader, who makes frequent use of both old media and social media, might also be influential in a toxic way.”

And this, ultimately, may be why the current debate around video games and violence feels particularly intense: The extremes of toxic gaming culture are fueling the attitudes of toxic alt-right culture , which in turn fuels the rhetoric of President Trump and many other right-wing politicians — the same rhetoric that many white supremacist mass shooters are using to justify their atrocities.

So when Trump rails against violence in video games, as he’s now done multiple times , he’s protesting a fictionalized version of the real-life violence that his own rhetoric seems to tacitly encourage. If we are to accept the argument that media violence as represented by games is capable of bringing about real-world violence, then surely no media influence is more powerful or full of dangerous potential than that wielded by the president of the United States.

In 2018, Vice’s gaming vertical Waypoint devoted a week to “ guns and games ”; in a moving piece outlining the intent of the project, editor Austin Walker observed that unlike real-world violence, “in big-budget action games, and especially games that give the player guns and plentiful ammunition, violence is cheap and endlessly repeatable.”

Yet now, barely a year later, mass shootings and other incidents of real-world violence have also begun to seem endlessly repeatable. Perhaps that is why, at last, the urgency of shifting our cultural focus from fixing violence in games to fixing violence in the real world feels like it is finally outstripping the incessant debate.

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Violent Video Games and Aggression

A discussion based on the main theoretical frameworks

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  • First Online: 23 November 2022
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essay about violence in video games

  • H. Andaç Demirtaş-Madran 4  

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Whether or not exposure to violent media is a risk factor for aggressive behavior has been the subject of numerous studies over many years. Research, which was mostly focused on the effects of television during the first decades, started to shift its focus in the 1980s to video games. The interactive and rewarding nature of video gaming and the active role it imposes on players not only facilitates the comprehension of educational content, but also accelerates the modeling and reinforcement of negative orientations. Studies have generally shown that violent video games can trigger harmful effects in physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral terms. This chapter presents an overview of current findings from experiments, longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, meta-analyses, and conclusions based on the main theoretical frameworks. Initially, a comparison of the effects of violent video games and violent television is presented. Then, research findings concerning the effects of violent video game and theoretical explanations of the underlying processes are reviewed in detail. This is followed by a summary of research findings concerning the effect of violent video games on aggressive tendencies in accordance with the main theoretical frameworks and ongoing academic conflicts based on disagreements in method, tool, sampling, and statistical dimensions. Finally, a comprehensive discussion is presented along with various recommendations.

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Abbreviations

Violent video games

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Demirtaş-Madran, H.A. (2022). Violent Video Games and Aggression. In: Martin, C., Preedy, V.R., Patel, V.B. (eds) Handbook of Anger, Aggression, and Violence. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-98711-4_21-1

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Do Video Games Influence Violent Behavior?

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By:  Roanna Cooper, MA and Marc Zimmerman, PhD, MI-YVPC Director

An op-ed article appeared recently in the The New York Times  discussing the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down California’s law barring the sale or rental of violent video games to people under 18.  The author, Dr. Cheryl Olson,   describes how the proposed law was based on the erroneous assumption that such games influence violent behavior in real life.

Dr. Olson suggests that the deliberately outrageous nature of violent games, though disturbing, makes them easily discernible from real life and suggests that the interactivity could potentially make such games less harmful.

She raises the question of how these two behaviors can be linked if youth violence has declined over the last several years while violent video game playing has increased significantly during the same period.

This analysis ignores the fact that such variation may be explained by factors other than the link between the two. A spurious variable–a third variable that explains the relationship between two other variables—may explain the negative correlation of video game playing and violent behavior. As one example, socioeconomic status may explain both a decline in violent behavior and an increase in video game playing. More affluent youth have the means and time to buy and play video games, which keeps them safely inside while avoiding potentially violent interactions on the street.  Dr. Olsen also cites several studies that have failed to show a connection between violent video game playing and violent behavior among youth.

This conclusion, however, may not be as clear cut as it appears.

Youth violence remains a significant public health issue

The decline of youth violence notwithstanding, it remains a significant public health issue that requires attention.Youth homicide remains the number one cause of death for African-American youth between 14 and 24 years old, and the number two cause for all children in this age group. Furthermore, the proportion of youth admitting to having committed various violent acts within the previous 12 months has remained steady or even increased somewhat in recent years ( http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/5/1222.full.pdf+html ).  Although the Columbine tragedy and others like it make the headlines, youth are killed everyday by the hands of another.  A more critical analysis of the link between video game playing and violence is necessary for fully understanding a complex problem like youth violent behavior that has many causes and correlates.

essay about violence in video games

Studies support a link between violent video games and aggressive behavior

Researchers have reported experimental evidence linking violent video games to more aggressive behavior, particularly as it relates to children who are at more sensitive stages in their socialization.  These effects have been found to be particularly profound in the case of child-initiated virtual violence.

  • In one study, 161 9- to 12-year olds and 354 college students were randomly assigned to play either a violent or nonviolent video game.  The participants subsequently played another computer game in which they set punishment levels to be delivered to another person participating in the study (they were not actually administered).  Information was also gathered on each participant’s recent history of violent behavior; habitual video game, television, and move habits, and several other control variables.  The authors reported three main findings: 1) participants who played one of violent video games would choose to punish their opponents with significantly more high-noise blasts than those who played the nonviolent games; 2) habitual exposure to violent media was associated with higher levels of recent violent behavior; and 3) interactive forms of media violence were more strongly related to violent behavior than exposure to non-interactive media violence.
  • The second study was a cross-sectional correlational study of media habits, aggression-related individual difference variables, and aggressive behaviors of an adolescent population.  High school students (N=189) completed surveys about their violent TV, movie, and video game exposure, attitudes towards violence, and perceived norms about violent behavior and personality traits.  After statistically controlling for sex, total screen time and aggressive beliefs and attitudes, the authors found that playing violent video games predicted heightened physically aggressive behavior and violent behavior in the real world in a long-term context.
  • In a third study, Anderson et al. conducted a longitudinal study of elementary school students to examine if violent video game exposure resulted in increases in aggressive behavior over time.  Surveys were given to 430 third, fourth, and fifth graders, their peers, and their teachers at two times during a school year.  The survey assessed both media habits and their attitudes about violence.  Results indicated that children who played more violent video games early in a school year changed to see the world in a more aggressive way and also changed to become more verbally and physically aggressive later in the school year.  Changes in attitude were noticed by both peers and teachers.
  • Bushman and Huesmann, in a 2006 Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine article , examined effect size estimates using meta-analysis to look at the short- and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults.  They reported a positive relationship between exposure to media violence and subsequent aggressive behavior, aggressive ideas, arousal, and anger across the studies they examined.  Consistent with the theory that long-term effects require the learning of beliefs and that young minds can easier encode new scripts via observational learning, they found that the long-term effects were greater for children.
  • In a more recent review, Anderson et al. (2010) also analyzed 136 studies representing 130,296 participants from several countries.  These included experimental laboratory work, cross-sectional surveys and longitudinal studies.  Overall, they found consistent associations between playing violent video games and many measures of aggression, including self, teacher and parent reports of aggressive behavior.  Although the correlations were not high (r=0.17-0.20), they are typical for psychological studies in general and comparable with other risk factors for youth violence suggested in the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on youth violence .

Violent video games may increase precursors to violent behavior, such as bullying

Although playing violent video games may not necessarily determine violent or aggressive behavior, it may increase precursors to violent behavior.  In fact, Dr. Olson points out that violent video games may be related to bullying, which researchers have found to be a risk factor for more serious violent behavior. Therefore, video game playing may have an indirect effect on violent behavior by increasing risk factors for it.  Doug Gentile notes that the only way for violent video games to affect serious criminal violence statistics is if they were the primary predictor of crime, which they may not be.  Rather, they represent one risk factor among many for aggression ( http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/12/virtual-violence.aspx ).

Should video games be regulated?

L. Rowell Huesmann (2010) points out that violent video game playing may be similar to other public health threats such as exposure to cigarette smoke and led based paint .  Despite not being guaranteed, the probability of lung cancer from smoking or intelligence deficits from lead exposure is increased.  Nevertheless, we have laws controlling cigarette sales to minors and the use of lead-based paint (and other lead-based products such as gasoline) because it is a risk factor for negative health outcomes.  Huesmann argues the same analysis could be applied to video game exposure.  Although exposure to violent video games is not the sole factor contributing to aggression and violence among children and adolescents, it is a contributing risk factor that is modifiable.

essay about violence in video games

Violent behavior is determined by many factors

Finally, most researchers would agree that violent behavior is determined by many factors which may combine in different ways for different youth. These factors involve neighborhoods, families, peers, and individual traits and behaviors. Researchers, for example, have found that living in a violent neighborhood and experiencing violence as a victim or witness is associated with an increased risk for violent behavior among youth. Yet, this factor alone may not cause one to be violent and most people living in such a neighborhood do not become violent perpetrators. Similarly, researchers have found consistently that exposure to family violence (e.g., spousal and child abuse, fighting and conflict) increases the risk for youth violent behavior, but does not necessarily result in violent children. Likewise, researchers have found that first person killing video game playing is associated with increased risk for violent behavior, but not all the time. Yet, constant exposure to violence from multiple sources, including first person violent video games, in the absence of positive factors that help to buffer these negative exposures is likely to increase the probability that youth will engage in violent behavior.

Despite disagreements on the exact nature of the relationship between violent video game playing and violent or aggressive behavior, significant evidence exists linking video game playing with violent behavior and its correlates.  Although we are somewhat agnostic about the role of social controls like laws banning the sale of violent video games to minors, an argument against such social controls based on the conclusion  that the video games have no effect seems to oversimplify the issue. A more in-depth and critical analysis of the issue from multiple perspectives may both help more completely understand the causes and correlates of youth violence, and provide us with some direction for creative solutions to this persistent social problem.

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July 1, 2015

Do Video Games Inspire Violent Behavior?

Conventional wisdom suggests violent media is harming kids. But sometimes a game is just a game

By Greg Toppo

On the morning of August 12, 2013, nearly eight months after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people, Michael Mudry, an investigator with the Connecticut State Police, drove to nearby Danbury to try to solve a little mystery. Police had found a Garmin GPS unit in Lanza's house, and its records showed that the gunman had driven to the same spot nine times in April, May and June 2012, arriving around midnight each time and staying for hours.

The GPS readout took Mudry to the vast parking lot of a suburban shopping center, about 14 miles west of Lanza's home. Workers at a movie theater there immediately recognized Lanza from a photograph. He was at the theater constantly, they told Mudry, but never to see movies. He came to the lobby to play an arcade game, the same one, over and over again, sometimes for eight to 10 hours a night. Witnesses said he would whip himself into a frenzy, and on occasion the theater manager had to unplug the game to get him to leave.

Police had been scouring Lanza's home since the shootings, and on his computer hard drive they found information on weapons magazine capacities, images of Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, copies of the violent movies Bloody Wednesday and Rampage , and a list of ingredients for TNT. And like many teenaged boys, Lanza owned the typical first-person shooter, fighting and action games: Call of Duty, Dead or Alive, Grand Theft Auto.

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But those weren't the games that possessed Lanza at the movie theater. The title that so consumed the Sandy Hook shooter? Dance Dance Revolution—an arcade staple that has players dance on colored squares to the rhythm of Asian techno-pop. That discovery not only surprised investigators, it also was at odds with overheated speculation in the media and around dinner tables that violent video games had helped turn Lanza into a killer.

Yet no one knows how any of these games—Dance Dance Revolution included—might have affected a kid who was clearly struggling. The truth is that decades of research have turned up no reliable causal link between playing violent video games and perpetrating actual violence. This is not to say that games have no effect. They're built to have an effect. It's just not necessarily the one that most people think.

A tradition of worry The implicit connection between violent media and violent behavior is so old that, like a barnacle clinging to a hull, it's not easily dislodged. The notion dates at least to the Victorian era, when educators, tastemakers and clergymen began criticizing what was then a fairly raucous popular culture. Violent, sex-soaked dime novels and penny-dreadful magazines were immensely popular, and upstanding publications such as Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly took delight in denouncing them. Author and critic Harold Schechter, whose 2005 book Savage Pastimes lays out a social history of violent entertainment, notes that the trend divided the literati of the time. Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about his countrymen “reading all day murders & railroad accidents,” but Nathaniel Hawthorne loved the scandal sheets so much that he had a friend ship stacks of them to Liverpool, England, while he lived abroad as a U.S. consul. The belle of Amherst herself, Emily Dickinson, relished stories of “those funny accidents where railroads meet each other, and gentlemen in factories get their heads cut off quite informally.”

The 20th century saw criticism grow more robust. In 1936 Catholic scholar John K. Ryan laid out what he called the “mental food of American children,” as seen through the media they consumed. It was a long menu, one that included “sadism, cannibalism, bestiality. Crude eroticism. Torturing, killing, kidnapping.” He was talking about daily newspaper comic strips. In 1947 critic and actor John Houseman lodged similar complaints about cartoons on television. They “run red with horrible savagery,” he wrote.

Into this fray entered Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, now 89, whose experimental studies in the early 1960s established the theoretical basis for limiting kids' access to violent media. In a 1961 study, Bandura and his colleagues gathered 72 preschoolers. Laboratory assistants led the kids, one at a time, into a playroom, where they sat at a small table and received instruction on how to make potato-print pictures. Soon another adult entered the room and settled into the opposite corner with a Tinkertoy set, a mallet and a five-foot, inflated Bobo clown doll, the kind that rights itself if knocked over. The adult then either quietly assembled the Tinkertoys, ignoring Bobo, or turned to the doll and began “aggressing toward it”—punching it, sitting on it, kicking it around the room, all the while saying things such as “Sock him in the nose!” and “Pow!”

After 10 minutes, each child was led into another room and invited to play with some “relatively attractive toys,” such as a fire engine, a spinning top and a doll set. But after two minutes, a lab assistant announced that these were “her very best toys” and that she'd decided to reserve them for other children. The kids were swept into a third room that held more toys, both “aggressive and nonaggressive”: a tea set, crayons, dart guns, a mallet … and a three-foot Bobo doll. You see where this is going.

Faced with the frustration of having nice new toys suddenly snatched away, the preschoolers who had watched Bobo get mistreated were more likely than the others to take out their aggression on the mini Bobo. Bandura repeated the experiment in 1963, using film and cartoon depictions of Bobo's mistreatment, with similar results. The conclusions seemed clear: watching unchecked aggression in real life, on film or in cartoons makes us more aggressive because it provides us with “social scripts” to guide our behavior. Bandura's conclusions opened a floodgate of “media effects” research that continues today.

The problem is that many of the findings, especially when applied to children's media and play, are misleading at best. Critic Gerard Jones, whose 2003 book Killing Monsters makes a case for giving kids access to “make-believe violence,” writes: “There is no evidence to suggest that punching an inflatable clown has any connection to real-life violence.” In many cases, he and others say, researchers mistake natural competitiveness or the effects of discomfort for aggression or mislabel the subjects' temporary aggression as behavior that holds the potential for violence. In an often quoted 1976 study led by Brian Coates at Washington State University, researchers found that preschoolers who watched the famously mild Mister Rogers' Neighborhood were three times more aggressive afterward. Jones suggests that the experiment itself may have made kids anxious or even angry by compelling them to “sit in a hard plastic chair in a strange room” and watch TV on cue.

It was the 1999 Columbine High School shootings that got many Americans thinking about violent video games. After the attacks, victims' families sued more than two dozen game makers, saying titles such as Doom, a first-person shooter that the two teen gunmen played, desensitized them to violence. A judge dismissed the lawsuits, but the post-Columbine uproar led more researchers to begin dissecting games, much as Bandura did for TV, in search of the roots of aggression.

Deciphering the data A few studies tried to draw distinctions between good and bad games. In a 2010 experiment, Tobias Greitemeyer, then at the University of Sussex in England, and Silvia Osswald of Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany asked subjects to play one of three video games—either a “prosocial” game, an “aggressive” game or the “neutral” game Tetris. After eight minutes, an experimenter reached for a stack of questionnaires but “accidentally” knocked a cup of pencils off the table and onto the floor. Participants who had played the prosocial game were twice as likely to help pick up the pencils as those who played the neutral or aggressive game.

Others have tried to tease out the aftereffects of playing violent games. In a 2012 study, André Melzer of the University of Luxembourg, along with Mario Gollwitzer of Philipps University Marburg in Germany, found that inexperienced players felt a need to “cleanse” themselves after playing a violent video game (the so-called Macbeth effect: “Out, damned spot!”). Researchers asked subjects to play either a driving game or the mayhem-heavy Grand Theft Auto for 15 minutes, then pick gifts from an assortment, half “hygienic” (shower gel, deodorant, toothpaste) and half nonhygienic (gummy bears, Post-it notes, a box of tea). Inexperienced players who played Grand Theft Auto were more likely to pick out hygienic products than were experienced players or inexperienced players who had played the driving game.

But neither of those studies make the case that these games lead to real-word violence. Although drawing conclusions about small population subgroups—such as kids at risk of violence—from broad population trends can be dicey, it is still worth noting that as violent video games proliferated in recent years, the number of violent youthful offenders fell—by more than half between 1994 and 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. This trend is not what you would expect if these games had the power to make good boys go bad. Indeed, in a 2011 analysis of game sales from 2004 to 2008, A. Scott Cunningham of Baylor University, Benjamin Engelstätter of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany, and Michael R. Ward of the University of Texas at Arlington found that higher rates of violent game sales actually coincided with a drop in crimes, especially violent crimes. They concluded that any negative behavioral effects playing violent games might have are more than offset because violent people are drawn to such games, and the more they play, the less time they have for crime.

Even if violent video games are not turning people into killers, we might still wonder if they are harming our kids in subtler ways. As psychologist Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University puts it, whatever we practice repeatedly affects the brain. If we practice aggressive ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, he writes, “then we will get better at those.” In a 2008 survey on the gaming habits of about 2,500 young people, Gentile and his father, psychologist J. Ronald Gentile, found that children and adolescents who played more violent games were likelier to report “aggressive cognitions and behaviors.” They concluded that violent video games “appear to be exemplary teachers of aggression.” They also found that eighth and ninth graders who played violent games more frequently displayed greater “hostile attribution bias” (being vigilant for enemies) and got into more arguments with teachers.

The greatest worry is the impact on children who are already at risk. “Media is most powerful in our lives when it reinforces our existing values,” media scholar Henry Jenkins, now at the University of Southern California, said in a 2003 episode of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly . Indeed, Jenkins argued in an essay for PBS, a child who responds to a video game the same way he or she does to a real-world trauma could be showing symptoms of an emotional disturbance. So used in the right setting, a violent game could actually serve as a diagnostic tool.

But beyond such special circumstances, media effects research, with its Bobo dolls as markers of real-world aggression, is problematic. The fighting kids do in physical games and video games alike is just a simulation. In other words, it is play. It looks like fighting, wrote Brian Sutton-Smith, the late renowned play theorist, in his book The Ambiguity of Play , “but it is also the opposite of fighting … carried on by those who are not enemies and who do not intend to harm each other.”

In a way, we are pointing fingers at the wrong people. When we worry that a violent game is going to turn our kids into killers, aren't we the ones who can't tell fantasy from reality? Kids already know the difference.

Adapted from The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter , with permission from Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 2015.

SA Mind Vol 26 Issue 4

APS

Violent Video Games and Aggression: The Connection Is Dubious, at Best

  • Childhood Development
  • Perspectives on Psychological Science
  • Video Games

essay about violence in video games

Summary: If you are worried about violent video games triggering aggressive behavior in children, new research may help to alleviate your concerns.

The coronavirus pandemic put a damper on many traditional summertime activities for kids, like trips to the pool and youth camps. This gave more opportunity for children to socialize with friends virtually through online gaming. But many hours of extra screen time may have worried parents, especially in light of a highly publicized 2015 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) linking violent video games with aggressive behavior in children.

However, a recent reanalysis of these findings published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science came to a very different conclusion, finding no clear link between video game violence and aggression in children. Both the 2015 and the 2020 studies were meta-analyses, statistical methods of finding significant patterns in a large group of independent studies.

“Our new meta-analysis found that the evidence base was not sufficient to make the conclusions outlined in the 2015 report,” said Christopher J. Ferguson, lead author on the new paper and a professor of psychology at Stetson University. “We found that violent video games do not appear to be linked to aggression.”

When Ferguson and his colleagues reexamined the data used in the earlier meta-analysis, they found that it did not include most of the existing studies of video games and violence and failed to take quality issues into consideration.

“Studies that are well designed, such as those using standardized and well-validated aggression measures, almost never find evidence for negative, violent effects,” said Ferguson. “Our new meta-analysis also illustrates the need to focus on well-designed studies when researching the impact of violent media.”

“Games are now more important than ever for socialization, feeling autonomy and control during an uncertain time, and just de-stressing,” said Ferguson.

Additional research on the potential connection between video games and violent behavior is featured in the APS Research Topic Video Games and Violence .

Reference : Ferguson, C. J., Coperhaver, A., & Marley, P. (2020). Reexamining the Findings of the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Task Force on Violent Media: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science . Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620927666

Perspectives on Psychological Science  is a bimonthly journal publishing an eclectic mix of provocative reports and articles, including broad integrative reviews, overviews of research programs, meta-analyses, theoretical statements, and articles on topics such as the philosophy of science, opinion pieces about major issues in the field, autobiographical reflections of senior members of the field, and even occasional humorous essays and sketches.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines .

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Violence, Crime, and Violent Video Games: Is There a Correlation?

What effect does exposure to violence in video games have on behavior? These authors examine the evidence.

Since the arrival of increasingly violent video games and the media coverage attracted by recent mass killings, an emotional debate has developed concerning the impact of video games on aggressive, violent, and criminal behavior. Findings from meta-analyses are contradictory: some studies show an increase in aggressiveness, while others suggest a decrease in criminality.

Game platforms are becoming increasingly diverse and easily accessible (computers, consoles, tablets, mobile phones). This dramatic growth is a source of concern. Considered in the past to be an eccentric pastime doomed to rapid disappearance, video games are now solidly anchored in the popular culture.

Impact of video games on behavior

The conclusions drawn by the first literature review on this topic in 1998 suggested that there is a link between violent video games and aggressiveness. 1 Data showed an increase in aggressive moods or thoughts and hostility after playing violent video games and suggested impairment of prosocial behavior.

In 2000, Funk 2 studied the mechanisms underlying the aggressiveness caused by video games. She hypothesized that under certain environmental conditions, aggressive behavior was likely a consequence of the desensitization and disinhibition caused by violent video games. The repetitive nature of the games was thought to promote aggressive types of cognitive schema. Once this schema is established, it is reinforced by the learning process and the repetitive enactment of violence seen in video games. 3

Bensley and Van Eenwyk 4 identified 3 studies that showed a rise in aggressiveness that resulted from the use of video games by children aged 4 to 8 years. The data concerning adolescents were insufficient to draw any conclusions; however, an experimental study revealed an increase in aggressiveness in high school students.

A meta-analysis by Anderson and Bushman 5 revealed a positive correlation between exposure to violent video games and increased levels of aggressiveness in children and young adults of both sexes. This correlation appears to be proportional to the time spent playing games. The researchers concluded that video games increased behavioral, emotional, and cognitive aggressiveness, and decreased prosocial conduct.

The most recent meta-analysis by Greitemeyer and colleagues6 revealed a significant correlation between exposure to violent video games and a rise in aggressiveness, together with a decline in prosocial behavior. The results were similar to those of Carnagey and colleagues, 7 who observed a lower level of neurovegetative stimulation during the viewing of genuine violent scenes in participants who had played a violent video game beforehand. Moreover, playing a violent video game even for 20 minutes led individuals to become less sensitive to real violence. The authors emphasized the fact that desensitization to violence could increase the risk of aggression.

Conflicting findings

Exposure to violence in video games did not always have a negative effect. Although human or fantasy violence was associated with a stronger effect than violence in sport games, overall the influence on aggressiveness was weak and less significant than that of violence on television. 8 These findings informed Sherry’s 8 rejection of the hypothesis that violent video games can induce aggression. Following this statement, an increasing number of scholars expressed skepticism regarding the link between violent digital games and real-life violence, and numerous studies have cast doubt on this link.

Ferguson and Kilburn 9 suggested that the effects of violent video games were overestimated as a consequence of the biases introduced by publications challenging the correlation of aggressiveness with video games. Once the publication biases were corrected, the extent of the effect (eg, the strength of the association between violent video games and aggressiveness) dropped to 0.04 [−0.03, 0.11]. 10 Also, by taking other variables into account, such as intra-family violence, the correlation between video games and aggressiveness could no longer be established. 11

The player’s personality also plays a moderating role in the relationship between video games and aggressive thoughts or behavior. 12 Ferguson and Rueda 13 showed that measurements of aggressiveness made in the laboratory were not correlated with violent acts encountered in real life. The effects of game violence were not observed in the normal environment of players, thus complicating the extrapolation of laboratory data. 14

Ballard and colleagues 15 looked at the effects of cardiovascular and affective response to video games to gauge whether there were changes across social context or with game content (violent or nonviolent video games). No significant differences were found between players of nonviolent video games and players of violent video games. Similarly, Tear and Nielsen 16 failed to find evidence that playing violent video games led to diminished prosocial behavior after exposure to antisocial, violent, nonviolent, or prosocial games. These results confirmed those of Unsworth and colleagues, 17 who found that the majority of participants in their study were unaffected by exposure to video game violence and several even experienced a decrease in anger.

Colwell and Kato 18 observed that the preference for aggressive games was associated with lower aggression scores among Japanese adolescents. Findings indicate that any correlation between violent video game exposure and delinquency is nonsignificant. 19 kutner and Olson 20 concluded that “focusing on such easy but minor targets as violent video games causes parents, social activists, and public-policy makers to ignore the much more powerful and significant causes of youth violence that have been well established.”

Results from a long-term study show no relationship between game playing and aggression or delinquency after 1 year of exposure. 11 Nor were any effects seen on delinquency, aggressiveness, violence, or bullying at 1- and 2-year follow-up. 21

Video games and criminality

A 2004 review of the literature did not show a clear relationship between an individual’s exposure to violent representations and criminal acts. 22 In fact, the preponderance of evidence shows a negative correlation between violent video games and crime. A study by Ward 23 revealed a negative correlation between an increase in the sale of video games and criminality. Cunningham and colleagues 24 found that for a 1% increase in the sale of violent video games, the incidence of crime decreased by 0.03%. Findings from Markey and colleagues 25 also suggest that violent video gaming is associated with a decline in criminality.

These various studies suggest that despite an increase in aggressiveness, violence in video games could be the cause of a reduction in criminality. Moreover, it appears that the relationship between media and crime is more complex than that revealed by experimental studies.

Although it has been suggested that several mass murderers were influenced by violent video games, scientific data do not support any causal link between exposure to video game violence and school shootings. 26 Furthermore, no evidence was found of the use of violent video games by the perpetrators of mass homicide. 27

The concerns about the effects of violent video games on aggressive thought patterns, emotions, and behavior are justified. Until now, no study has been able to show that exposure to violent digital games is associated with an increase in criminality, aggressiveness, or violent behavior. Nevertheless, these paradoxical results are not incompatible. There is indeed a tremendous difference between aggressiveness and hetero-aggressive outburst. It is likely that the answer lies in the complexity of the concept of committing an act. Exposure to violent video games could be one factor, among many others, in a constellation of parameters leading an individual to commit an aggressive act.

The research is inconsistent, and thus psychiatrists may wish to be more careful in their public statements linking violent digital games to harm. There is indeed a lack of scientific data dealing with the relationship between violent video games and this interaction between the individual’s mental state and aggressive outcome. More research is needed before we can fully understand the influence of violent video games on real life.

Disclosures:

Dr Fournis is in the département de psychiatrie et d’addictologie, Angers, France, and Dr Abou is in the service de psychiatrie adulte lavallois, Laval, France. They report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.

References:

1. Dill KE, Dill JC. Video game violence: a review of the empirical literature. Aggression Violent Behav . 1998;3:407-428.

2. Funk JB. The Impact of Interactive Violence on Children. March 21, 2000. http://www.gpo.gov/ fdsys/pkg/CHRG-106shrg78656/pdf/CHRG-106shrg78656.pdf. Accessed August 7, 2014.

3. Guerra NG, Huesmann LR, Hanish L. The role of normative beliefs in children’s social behavior. In: Eisenberg N, ed. Social Development: Review of Personality and Social Psychology . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; 1995:140-158.

4. Bensley L, Van Eenwyk J. Video games and real-life aggression: review of the literature. J Adolesc Health . 2001;29:244-257.

5. Anderson CA, Bushman BJ. Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: a meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychol Sci . 2001;12:353-359.

6. Greitemeyer T, Mügge DO. 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;40:578-589.

7. Carnagey NL, Anderson CA, Bushman BJ. The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. J Exp Soc Psychol . 2007;43:489-496.

8. Sherry JL. The effects of violent video games on aggression: a meta-analysis. Hum Commun Res . 2001;27:409-431.

9. Ferguson CJ, Kilburn J. The public health risks of media violence: a meta-analytic review. J Pediatr . 2009;154:759-763.

10. Ferguson CJ. Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: a meta- analytic review. Aggression Violent Behav . 2007; 12:470-482.

11. Ferguson CJ, San Miguel C, Garza A, Jerabeck JM. A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: a 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents. J Psychiatr Res . 2012; 46:141-146.

12. Markey PM, Markey CN. Vulnerability to violent video games: a review and integration of personality research. Rev Gen Psychol . 2010;14:82-91.

13. Ferguson CJ, Rueda SM. Examining the validity of the modified Taylor competitive reaction time test of aggression. J Exp Criminol . 2009;5:121-137.

14. Ferguson CJ, Olson CK, Kutner LA, Warner DE. Violent video games, catharsis-seeking, bullying, and delinquency: a multivariate analysis of effects. Crime Delinq . 2010;60:764-784.

15. Ballard M, Visser K, Jocoy K. Social context and video game play: impact on cardiovascular and affective responses. Mass Commun Soc . 2012;15: 875-898.

16. Tear MJ, Nielsen M. Failure to demonstrate that playing violent video games diminishes prosocial behavior. PLoS One . 2013;8:e68382.

17. Unsworth G, Devilly GJ, Ward T. The effect of playing violent video games on adolescents: should parents be quaking in their boots? Psychol Crime Law . 2007;13:383-394.

18. Colwell J, Kato M. Investigation of the relationship between social isolation, self-esteem, aggression and computer game play in Japanese adolescents. Asian J Soc Psychol . 2003;6:149-158.

19. Gunter WD, Daly K. Causal or spurious: using propensity score matching to detangle the relationship between violent video games and violent behavior. Comput Hum Behav . 2012;28:1348-1355.

20. Kutner L, Olson C. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2008.

21. Ferguson CJ. Video games and youth violence: a prospective analysis in adolescents. J Youth Adolesc . 2011;40:377-391.

22. Savage J. Does viewing violent media really cause criminal violence? A methodological review. Aggression Violent Behav . 2004;10:99-128.

23. Ward MR. Video games and crime. Contemp Econ Policy . 2011;29:261-273.

24. Cunningham S, Engelstätter B, Ward MR. Understanding the Effects of Violent Video Games on Violent Crime. April 7, 2011. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1804959. Accessed August 7, 2014.

25. Markey PM, Markey CN, French JE. Violent video games and real world violence: rhetoric versus data. Psychol Popular Media Cult . In press.

26. Ferguson CJ. The school shooting/violent video game link: causal relationship or moral panic? J Invest Psychol Offend Profil . 2008;5:25-37.

27. Lankford A. A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010. Homicide Stud . 2013;17:255-274.

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essay about violence in video games

ORIGINAL RESEARCH article

The relation of violent video games to adolescent aggression: an examination of moderated mediation effect.

Rong Shao,

  • 1 Research Institute of Moral Education, College of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, China
  • 2 The Lab of Mental Health and Social Adaptation, Faculty of Psychology, Research Center for Mental Health Education, Southwest University, Chongqing, China

To assess the moderated mediation effect of normative beliefs about aggression and family environment on exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression, the subjects self-reported their exposure to violent video games, family environment, normative beliefs about aggression, and aggressive behavior. The results showed that there was a significant positive correlation between exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression; normative beliefs about aggression had a mediation effect on exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression, while family environment moderated the first part of the mediation process. For individuals with a good family environment, exposure to violent video games had only a direct effect on aggression; however, for those with poor family environment, it had both direct and indirect effects mediated by normative beliefs about aggression. This moderated mediation model includes some notions of General Aggression Model (GAM) and Catalyst Model (CM), which helps shed light on the complex mechanism of violent video games influencing adolescent aggression.

Introduction

Violent video games and aggression.

The relationship between violent video games and adolescent aggression has become a hot issue in psychological research ( Wiegman and Schie, 1998 ; Anderson and Bushman, 2001 ; Anderson et al., 2010 ; Ferguson et al., 2012 ; Greitemeyer, 2014 ; Yang et al., 2014 ; Boxer et al., 2015 ). Based on the General Aggression Model (GAM), Anderson et al. suggested that violent video games constitute an antecedent variable of aggressive behavior, i.e., the degree of exposure to violent video games directly leads to an increase of aggression ( Anderson and Bushman, 2001 ; Bushman and Anderson, 2002 ; Anderson, 2004 ; Anderson et al., 2004 ). Related longitudinal studies ( Anderson et al., 2008 ), meta-analyses ( Anderson et al., 2010 ; Greitemeyer and Mugge, 2014 ), event-related potential studies ( Bailey et al., 2011 ; Liu et al., 2015 ), and trials about juvenile delinquents ( DeLisi et al., 2013 ) showed that exposure to violent video games significantly predicts adolescent aggression.

Although Anderson et al. insisted on using the GAM to explain the effect of violent video games on aggression, other researchers have proposed alternative points of view. For example, a meta-analysis by Sherry (2001) suggested that violent video games have minor influence on adolescent aggression. Meanwhile, Ferguson (2007) proposed that publication bias (or file drawer effect) may have implications in the effect of violent video games on adolescent aggression. Publication bias means that compared with articles with negative results, those presenting positive results (such as statistical significance) are more likely to be published ( Rosenthal and Rosnow, 1991 ). A meta-analysis by Ferguson (2007) found that after publication bias adjustment, the related studies cannot support the hypothesis that violent video games are highly correlated with aggression. Then, Ferguson et al. proposed a Catalyst Model (CM), which is opposite to the GAM. According to this model, genetic predisposition can lead to an aggressive child temperament and aggressive adult personality. Individuals who have an aggressive temperament or an aggressive personality are more likely to produce violent behavior during times of environmental strain. Environmental factors act as catalysts for violent acts for an individual who have a violence-prone personality. This means that although the environment does not cause violent behavior, but it can moderate the causal influence of biology on violence. The CM model suggested that exposure to violent video games is not an antecedent variable of aggressive behavior, but only acts as a catalyst influencing its form ( Ferguson et al., 2008 ). Much of studies ( Ferguson et al., 2009 , 2012 ; Ferguson, 2013 , 2015 ; Furuya-Kanamori and Doi, 2016 ; Huesmann et al., 2017 ) found that adolescent aggression cannot be predicted by the exposure to violent video games, but it is closely related to antisocial personality traits, peer influence, and family violence.

Anderson and his collaborators ( Groves et al., 2014 ; Kepes et al., 2017 ) suggested there were major methodological shortcomings in the studies of Ferguson et al. and redeclared the validity of their own researches. Some researchers supported Anderson et al. and criticized Ferguson’s view ( Gentile, 2015 ; Rothstein and Bushman, 2015 ). However, Markey (2015) held a neutral position that extreme views should not be taken in the relationship between violent video games and aggression.

In fact, the relation of violent video games to aggression is complicated. Besides the controversy between the above two models about whether there is an influence, other studies explored the role of internal factors such as normative belief about aggression and external factors such as family environment in the relationship between violent video games and aggression.

Normative Beliefs About Aggression, Violence Video Games, and Aggression

Normative beliefs about aggression are one of the most important cognitive factors influencing adolescent aggression; they refer to an assessment of aggression acceptability by an individual ( Huesmann and Guerra, 1997 ). They can be divided into two types: general beliefs and retaliatory beliefs. The former means a general view about aggression, while the latter reflects aggressive beliefs in provocative situations. Normative beliefs about aggression reflect the degree acceptance of aggression, which affects the choice of aggressive behavior.

Studies found that normative beliefs about aggression are directly related to aggression. First, self-reported aggression is significantly correlated to normative beliefs about aggression ( Bailey and Ostrov, 2008 ; Li et al., 2015 ). General normative beliefs about aggression can predict young people’s physical, verbal, and indirect aggression ( Lim and Ang, 2009 ); retaliatory normative beliefs about aggression can anticipate adolescent retaliation behavior after 1 year ( Werner and Hill, 2010 ; Krahe and Busching, 2014 ). There is a longitudinal temporal association of normative beliefs about aggression with aggression ( Krahe and Busching, 2014 ). Normative beliefs about aggression are significantly positively related to online aggressive behavior ( Wright and Li, 2013 ), which is the most important determining factor of adolescent cyberbullying ( Kowalski et al., 2014 ). Teenagers with high normative beliefs about aggression are more likely to become bullies and victims of traditional bullying and cyberbullying ( Burton et al., 2013 ). Finally, normative beliefs about aggression can significantly predict the support and reinforcement of bystanders in offline bullying and cyberbullying ( Machackova and Pfetsch, 2016 ).

According to Bandura’s social cognitive theory ( Bandura, 1989 ), violent video games can initiate adolescents’ observational learning. In this situation, not only can they imitate the aggressive behavior of the model but also their understanding and acceptability about aggression may change. Therefore, normative beliefs about aggression can also be a mediator between violent video games and adolescent aggression ( Duan et al., 2014 ; Anderson et al., 2017 ; Huesmann et al., 2017 ). Studies have shown that the mediating role of normative beliefs about aggression is not influenced by factors such as gender, prior aggression, and parental monitoring ( Gentile et al., 2014 ).

Family Environment, Violence Video Games, and Aggression

Family violence, parenting style, and other family factors have major effects on adolescent aggression. On the one hand, family environment can influence directly on aggression by shaping adolescents’ cognition and setting up behavioral models. Many studies have found that family violence and other negative factors are positively related to adolescent aggression ( Ferguson et al., 2009 , 2012 ; Ferguson, 2013 ), while active family environment can reduce the aggressive behavior ( Batanova and Loukas, 2014 ).

On the other hand, family environment can act on adolescent aggression together with other factors, such as exposure to violent video games. Analysis of the interaction between family conflict and media violence (including violence on TV and in video games) to adolescent aggression showed that teenagers living in higher conflict families with more media violence exposure show more aggressive behavior ( Fikkers et al., 2013 ). Parental monitoring is significantly correlated with reduced media violence exposure and a reduction in aggressive behavior 6 months later ( Gentile et al., 2014 ). Parental mediation can moderate the relationship between media violence exposure and normative beliefs about aggression, i.e., for children with less parental mediation, predictability of violent media exposure on normative beliefs about aggression is stronger ( Linder and Werner, 2012 ). Parental mediation is closely linked to decreased aggression caused by violent media ( Nathanson, 1999 ; Rasmussen, 2014 ; Padilla-Walker et al., 2016 ). Further studies have shown that the autonomy-supportive restrictive mediation of parents is related to a reduction in current aggressive behavior by decreasing media violence exposure; conversely, inconsistent restrictive mediation is associated with an increase of current aggressive behavior by enhancing media violence exposure ( Fikkers et al., 2017 ).

The Current Study

Despite GAM and CM hold opposite views on the relationship between violent video games and aggression, both of the two models imply the same idea that aggression cannot be separated from internal and external factors. While emphasizing on negative effects of violent video games on adolescents’ behavior, the GAM uses internal factors to explain the influencing mechanism, including aggressive beliefs, aggressive behavior scripts, and aggressive personality ( Bushman and Anderson, 2002 ; Anderson and Carnagey, 2014 ). Although the CM considers that there is no significant relation between violent video games and aggression, it also acknowledges the role of external factors such as violent video games and family violence. Thus, these two models seem to be contradictory, but in fact, they reveal the mechanism of aggression from different points of view. It will be more helpful to explore the effect of violent video games on aggression from the perspective of combination of internal and external factors.

Although previous studies have investigated the roles of normative beliefs about aggression and family factors in the relationship between violent video games and adolescent aggression separately, the combined effect of these two factors remains unstudied. The purpose of this study was to analyze the combined effect of normative beliefs about aggression and family environment. This can not only confirm the effects of violent video games on adolescent aggression further but also can clarify the influencing mechanism from the integration of GAM and CM to a certain extent. Based on the above, the following three hypotheses were proposed:

Hypothesis 1: There is a significant positive correlation between exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression.

Hypothesis 2: Normative beliefs about aggression are the mediator of exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression.

Hypothesis 3: The family environment can moderate the mediation effects of normative beliefs about aggression in exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression; exposure to violent video games, family environment, normative beliefs about aggression, and aggression constitute a moderated mediation model.

Materials and Methods

Participants.

All subjects gave informed written consent for participation in this investigation, and their parents signed parental written informed consent. The study was reviewed and approved by the Professor Committee of School of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, which is the committee responsible for providing ethics approvals. A total of 648 Chinese middle school students participated in this study, including 339 boys and 309 girls; 419 students were from cities and towns, and 229 from the countryside. There were 277 and 371 junior and high school students, respectively. Ages ranged from 12 to 19 years, averaging 14.73 ( SD  = 1.60).

Video Game Questionnaire (VGQ)

The Video Game Questionnaire ( Anderson and Dill, 2000) required participants to list their favorite five video games and assess their use frequencies, the degree of violent content, and the degree of violent images on a 7-point scale (1, participants seldom play video games, with no violent content or image; 7, participants often play video games with many violent contents and images). Methods for calculating the score of exposure to violent video games: (score of violent content in the game + score of violent images in the game) × use frequency/5. Chen et al. (2012) found that the Chinese version of this questionnaire had high internal consistency reliability and good content validity. The Chinese version was used in this study, and the Cronbach’s α coefficient of the questionnaire was 0.88.

Aggression Questionnaire (AQ)

There were 29 items in AQ ( Buss and Perry, 1992 ), including four dimensions: physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, and hostility. The scale used 5-point scoring criteria (1, very incongruent with my features; 5, very congruent with my features). Scores for each item were added to obtain the dimension score, and dimension scores were summed to obtain the total score. The Chinese version of AQ had good internal consistency reliability and construct validity ( Ying and Dai, 2008 ). In this study, the Chinese version was used and its Cronbach’s α coefficient was 0.83.

Family Environment Scale (FES)

The FES ( Moos, 1990 ) includes 90 true-false questions and is divided into 10 subscales, including cohesion, expressiveness, conflict, independence, achievement-orientation, intellectual-cultural orientation, active-recreational orientation, moral-religious emphasis, organization, and control. The Chinese version of FES was revised by Fei et al. (1991) and used in this study. Three subscales closely related to aggression were selected, including cohesion, conflict, and moral-religious emphasis, with 27 items in total. The family environment score was the sum of scores of these three subscales (the conflict subscale was first inverted). The Cronbach’s α coefficient of the questionnaire was 0.75.

Normative Beliefs About Aggression Scale (NOBAGS)

There are 20 items in the NOBAGS ( Huesmann and Guerra, 1997 ), which includes retaliation (12 items) and general (8 items) aggression belief. A 4-point Likert scale is used (1, absolutely wrong; 4, absolutely right). The subjects were asked to assess the accuracy of the behavior described in each item. High score means high level of normative beliefs about aggression. The revised Chinese version of NOBAGS consists of two factors: retaliation (nine items) and general (six items) aggression belief. Its internal consistency coefficient and test-retest reliability are 0.81 and 0.79. Confirmative factor analysis showed that this version has good construct validity: χ 2  = 280.09, df  = 89, χ 2 / df  = 3.15, RMSEA = 0.07, SRMR = 0.04, NFI = 0.95, NNFI = 0.96, and CFI = 0.96 ( Shao and Wang, 2017 ). In this study, the Cronbach’s α coefficient of the Chinese version was 0.88.

Group testing was performed in randomly selected classes of six middle schools. All subjects completed the above four questionnaires.

Data Analysis

IBM SPSS Statistics 22 was used to analysis the correlations among study variables, the mediating effect of normative beliefs about aggression on the relationship between exposure to violent video games and aggression, and the moderating role of family environment in the relationship between exposure to violent video games and normative beliefs about aggression. In order to validate the moderated mediation model, Mplus 7 was also used.

Correlation Analysis Among Study Variables

In this study, self-reported questionnaires were used to collect data, and results might be influenced by common method bias. Therefore, the Harman’s single-factor test was used to assess common method bias before data analysis. The results showed that eigenvalues of 34 unrotated factors were greater than 1, and the amount of variation explained by the first factor was 10.01%, which is much less than 40% of the critical value. Accordingly, common method bias was not significant in this study.

As described in Table 1 , the degree of exposure to violent video games showed significant positive correlations to normative beliefs about aggression and aggression; family environment was negatively correlated to normative beliefs about aggression and aggression; normative beliefs about aggression were significantly and positively related to aggression. The gender difference of exposure to violent video games ( t  = 7.93, p  < 0.001) and normative beliefs about aggression ( t  = 2.74, p  < 0.01) were significant, which boys scored significantly higher than girls.

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Table 1 . Means, standard deviations, and Pearson correlations among study variables.

Mediating Effect Analysis

To examine the mediation effect of normative beliefs about aggression on the relationship between exposure to violent video games and aggression, gender factor was controlled firstly. Stepwise regression analysis showed that the regression of aggression to violent video games ( c  = 0.28, t  = 6.96, p  < 0.001), the regression of normative beliefs about aggression to violent video games ( a  = 0.19, t  = 4.69, p  < 0.001), and the regression of aggression to violent video games ( c ′ = 0.22, t  = 5.69, p  < 0.001) and normative beliefs about aggression ( b  = 0.31, t  = 8.25, p  < 0.001) were all significant. Thus, normative beliefs about aggression played a partial mediating role in exposure to violent video games and aggression. The mediation effect value was 0.06, accounting for 21.43% (0.06/0.28) of the total effect.

Moderated Mediation Effect Analysis

After standardizing scores of exposure to violent videogames, normative beliefs about aggression, family environment, and aggression, two interaction terms were calculated, including family environment × exposure to violent video games and family environment × normative beliefs about aggression. Regression analysis was carried out after controlling gender factor ( Table 2 ).

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Table 2 . Moderated mediation effect analysis of the relationship between violent video exposure and aggression.

In the first step, a simple moderated model (Model 1) between exposure to violent video games and aggression was established. The result showed that exposure to violent video games had a significant effect on aggression ( c 1  = 0.24, t  = 6.13, p  < 0.001), while the effect of family environment × exposure to violent video games on aggression was not significant ( c 3  = 0.05, t  = −1.31, p  = 0.19), indicating that the relationship between exposure to violent video games and aggression was not moderated by family environment.

Next, a moderated model (Model 2) between exposure to violent video games and normative beliefs about aggression was established. The results showed that exposure to violent video games had a significant effect on normative beliefs about aggression ( a 1  = 0.13, t  = 3.42, p  < 0.001), and the effect of family environment × exposure to violent video games on normative beliefs about aggression was significant ( a 3  = −0.13, t  = −3.63, p  < 0.01).

In the third step, a moderated mediation model (Model 3) between exposure to violent video games and aggression was established. As shown in Table 2 , the effect of normative beliefs about aggression on aggression was significant ( b 1  = 0.24, t  = 6.15, p  < 0.001), and the effect of family environment × exposure to violent video games on normative beliefs about aggression was not significant ( b 2  = 0.02, t  = 0.40, p  = 0.69). Because both a 3 and b 1 were significant, exposure to violent video games, family environment, normative beliefs about aggression, and aggression constituted a moderated mediation model. Normative beliefs about aggression played a mediating role between exposure to violent video games and aggression, while family environment was a moderator between exposure to violent video games and normative beliefs about aggression. Mplus analysis proved that the moderated mediation model had good model fitting (χ 2 / df  = 1.54, CFI = 0.99, TLI = 0.98, RMSEA = 0.03, and SRMR = 0.01).

To further analyze the moderating effect of the family environment and exposure to violent video games on normative beliefs about aggression, the family environment was divided into the high and low groups, according to the principle of standard deviation, and a simple slope test was performed ( Figure 1 ). The results found that for individuals with high score of family environment, prediction of exposure to violent video games to normative beliefs about aggression was not significant ( b  = 0.08, SE  = 0.08, p  = 0.37). For individuals with low score of family environment, exposure to violent video games could significantly predict normative beliefs about aggression ( b  = 0.34, SE  = 0.09, p  < 0.001). Based on the overall findings, individuals with high scores of family environment showed a nonsignificant mediating effect of normative beliefs about aggression on the relation of exposure to violent video games and aggression; however, for individuals with low scores of family environment, normative beliefs about aggression played a partial mediating role in the effect of exposure to violent video games on aggression.

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Figure 1 . The moderating effect of the family environment on the relationship between violent video game exposure and normative beliefs about aggression.

Main Findings and Implications

This study found a significantly positive correlation between exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression, corroborating existing studies ( Anderson, 2004 ; Anderson et al., 2010 ; DeLisi et al., 2013 ; Greitemeyer and Mugge, 2014 ). Anderson et al. (2017) assessed teenagers in Australia, China, Germany, the United States, and other three countries and found that exposure to violent media, including television, movies, and video games, is positively related to adolescent aggression, demonstrating cross-cultural consistency; 8% of variance in aggression could be independently explained by exposure to violent media. In this study, after controlling for gender and family environment, R 2 for exposure to violent video games in predicting adolescent aggression was 0.05, indicating that 5% of variation in adolescent aggression could be explained by exposure to violent media. These consistent findings confirm the effect of exposure to violent video games on adolescent aggression and can be explained by the GAM. According to the GAM ( Bushman and Anderson, 2002 ; Anderson and Carnagey, 2014 ), violent video games can make teenagers acquire, repeat, and reinforce aggression-related knowledge structures, including aggressive beliefs and attitude, aggressive perceptual schemata, aggressive expectation schemata, aggressive behavior scripts, and aggression desensitization. Therefore, aggressive personality is promoted, increasing the possibility of aggressive behavior. The Hypothesis 1 of this study was validated and provided evidence for the GAM.

As shown above, normative beliefs about aggression had a partial mediation effect on the relationship between exposure to violent video games and aggression. Exposure to violent video games, on the one hand, can predict adolescent aggression directly; on the other hand, it had an indirect effect on adolescent aggression via normative beliefs about aggression. According to the above results, when exposure to violent video games changes by 1 standard deviation, adolescent aggression varies by 0.28 standard deviation, with 0.22 standard deviation being a direct effect of exposure to violent video games on adolescent aggression and 0.06 standard deviation representing the effect through normative beliefs about aggression. Too much violence in video games makes it easy for individuals to become accustomed to violence and emotionally apathetic towards the harmful consequences of violence. Moreover, it can make individuals accept the idea that violence is a good way of problem solving, leading to an increase in normative beliefs about aggression; under certain situational cues, it is more likely to become violent or aggressive. This conclusion is supported by other studies ( Gentile et al., 2014 ; Anderson et al., 2017 ; Huesmann et al., 2017 ). Like Hypothesis 1, Hypothesis 2 was validated the GAM.

One of the main findings of this study was the validation of Hypothesis 3: a moderated mediation model was constructed involving exposure to violent video games, family environment, normative beliefs about aggression, and aggression. Family environment moderated the first half of the mediation process of violent video games, normative beliefs about aggression, and aggression. In this study, family environment encompassed three factors, including (1) cohesion reflecting the degree of mutual commitment, assistance, and support among family members; (2) conflict reflecting the extent of anger, aggression, and conflict among family members; and (3) moral-religious emphasis reflecting the degree of emphasis on ethics, religion, and values. Individuals with high scores of family environment often help each other; seldom show anger, attack, and contradiction openly; and pay more attention to morality and values. These positive aspects would help them understand violence in video games from the right perspective, reduce recognition and acceptance of violence or aggression, and diminish the effect of violent video games on normative beliefs about aggression. Hence, exposure to violent video games could not predict normative beliefs about aggression of these individuals. By contrast, individuals with low scores of family environment are less likely to help each other; they often openly show anger, attack, and contradiction and do not pay much attention to morality and values. These negative aspects would not decrease but increase their acceptance of violence and aggression. For these individuals, because of the lack of mitigation mechanisms, exposure to violent video games could predict normative beliefs about aggression significantly.

The moderated mediation model of the relationship between exposure to violent video games and aggression could not only help reveal that exposure to violent video games can affect aggression but also provide an elaboration of the influencing mechanism. According to this model, for individuals with high scores of family environment, exposure to violent video games had only direct effect on aggression. However, for those with low scores of family environment, there was not only a direct effect of exposure to violent video games on aggression but also an indirect effect mediated by normative beliefs about aggression. In short, exposure to violence video games affecting aggression through normative beliefs about aggression is more likely to happen to adolescents with poor family environment than those with good family environment. That is, generation of adolescent aggression is not only related to internal cognitive factors but also to external situations. As Piotrowski and Valkenburg ( Piotrowski and Valkenburg, 2015 ; Valkenburg, 2015 ) pointed out, the effect of violent video games/media on adolescents is a complex interaction of dispositional, developmental, and social factors, and individual differences in susceptibility to these three factors determine the nature and the extent of this influence. The proposed model incorporated some perspectives of GAM and CM: while confirming the effect of exposure to violent video games on aggression occurrence, the combined effect of individual and environmental factors was verified.

Compared with the simple mediation or moderation model, the present moderated mediation model provided deeper insights into the internal mechanism of the effect of violent video games on aggression, providing inspirations for preventing adolescent aggression. First, in view of the close relationship between exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression, relevant government departments should continue to improve the grading system of video games; meanwhile, parents should appropriately monitor the types of video games used by teenagers as well as the time spent and reduce the degree of exposure to violent video games. Second, by allowing teenagers to objectively distinguish between violence in games and reality, the mediating role of normative beliefs about aggression could inspire people to identify rational ways to solve violence problems and to experience the hurtful consequences of aggression. This would help adolescents change normative beliefs about aggression, establish a correct view of right and wrong, and reduce the occurrence of aggression. Finally, the moderating effect of family environment on the mediation process suggests that more attention should be paid to the important role of family environment. On the one hand, family education is closely related to adolescent aggression. Then, parents should create a good family atmosphere, publicly show anger and aggression as little as possible, and advocate and practice positive moral values. Parents should adopt authoritative styles, abandoning autocratic and indulgent parenting styles ( Casas et al., 2006 ; Sandstrom, 2007 ; Underwood et al., 2009 ; Kawabata et al., 2011 ) to minimize the negative effect of exposure to violent video games. On the other hand, for teenagers with poor family environment, while reducing exposure to violent video games, it is particularly important to change their normative beliefs about aggression, no longer viewing aggression as an alternative way to solve problems.

Limitations

Limitations of the current study should be mentioned. First, only Chinese school students were assessed, in a relatively small number, which could affect sample representativeness. A large sample of teenagers from different countries and in different ages, also including juvenile offenders, would be more accurate in revealing the effect of violent video games on adolescent aggression. Second, this study only focused on violent video games, not involving violent media such as internet and television, daily life events, wars, and other major social events. Indeed, these factors also have important effects on adolescent aggression, and their influencing mechanisms and combined effect are worth investigating further. Third, this study mainly adopted the self-report method. Use of peer, parent, or teacher reports to assess exposure to violent video games and aggression would help improve the effectiveness of the study. Fourth, there might be other mediators, moderating variables and relational models. In addition to normative beliefs about aggression and family environment, individual emotions, personality characteristics, school climate, and companions may play mediating or moderating roles in the relationship between violent video games and aggression. This study developed a moderated mediation model between family environment and normative beliefs about aggression, but the possibility of multiple mediation and mediated moderation models cannot be ruled out.

The current study showed that exposure to violent video games is positively related to adolescent aggression; normative beliefs about aggression have a mediating effect on exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression, while the family environment regulates the first part of the mediation process. For individuals with good family environment, exposure to violent video games only has a direct effect on aggression; however, for those with poor family environment, there is an indirect effect mediated by normative beliefs about aggression alongside a direct effect. This moderated mediation model incorporates some perspectives of GAM and CM, enriching studies of generative mechanism of adolescent aggression.

Author Contributions

YW and RS conceived the idea of the study. RS analyzed the data. YW and RS interpreted the results and wrote the paper. YW discussed the results and revised the manuscript.

This study was supported by a grant from the National Social Science Foundation of China (14CSH017) to YW.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords: violence video games, aggression, family environment, normative beliefs about aggression, moderated mediation effect

Citation: Shao R and Wang Y (2019) The Relation of Violent Video Games to Adolescent Aggression: An Examination of Moderated Mediation Effect. Front. Psychol . 10:384. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00384

Received: 25 September 2017; Accepted: 07 February 2019; Published: 21 February 2019.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2019 Shao and Wang. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Yunqiang Wang, [email protected] ; [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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COMMENTS

  1. ENDNOTES

    Meta‐analyses have shown that violent video game play increases aggression in the player. The present research suggests that violent video game play also affects individuals with whom the player is connected. A longitudinal study ( N = 980) asked participants to report on their amount of violent video game play and level of aggression as well ...

  2. The Impact of Video Games on Violence

    This trend suggests that video games are not a primary driver of violent behavior and that other factors, such as improved social programs and law enforcement, may be contributing to the decline in violence. Cross-cultural research further undermines the claim that video games cause violence. Countries such as South Korea and Japan, which have ...

  3. Does playing violent video games cause aggression? A longitudinal

    It is a widespread concern that violent video games promote aggression, reduce pro-social behaviour, increase impulsivity and interfere with cognition as well as mood in its players. Previous ...

  4. Violence in the media: Psychologists study potential harmful effects

    The advent of video games raised new questions about the potential impact of media violence, since the video game player is an active participant rather than merely a viewer. 97% of adolescents age 12-17 play video games—on a computer, on consoles such as the Wii, Playstation, and Xbox, or on portable devices such as Gameboys, smartphones, and tablets.

  5. Pro and Con: Violent Video Games

    Some blame violent video games for school shootings, increases in bullying, and violence towards women, arguing that the games desensitize players to violence, reward players for simulating violence, and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts, while others argue that a majority of the research on the topic is deeply flawed and that no causal relationship has ...

  6. Do Violent Video Games Trigger Aggression?

    An analysis of one of his earlier studies, which reported a similar estimated effect size of 0.083, found playing violent video games was linked with almost double the risk that kids would be sent ...

  7. Analysis: Why it's time to stop blaming video games for real-world violence

    Analysis: Why it's time to stop blaming video games for real-world violence. In the wake of the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3 that left 21 dead and dozens injured, a familiar trope has reemerged ...

  8. Video games, violence, and guns: the frustrating, enduring debate

    The frustrating, enduring debate over video games, violence, and guns. We asked players, parents, developers, and experts to weigh in on how to change the conversation around gaming. By Aja Romano ...

  9. Violent Video Games and Aggression

    Violence has become a growing worldwide problem in recent years. Many factors are said to be responsible for this increase, from the ease of access to weapons to global warming, addiction, and the excessive consumption of media that is based on the portrayal and glorification of violence (Anderson and Bushman 2002; Harris 2004).. In general, the literature shows that exposure to violent ...

  10. APA review confirms link between playing violent video games and aggression

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  11. Do Video Games Influence Violent Behavior?

    In fact, Dr. Olson points out that violent video games may be related to bullying, which researchers have found to be a risk factor for more serious violent behavior. Therefore, video game playing may have an indirect effect on violent behavior by increasing risk factors for it.

  12. Do Video Games Inspire Violent Behavior?

    Although drawing conclusions about small population subgroups—such as kids at risk of violence—from broad population trends can be dicey, it is still worth noting that as violent video games ...

  13. The Effects of Violence in Video Games on Individual Levels of

    Software Association, 2015). Video games are too ubiquitous as a form of entertainment in today's society to ignore their potential social effects, negative or positive. What effects, if any, competition and simulated violence in video games may have on hostility is a topic widely discussed and studied. If violent or competitive video

  14. Violent Video Games and Aggression: The Connection Is Dubious, at Best

    However, a recent reanalysis of these findings published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science came to a very different conclusion, finding no clear link between video game violence and aggression in children. Both the 2015 and the 2020 studies were meta-analyses, statistical methods of finding significant patterns in a large group of independent studies.

  15. APA reaffirms position on violent video games and violent behavior

    APA's governing Council of Representatives seated a task force to review its August 2015 resolution in light of many occasions in which members of the media or policymakers have cited that resolution as evidence that violent video games are the cause of violent behavior, including mass shootings. "Violence is a complex social problem that ...

  16. Violence, Crime, and Violent Video Games: Is There a Correlation?

    A study by Ward 23 revealed a negative correlation between an increase in the sale of video games and criminality. Cunningham and colleagues 24 found that for a 1% increase in the sale of violent video games, the incidence of crime decreased by 0.03%. Findings from Markey and colleagues 25 also suggest that violent video gaming is associated ...

  17. Frontiers

    In the first step, a simple moderated model (Model 1) between exposure to violent video games and aggression was established. The result showed that exposure to violent video games had a significant effect on aggression (c 1 = 0.24, t = 6.13, p < 0.001), while the effect of family environment × exposure to violent video games on aggression was not significant (c 3 = 0.05, t = −1.31, p = 0. ...

  18. Violence in Video Games Essay Outline

    Essay Writing Service. In a hearing on violent video game regulation, Senator Sam Brownback recalled a shooting on June 7, 2003 where two police officers and a 911 operator were murdered. The shooter, Devin Moore, played hundreds of hours of the violent video game "Grand Theft Auto," which is primarily a cop killing game.

  19. Videogames, Violence, and Vulgarity

    Many people believe that video games contain obscene content, cause mental and physical health problems, and lead to violence. The first reason video games are an issue is that many video games made today possess content that many people would consider to be obscene. The term obscene covers violence, profanity, and sexual images (obviously).

  20. Argumentative Essay on Violence in Video Games: Whether Video Games

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