Video Game Violence

Friday, July 20, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

April 20, 1999.  Two troubled teens walked into Columbine High School wielding multiple firearms in a massacre that left 12 students and a teacher dead.  In the aftermath of such a tragedy, it was natural to want answers.  Why did they do it?  What could have driven them to such an evil and horrendous deed?  Sifting through the ashes of their lives, analysts from psychologists to reporters proposed a number of theories.  Were they driven by drugs?  Poor home situations?  Mental disease?  Or perhaps it was caused by the violent video games they played.  They were so enthralled with first-person shooter games such as
Doom that they even created new custom levels, which they published for other players to use.  Although this was not the first time video games were blamed for real-life violence, a number of somewhat less infamous cases have arisen in the decade since, with convicted killers occasionally pointing to video games as their “inspiration”.  (After finishing this blog, I was ready to post it today when I learned of the new horrific violent act in Aurora, Colorado early today.  My thoughts and prayers are certainly with those families.)

Less dramatic but perhaps more prevalent is the issue of addiction.  I have seen college students become heavily immersed in multiplayer video games to the point they stop going to class or even forget meals.  Perhaps even a well-adjusted person might start feeling the effects of the violence in video games if they become addicted to the game resulting in prolonged exposure to the themes of the game.

The media has frequently issued reports linking violent behavior with the playing of violent video games.  Scientific studies has also turned up an apparent link, though as with many complex societal questions, there has been some debate in the peer-reviewed research literature.  When the scientific research is not clear-cut, how do we proceed?

The Debate

On the one side of the debate, a large group of studies, including broad systematic meta-analysis by authors such as Craig A. Anderson, shows a statistically significant correlation between earlier exposure to violent video games and later violent behavior.  “Violent video game play and aggressive personality separately and jointly accounted for major portions of both aggressive behavior and nonaggressive delinquency. Violent video game play was also shown to be a superior predictor of both types of delinquency compared with time spent playing all types of video games.” (Craig A. Anderson and Karen E. Dill, “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v78, n4, April, 2000, p. 782)  Why does the violence in these games leak out into the real life of the player?  Anderson surmises that “the player learns and practices new aggression-related scripts that become more and more accessible for use when real-life conflict situations arise.” (Anderson 2000, p. 788).  In a later paper, Anderson indicates that even the small but measurable effect he found is important: “When large numbers of youths ... are exposed to many hours of media violence (including violent video games), even a small effect can have extremely large societal consequences.” (Craig A. Anderson, “An update on the effects of playing violent video games,”  Journal of Adolescence, 27, 2004, p. 120-121).  In one of his most recent papers, he went beyond identifying a correlation to claiming causation: “the newly available longitudinal studies provide further confirmation that playing violent video games is a causal risk factor for long-term harmful outcomes. This is especially clear for aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and empathy/desensitization. “ (Craig A. Anderson, et. al., “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association 2010, Vol. 136, No. 2, p. 169)
On the other side of the debate, a smaller number of experts have questioned results that claim a correlative link between exposure to violent video games and subsequent violent behavior.  For example, Christopher J. Ferguson believes the studies like Anderson’s have methodological flaws, from problems with selection of participants to exaggeration of results.  Ferguson’s own published studies show no definitive link between violence in video games and violence in real life.  Anderson’s published reply to Ferguson appears to debunk the suggestion that the studies were flawed or that the results were not significant.  Even so, I find at least some of Anderson’s work to be less compelling.  For example, his 2000 study had subjects play video games (either with or without violence) and then in a later setting, they could play against a supposed competitor and “punish” the loser of the game with a sound blast.  Anderson claimed this as an aggressive tendency if they used a higher setting of sound.  Just because a player used a higher sound blast in a setting that was obviously contrived (and thus still part of the game) does not mean that the person would carry aggressive behavior into their real life relationships.  That is, most video game players can clearly differentiate the game from reality.  Perhaps more importantly, Cheryl Olson points out already in 2004 that the research showing a link between video game violence and actual violent behavior does not seem to be borne out in our societal experience.  “It’s almost an American tradition to blame the corruption of youth on violent mass media, from the lurid ‘half-dime’ novels of the 19th century to 1930s gangster films and 1950s horror/crime comics…. Violent video games are the most recent medium to be decried by researchers, politicians, and the popular press as contributing to society’s ills… Certainly the stealing, beating, strangling, and hacking depicted in games such as Grand Theft Auto III, Manhunt, and Mortal Kombat:  Deadly Alliance, are shocking to many adults.  It seems reasonable to assume that wielding virtual guns and chainsaws must be bad for our children. However, the potential of gangster movies to trigger violence or teach criminal methods to the young seemed just as real to previous generations.”  (Cheryl K. Olson, “Media Violence Research and Youth Violence Data: Why Do They Conflict?” Academic Psychiatry, Summer 2004; 28:2, p. 144-145) Olson goes on to note that studies of the perpetrators of deadly school shootings did not identify any single pattern or profile, though the most common trait was a history of suicidal thoughts.  “Moreover, there is no evidence that targeted violence has increased in America’s schools.  While such attacks have occurred in the past, they were and are extremely rare events… Constant news coverage leaves the impression that youthful crime is increasing.” (Olson 2004, p. 145) 

The data seems to support Olson’s conclusion.  Even while violent video games have become more prevalent, youth violence has not increased proportionally.  The fighting game Mortal Kombat was introduced in 1992 with amazingly realistic graphics (but still two-dimensional). The three-dimensional first-person shooter Doom was released in 1993.  The infamous Grand Theft Auto hit shelves in 1998.  The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aggregated national statistics on youth violence starting around that same time.  They show a fairly consistent decrease in violence, even while video games have become yet more realistic.  The CDC found that homicide rates in the United States committed by youth 10 to 24 years of age decreased significantly from 15.6 in 1991 to 9.1 in 2007 (measured per 100,000).  During roughly the same period, violent crime rates in the United States also dropped, from 851 in 1995 to 520 in 2009, measured for males, per 100,000.  Thus if violent video games were causing widespread increases in violent behavior, this effect is not visible. Though it is possible the effect is simply masked by drastic reductions in some other influence, this does not seem likely.

Pre-Game Warm-Ups

Although violence in video games may negatively affect some players (making them more prone to violent behavior in real life), this does not appear to be the experience in practice for large numbers of players.  Perhaps it is analogous to alcohol use.  Although a few people may be prone to alcoholism and the bad behavior often associated with intoxication, most people do not succomb to the negative effects.  Therefore, just as for alcohol use, some precautions are in order for violent video games.  Before jumping into playing the games (or allowing one’s children to play a particular game), some precautions are in order.

Young children are less likely to use good discernment in which games they play nor realize if they are becoming too intensely immersed in the game.  Parents have a responsibility to carefully review games before purchasing them.  Game ratings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) are present on every game package sold in the US and should be examined carefully. These ratings provide guidelines suggesting the appropriate age for a child to play the game.  The ratings get progressively more restrictive, from E (Everyone) to E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) to T (Teen) and so forth.  (

At the very least, parents should use the ESRB rating system, but they may want to set stricter standards on the necessary age before their child may play a game with a certain rating (whether played at home or at a friend’s home).  Furthermore, I encourage parents to follow-up after purchase, by playing or watching the games themselves to confirm their pre-purchase review was accurate.  Some games may be rated a bit lower by the ESRB than the parent may find appropriate, so while the rating is a good starting place, every game needs to be personally evaluated.  Other parents sometimes post blogs that can also help you compare notes.  Sound familiar?  It is not unlike how parents should approach evaluating movies for their children to watch.  There are several helpful Christian review sites that examine most popular games soon after they are released.  Here are three sites to consider.  They all provide an extensive set of reviews on recent game releases.  I asked my college-age son to read the reviews for two video games he plays regularly, on each of the three sites.  He found all three sites to report accurately on the good and the bad parts of each game (though interestingly, he thought the parent and kid ratings estimating the appropriate age for the games to be a bit low.)

  • Common Sense Media is the most user-friendly of the sites.  It includes quick reference summary evaluation scores and a short narrative description.  it also lets the users weigh in with parent and kid estimates of the appropriate age for playing a game. 
  • Christ Centered Gamer  has longer narrative descriptions of the games, but no summary stats. 
  • Focus on the Family: Plugged In also provides longer narrative summaries, but again, no summary stats.

As children become mature, they should develop the self-discipline to evaluate games themselves and monitor their own game playing behavior.  For example, they need to develop the self-control to prevent addiction, or simply to ensure that game play doesn’t become an excuse to avoid school work.  Older children playing more violent games should take precautions when younger siblings are nearby.  They must be responsible not only for themselves, but for younger family members. 

Even high-school and college-age players are vulnerable to game addiction.  Most college counselors are aware of multiple cases of students flunking out of their classes because they were drawn into a game so completely that they neglected their studies (and often neglected their own physical health, losing sleep and eating irregularly).  The addiction is so subtle that other players must really mentor each other and hold each other accountable.  Fellow gamers are the most likely to notice the warning signs and they also have the credibility to speak the truth to an addict.  Is your friend missing from class too much?  Are they playing just one more level instead of studying for the big test?  Are they missing a meal here or there? 

The Next Level

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV, Philippians 4:8)

It is difficult to see how gratuitous violence and gore—whether in a movie, book, or a video game—could be considered noble or admirable.  Does Paul’s admonition to the church in Philippi then call us to refrain from violent video games?  Not necessarily.  There may be some redemptive value even in these games.  Collaboration on a team and overcoming obstacles could be considered noble.  Developing tactical skills such as understanding how to use terrain to one’s advantage could be considered admirable.  If a competitor has soundly trounced you in a game because of superior ability, offering a compliment such as “well played” instills a sense of good sportsmanship.  Sharing tips with friends can help form community.

If you are a gamer yourself, this might be a good day to take stock.  Are you keeping your priorities straight?  How many hours do you spend on gaming compared to other activities?  How is your temper lately?  Do you keep your emotions in check?  Or when things go badly at work or with family, do you find yourself daydreaming about the game as a “solution”? 

Do you have friends who are gamers or perhaps you are a parent of gamers?  Would you know if they were becoming addicted?  Would you know if the games were inappropriately warping their personalities, goals, or emotional balance?  A true friend, a good parent, will observe and watch for the telltale signs of trouble. 

Page 1 of 1 pages
(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest