The effects of violent video games

Havard Ruud

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Video games have excellent educational benefits, and are often used for education purposes. However, the question whether violent video games are bad for you or not creates spectacle whenever risen. Unfortunately, studies unanimously tells us that violent video games makes you more aggressive.

“For more than five decades, Americans have been concerned about the frequent depiction of violence in the mass media and the harm these portrayals might do to youth”, says a study done back in 2003. The last two decades however, video games that portrays violence have increasingly more and more often been pointed out as one of the major scapegoats following murders, school shootings and massacres. The study lists three reasons of why video games now have surpassed music, tv and movies as a matter of of concern:

• Children spend increasingly large amounts of time playing video games.
• A large portion of these games portrays violence.¨
• Because video games are interactive, the children are active participants rather than observers, and therefore might be at increased risk of becoming aggressive.

Violent video games have become increasingly more and more graphic. Photo credit: Victor Castroverde (Flickr)
Violent video games have become increasingly more and more graphic. Photo credit: Victor Castroverde (Flickr)

One of the first incidents where a video game is speculated to be related to a murder is the murder of 13 year old Noah Wilson in 1997. Wilson was stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife by his friend. It is claimed that Noah’s friend was addicted to a fighting game manufactured by Midway Games Inc. called Mortal Kombat, and that the friend was so obsessed with the game that he actually believed he was a character from the game.

In 2001 families of the 13 victims of the Columbine High School massacre sued 25 video game companies that they claimed “created the conditions that made the massacre possible”.

Attorney Jack Thompson has been an avid activist against violence in video games for many years. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 he was quick to blame the team-based shooting game Counter Strike for the lives that was lost, even though one of the friends of mass murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, claims he never had seen the killer play video games at all. The police did not find any video games, consoles or gaming gadgets when they searched his dorm room.

Video games was again blamed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. “I think there’s a question as to whether he would have driven in his mother’s car in the first place if he didn’t have access to a weapon that he saw in video games that gave him a false sense of courage about what he could do that day.” Connecticut senator Christopher Murphy said in the aftermath. Although several violent shooting games was found on his computer, witnesses claims his favourite games were Super Mario Bros., Paper Mario, Luigi’s Mansion and Dance Dance Revolution which can not be described as violent video games.

Research proves that playing fighting games makes you more likely to get involved in a fight. Photo credit: Peter Hokor (Flickr).
Research proves that playing fighting games makes you more likely to get involved in a fight. Photo credit: Peter Hokor (Flickr).

Correlation between video game violence and real life violence

The three aforementioned incidents are just three examples where video games have been seen as the scapegoat by media and the public. When one takes in consideration that there are 155 million gamers in the United States of America alone, the concerns of Jack Thompson and others may seem exaggerated as, thankfully, mass shootings are relatively rare.

The effects of violent video games have been studied several times to determine if violent video games are as dangerous as some claim.

The 2003 study done by Anderson et al. concludes that even, “short-term exposure to violent media content increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behaviour, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions”. No new research was done for this study, it was rather a summary of the current scientific knowledge at the time. One of the cited studies in the article is one done by Irwin and Gross, whom assessed physical aggression between boys who had played a violent or a nonviolent video game as early in 1995. They found that the boys who had played the violent video game were more physically aggressive and was more likely to hit, shove, punch and kick their peers.

Another similar experiment was one done by Bartholow and Anderson. They found that college students who had played a violent game subsequently delivered more than two and a half times as many high-intensity punishments as those who played a nonviolent video game. This experiment indicates that it’s not only the youngest minds that is effected by exposure to media violence. It may also be worth mentioning that the results were significant for both women and men.

Apparently, as little as 20 minutes of games like this makes you significantly more aggressive. Photo credit: cat1207.
Apparently, as little as 20 minutes of games like this makes you significantly more aggressive. Photo credit: cat1207 (Flickr).

Anderson & Dill created a composite measure of recent  exposure to violent video games, and correlated it with college students’ self-reported acts of aggressive delinquent behaviour in the past year. The study concluded that the correlation between exposure to violent video games and violent behaviour, like attacking someone with the idea of seriously hurting or killing them, was “significant”.

In more recent years, some controversial questions of whether people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more affected by video game violence than people with typical developing (TD). A study from 2015 addressed these questions and found no proof that people with ASD are affected differently than typically developed adults. Because extreme acts of violence cannot be studied ethically in the lab, researchers often test the causal effects of violent video games on aggression.

As in several other research studies of video game affects the 2015 study used a competitive reaction time task participants were led to believe that they were competing against another participant to determine who could react more quickly ─ by clicking a computer mouse ─ following the presentation of a colored square on a computer monitor. Before each of a total of nine trials, the participants had the opportunity to set both the intensity and the duration of the noise blast that would be delivered to the opponent on a scale of one to ten, if the participant were to win that trial. In reality there was no real opponent. The participants instead competed against a computer algorithm. All participants lost the first trial and received a sound blast with both high intensity and duration with the intention to provoke them. The computer algorithm determined the intensity and duration of the remaining noise blasts set by the fictitious opponent. The results were summarised clearly:

"Doom" is a video game series that ever since it first came out in 1993 has been criticised for its violent content. Photo credit: Niels Heldenrelch (Flickr).
“Doom” is a video game series that ever since it first came out in 1993 has been criticised for its violent content. Photo credit: Niels Heldenrelch (Flickr).

“The result of our study provide strong evidence against the hypothesis that Violent Video Games affect adults with ASD differently than TD adults. Moreover, the result suggests that VVGs do not affect aggression in adults with ASD whatsoever”.

While many aggression studies only measure the effect just following the exposure to video game violence, scientists Bushman and Gibson found in 2011 that video game violence can cause an increase in aggression even as long as 24 hours after the game has been turned off.

126 college students played three violent or nonviolent games. After 20 minutes of gameplay they rated how absorbing, action-packed, arousing, boring, enjoyable, entertaining, exciting, frustrating, fun, involving, stimulating, addicting, and violent they thought the game was on a scale from 1-10. Some of the participants were also asked randomly to ruminate about the game and think about things that could improve their playing when they returned the next day. The results showed that men who played a violent game for just 20 minutes and then ruminated about it were more aggressive 24 hours later. The aggression was measured with a competitive reaction time task, similar to the one used in the study from 2015. Bushman & Gibson says in the conclusion that they were not surprised that it was the men who was effected by rumination on their violent video game experiences. “Many men like violent content in video games and become physiologically aroused by it”, the study claims.

Video games have been used for educational purposes for years already. Some voices have in turn expressed concern about what violent video games can teach those who play it. The terrorist behind the bombing in Oslo and massacre at Utøya in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, wrote in his manifesto that he played the first person shooting game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as a part of his training simulation. While that might sound strange, researchers found that using guns to train shooting real guns may not be far-fetched.

Can shooting games make you a better shooter in real life? Science suggests so. Photo credit: Brandon Mots (Flickr).
Can shooting games make you a better shooter in real life? Science suggests so. Photo credit: Brandon Mots (Flickr).

In 2012 Whitaker and Bushman made participants in their experiment play a violent shooting game, non-violent shooting game and a non-violent non-shooting game for 20 minutes. Both traditional controllers and pistol-shaped controllers were used in the experiment. After playing the games the participants then fired a realistic training gun that accurately simulated a 9-mm pistol at a mannequin six meters away. The violent shooting game rewarded players for accurately aiming and firing at humanoid enemies who were instantly killed if shot in the head. According to the theory of operant conditioning described in the  players were therefore more likely to repeat this behaviour when firing a gun in the real world. “When presented with a human-shaped mannequin target, they practiced the behaviours that had previously been reinforced in the video game—aiming accurately at the target and aiming for the head”, Whitaker & Bushman’s study states. Participants who had played the violent shooting game using a pistol-shaped controller had 99% more headshots than the other participants. The study concludes like this:

“Just as a person might train how to use a sword by first practicing with a wooden replica, the pistol-shaped controller served as a more realistic implement with which to hone skills that more easily transferred to aiming and firing a gun in the real world. (…) The similarity of the pistol-shaped controller to the training pistol may have facilitated increased precision in aiming, influencing participants to aim for the head more often. Because the realistic violent game also rewarded headshots, participants who played that game with the pistol-shaped controller may also have been influenced to repeat that learned behaviour(…)”.

Whitaker and Bushman admits some limitations to their study, that “The somewhat tamer effects of firing the training pistol may have produced less startle in participants and allowed them to fire more accurately”, and that “(…)our analysis reflects where the participants hit the target, not necessarily where they aimed”.

Being rewarded for headshots in a video game makes you more likely to repeat this pattern when firing a real gun. Photo credit: thekirbster (Flickr).
Being rewarded for headshots in a video game makes you more likely to repeat this pattern when firing a real gun. Photo credit: thekirbster (Flickr).

Earlier this year Bushman and Anderson described how scientists today decide whether exposure to violent media increases the risks for violent behaviour. Although media tend to point the finger at violent video games to explain violent actions, Bushman and Anderson states early in their study: “violent criminal behavior is almost never the result of a single cause. Human violence is a complex phenomenon that results from a convergence of multiple causal risk factors”.

The study emphasises that there are more underlying reasons for human violence. Access to guns, provocations, parental abuse are just three of several factors for violent behaviour.  “Thus, any claim that a single risk factor was “the cause” of a violent episode may make for a good news story, but it is overly simplistic”, says Bushman and Anderson, in their study. The study does not deny that exposure to violent video games generates aggression, “there is a convergence of evidence that leads to the same conclusion: Exposure to violent media increases aggression”, says Bushman and Anderson in the study, but it does question to what extent exposure to violent media alone creates violence:

“In sum, extant research shows that media violence is a causal risk factor not only for mild forms of aggression but also for more serious forms of aggression, including violent criminal behaviour. That does not mean that violent media exposure by itself will turn a normal child or adolescent who has few or no other risk factors into a violent criminal or a school shooter. Such extreme violence is rare, and tends to occur only when multiple risk factors converge in time, space, and within an individual”.

Naturally not everyone that plays violent video games ends up executing extreme violence on someone. With over 1.2 billion gamers in the world, simple math proves this statement.

There are a lot of gamers in the world, so wether violent video games leads to extreme violence can be questioned. Photo credit: Entertainment Software Association.
There are a lot of gamers in the world, so wether violent video games leads to extreme violence can be questioned. Photo credit: Entertainment Software Association.

Study results often differ and contradict each other, making this a field of study that requires more research to find final answers. One thing that seems clear is that exposure to violent video games increases aggression, and possibly for longer than one might think, with one study showing that the aggression can last for up to 24 hours.

“Researchers investigating the impact of media violence on youth have focused mostly on how it affects the viewer’s aggression”, says Anderson and his team in their study of 2003. Because of ethical limitations, extreme violence cannot be researched in a lab, answers to regarding whether violent video games causes extreme violence are still unclear. While consummation of violent media seems a consistent characteristic for mass murderers, another interesting question that requires more research and attention is “does violent media create violent people, or are the violent people seeking violent media?”

This sentence by Bushman and Anderson could serve as a guideline for media and the public when the next act of extreme violence occurs: “Exposure to violent media is not the only risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior but it is an important one”.

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Havard Ruud