Violent video games can increase aggression

Emily E. Mazurak


Playing violent video games can increase aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior in real life, according to two new studies.  Violent video games may be more harmful than violent television and movies because they are interactive and engrossing, and they sometimes even require that the person playing identify with the aggressor.

According to Craig Anderson and his colleagues from universities from around the country, increased exposure to violent video games is associated with higher levels of “aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect and physiological arousal” [i] as well as a decrease in prosocial behavior or “caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them and acting in ways that benefit others.”[ii] While video games remain a relatively new media source, this study found that aggression patterns among youth that play video games mirrors the aggression patterns among youth that watch violent television and movies.  This study went on to show that children’s aggressive behavior could be seen shortly after playing the game, as well as in the long term with regular, ongoing game play.  The longer that the individual was exposed to the violent video games, the more likely his or her behavior would become violent, both physically and behaviorally.

Jeron Lemmens and his colleagues conducted a six month study to determine if violent video games make male and female teenagers more aggressive. Several previous studies have shown that, on average, boys play more violent video games than girls, but when girls play the same amount they exhibit the same amount of violent behavior-both immediately after playing and in the long term.[iii] At the end of the six months, these researchers found that individuals who were labeled as pathological gamers (those whose gaming had a negative impact on their personal and school lives), were more likely to have violent behavior.  Lemmens and his colleagues also found that male children who reported more gaming time also showed an increase in physical aggression.  This study did not see an increased amount of physical aggression among female children because while females were spending more time gaming, they tended to play fewer violent games than male children.  The male children interviewed in this study stated that their favorite games were the ones that included realistic violence.

Violent video games teach kids to practice aggressive solutions to conflict.  In the short run, playing a violent video game appears to affect aggression by encouraging a child to think violent thoughts. Over a long period of time, the player learns and practices new aggressive strategies and ways of thinking during the games.  As a result he or she becomes more likely to use these strategies when real-life conflicts arise.

Why does this happen?  Many violent video games involve learning how to be more effective at destroying the opponent.  According to the researchers, this makes video games potentially more dangerous than exposure to violent television and movies, which are known to have substantial effects on aggression and violence.

One problem with the research on violence and video games is that it has mostly relied on self-reporting, that is, teenagers and young adults describing their game playing habits and aggressive behaviors in the past and present. No studies have yet been published where researchers followed kids who play violent video games for a number of years to see how it affects them.

Researchers like L. Rowell believe that violent video games may have an even greater impact on young children based on results from studies looking at young children who watch at lot of violence on television.[iv] These days, very few researchers feel comfortable saying violent media, such as television and video games, have no negative effect on children, and most feel it puts them at an increased risk for developing aggressive behavior.

[i] Anderson CA, Shibuya A, Ihori N, Swing EL, Bushman BJ, Sakamoto A, Rothstein HR, Muniba.  Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review.  Psychological Bulletin.  2010.

[ii] Sanstock, JW. A Topical Approach to Life Span Development 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Ch 15. 489-491

[iii] Lemmens JS, Valkenburg PM, Peter J.  The Effects of Pathological Gaming on Aggressive Behavior.  Journal of Youth Adolescence.  2010.

[iv] Huesmann LR, Moise J, Podolski CP, Eron LD.  Longitudinal relations between childhood exposure to media violence and adult aggression and violence.  Developmental Psychology. 2003; 35:201-221.