The contested field of violent video games: Research roundup


A range of legal, policy and moral issues relating to video games and their possible connection with real-world violence continue to be debated. Few questions in social science are ever definitively “settled,” but the cumulative evidence found in academic studies can make one side of the argument significantly more persuasive. Much can depend on the design of experiments and the precise framing of research questions, however. A prominent example of contested academic terrain is the field of violent video game research, which journalists sometimes find themselves examining and grappling with when reporting on the roots of violent acts and behaviors.

The connection with real-world violence may seem obvious and, at the anecdotal level, the news seems to periodically furnish fresh evidence. For example, the man who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011 testified that he prepared for the assault by playing the first-person shooter video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Extensive research has linked violent video games and aggressive behavior, with outcomes moderated only slightly when cultural biases and gender are taken into consideration. At the same time, numerous well-designed studies have found no effect or even a decrease in violent crime in response to violent video games.

Research on how scientific knowledge has been reflected in the media suggests that there have been patterns at work in the press over the past 30 years. A 2013 study in the Journal of Communication suggests that, in the past, media consistently connected real-world violence to violent entertainment and media, but beginning in 2000 the stance became more neutral in tone:

Rather than sensationalizing a moral panic about media violence, the news media are suggesting significant ambiguity exists within the research…. [T]he overall trend in article tone appears to be toward even less conclusiveness, with articles from the last five years presenting a less convincing stance than any five-year period since the early 1980s. We argue that a possible explanation for the shift in tone is the coverage of video games. We found fewer stories about video games that suggest a link exists and more that take a neutral tone relative to stories about television.

The authors of that study, from Indiana University and the University of Utah, state that this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of trends in research studies. “Collectively, this body of work shows a consistent pattern: Exposure to media violence increases the risk of subsequent aggression,” they write. “Meta-analyses of the research generally have supported this conclusion.” Also worth noting is that, in general, female reporters are more likely to highlight a strong connection between media and real-world violence than their male counterparts, the researchers find.

Examples of recent studies that support this connection to violence — the prevailing theory and the one most cited in public discourse — are detailed below, along with a wide variety of counterexamples. Journalists would be well-served to pay attention to the nuances of the arguments — and the framing of the research questions. Studies on both “sides” often look at slightly different aspects of the overall question.


“Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at and When”
Ferguson, Christopher J.  Journal of Communications, February 2015, Vol. 65, Issue 1, E1–E22. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12129.

Abstract: “This article presents two studies of the association of media violence rateswith societal violence rates. In the first study, movie violence and homicide rates are examined across the 20th century and into the 21st (1920–2005).Throughout the mid-20th century small-to-moderate correlational relationships can be observed between movie violence and homicide rates in the United States. This trend reversed in the early and latter 20th century, with movie violence rates inversely related to homicide rates. In the second study, videogame violence consumption is examinedagainst youth violence rates in the previous two decades.Video game consumption is associated with a decline in youth violence rates. Results suggest that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased societal violence rates.”


“Violent Video Games, Delinquency and Youth Violence: New Evidence”
DeLisi, Matt; Vaughn, Michael G.; Gentile, Douglas A.; Anderson, Craig A.; Shook, Jeffrey J. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, April 2013, Vol. 11, No. 2. doi: 10.1177/1541204012460874.

“Based on a data from a sample of institutionalized juvenile delinquents, behavioral and attitudinal measures relating to violent video game playing were associated with a composite measure of delinquency and a more specific measure of violent delinquency after controlling for the effects of screen time, years playing video games, age, sex, race, delinquency history and psychopathic personality traits. Violent video games are associated with antisociality even in a clinical sample, and these effects withstand the robust influences of multiple correlates of juvenile delinquency and youth violence most notably psychopathy.”


“The Allure of the Forbidden: Breaking Taboos, Frustration and Attraction to Violent Video Games”
Whitaker, Jodi L.; Melzer, André; Steffgen, Georges; Bushman, Brad J. Psychological Science, April 2013, Vol. 24, No.4, 507-513. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457397.

Abstract: “The present study tested whether the desire to commit a taboo behavior, and the frustration from being denied such an opportunity, increases attraction to violent video games. Playing violent games allegedly offers an outlet for aggression prompted by frustration. In two experiments, some participants had no chance to commit a taboo behavior (cheating in Experiment 1, stealing in Experiment 2), others had a chance to commit a taboo behavior, and others had a withdrawn chance to commit a taboo behavior. Those in the latter group were most attracted to violent video games. Withdrawing the chance for participants to commit a taboo behavior increased their frustration, which in turn increased their attraction to violent video games.”


“How to Ameliorate Negative Effects of Violent Videogames on Cooperation: Play It Cooperatively in a Team”
Greitemeyer, Tobias; Traut-Mattausch, Eva; Osswald, Silvia. Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 28(4), July 2012, 1465-1470.

Abstract: “The present research tests the idea that playing a team-player videogame in which players work together as teammates and assist each other in achieving a common goal ameliorates the negative effects of violent videogame play on cooperative behavior. In fact, two studies revealed that, relative to a single-player mode, playing a cooperative team-player violent videogame increased cooperation in a decision dilemma task. Importantly, cooperative behavior generalized across targets in that the decision dilemma was played with a partner who was not the videogame play partner. Mediation analyses revealed that cooperative team-play promoted feelings of cohesion, which activated trust norms, which in turn increased cooperative behavior.”


“‘Boom, Headshot!’ Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy”
Whitaker, Jodi L.; Bushman, Brad J. Communication Research, April 2012.

Abstract: “Video games are excellent training tools. Some writers have called violent video games “murder simulators.” Can violent games “train” a person to shoot a gun? There are theoretical reasons to believe they can. Participants (N = 151) played a violent shooting game with humanoid targets that rewarded headshots, a nonviolent shooting game with bull’s-eye targets, or a nonviolent nonshooting game. Those who played a shooting game used either a pistol-shaped or a standard controller. Next, participants shot a realistic gun at a mannequin. Participants who played a violent shooting game using a pistol-shaped controller had 99% more headshots and 33% more other shots than did other participants. These results remained significant even after controlling for firearm experience, gun attitudes, habitual exposure to violent shooting games, and trait aggressiveness. Habitual exposure to violent shooting games also predicted shooting accuracy. Thus, playing violent shooting video games can improve firing accuracy and can influence players to aim for the head.”


“Identification Matters: A Moderated Mediation Model of Media Interactivity, Character Identification and Video Game Violence on Aggression”
Lin, Jih-Hsuan. Journal of Communication, June 2013. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12044.

Abstract: “This study examined the effects of interactivity in violent video games on aggression and tested identification as the moderated mediating mechanism. A total of 169 male undergraduate students participated in a 2 media interactivity (enactive mediation vs. observational mediation) × 2 violence (violent vs. nonviolent) experiment. Results supported a moderated mediation model in which the effect of media interactivity on aggressive affect through identification was moderated by violence. When violence was present, interactive play resulted in higher short-term aggressive affect through higher character identification than when violence was not present. Additionally, an interaction effect between media interactivity and violence was found for automatic self-concept in which players associated themselves more with the game character’s traits than video viewers.”


“Causal or Spurious: Using Propensity Score Matching to Detangle the Relationship between Violent Video Games and Violent Behavior”
Gunter, Whitney D.; Daly, Kevin. Computers in Human Behavior, July 2012, Vol. 28, Issue 4.

“Given the lack of significance for most of the tested causal relationships, these findings suggest that assumptions made by the popular media and by policy-makers may be exaggerated at best and erroneous at worst. Though the results do not entirely dismiss a potential link with violence, they also clearly do not show the level of support that correlation-based research has shown. Thus, these findings do not entirely support the abandonment of efforts to control access to violent games by children. However, these findings also fail to provide more than weak support for the rational for such efforts. Thus, as policy-makers and courts move forward in respectively creating and judging legislation designed to protect our children and society in general, these findings suggest the common assertion that there is a causal link between video games and violence is, if nothing else, highly suspect.”


“Violent and Nonviolent Video Games Differentially Affect Physical Aggression for Individuals High vs. Low in Dispositional Anger”
Engelhardt, Christopher R.; Bartholow, Bruce D.; Saults, J. Scott. Aggressive Behavior, November/December 2011, Vol. 37(6), 539-546.

Abstract: “Although numerous experiments have shown that exposure to violent video games (VVG) causes increases in aggression, relatively few studies have investigated the extent to which this effect differs as a function of theoretically relevant individual difference factors. This study investigated whether video game content differentially influences aggression as a function of individual differences in trait anger. Participants were randomly assigned to play a violent or nonviolent video game before completing a task in which they could behave aggressively. Results showed that participants high in trait anger were the most aggressive, but only if they first played a VVG. This relationship held while statistically controlling for dimensions other than violent content on which game conditions differed (e.g. frustration, arousal). Implications of these findings for models explaining the effects of video games on behavior are discussed.”


“Violent Video Games Cause an Increase in Aggression Long After the Game Has Been Turned Off”
Bushman, Brad J.; Gibson, Bryan. Social Psychological and Personality Science, January 2011, Vol. 2(1), 29-32.

Abstract: “Experimental studies show that violent video games cause people to behave more aggressively, but how long does the effect last? In most experiments, aggression is measured immediately after gameplay. The present experiment is the first to test the long-term causal effects of violent video games on aggression. By the flip of a coin, participants played a violent or nonviolent game for 20 min. Within each group, half ruminated about the game. The next day, participants competed with an ostensible opponent on a competitive task in which the winner could punish the loser with painful noise blasts through headphones. Results showed that violent video games increased aggression 24 hr later, but only among men who ruminated about the game. Rumination keeps aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavioral tendencies active. If players ruminate about the violence in a game, the aggression-stimulating effects of the game persist long after it has been turned off.”


“A Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement”
Przybylski, Andrew K.; Rigby, C. Scott; Ryan, Richard M. Review of General Psychology, June 2010, Vol. 14(2), 154-166.

Abstract: “This article advances a theory-based motivational model for examining and evaluating the ways by which video game engagement shapes psychological processes and influences well-being. Rooted in self-determination theory … our approach suggests that both the appeal and well-being effects of video games are based in their potential to satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We review recent empirical evidence applying this perspective to a number of topics including need satisfaction in games and short-term well-being, the motivational appeal of violent game content, motivational sources of postplay aggression, the antecedents and consequences of disordered patterns of game engagement, and the determinants and effects of immersion. Implications of this model for the future study of game motivation and the use of video games in interventions are discussed.”


“Violent Video Games, Catharsis Seeking, Bullying and Delinquency: A Multivariate Analysis of Effects”
Ferguson, Christopher J.; Olson, Cheryl K.; Kutner, Lawrence A.; Warner, Dorothy E. Crime and Delinquency, March 2010.

Abstract: “The current study examines the influence of violent video game exposure on delinquency and bullying behavior in 1,254 seventh- and eighth-grade students. Variables such as parental involvement, trait aggression, stress, participation in extracurricular activities, and family/peer support were also considered. Results indicated that delinquent and bullying behavior were predicted by the child’s trait aggression and stress level. Violent video game exposure was not found to be predictive of delinquency or bullying, nor was level of parental involvement. These results question the commonly held belief that violent video games are related to youth delinquency and bullying.”


“Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review”
Anderson, Craig A.; Shibuya, Akiko; Ihori, Nobuko; Swing, Edward L.; Bushman, Brad J.; Sakamoto, Akira; Rothstein, Hannah R.; Saleem, Muniba. Psychological Bulletin, March 2010, Vol. 136(2), 151-173.

Abstract: “Meta-analytic procedures were used to test the effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, empathy/desensitization, and prosocial behavior. Unique features of this meta-analytic review include (a) more restrictive methodological quality inclusion criteria than in past meta-analyses; (b) cross-cultural comparisons; (c) longitudinal studies for all outcomes except physiological arousal; (d) conservative statistical controls; (e) multiple moderator analyses; and (f) sensitivity analyses. Social-cognitive models and cultural differences between Japan and Western countries were used to generate theory-based predictions. Meta-analyses yielded significant effects for all 6 outcome variables. The pattern of results for different outcomes and research designs (experimental, cross-sectional, longitudinal) fit theoretical predictions well. The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior. Moderator analyses revealed significant research design effects, weak evidence of cultural differences in susceptibility and type of measurement effects, and no evidence of sex differences in susceptibility. Results of various sensitivity analyses revealed these effects to be robust, with little evidence of selection (publication) bias.”


“Causal Effects of Violent Sports Video Games on Aggression: Is It Competitiveness or Violent Content?”
Anderson, Craig A.; Carnageya, Nicholas L. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, July 2009, Vol. 45(4), 731-739.

Abstract: “Three experiments examined the impact of excessive violence in sport video games on aggression-related variables. Participants played either a nonviolent simulation-based sports video game (baseball or football) or a matched excessively violent sports video game. Participants then completed measures assessing aggressive cognitions (Experiment 1), aggressive affect and attitudes towards violence in sports (Experiment 2), or aggressive behavior (Experiment 3). Playing an excessively violent sports video game increased aggressive affect, aggressive cognition, aggressive behavior, and attitudes towards violence in sports. Because all games were competitive, these findings indicate that violent content uniquely leads to increases in several aggression-related variables, as predicted by the General Aggression Model and related social-cognitive models.”


“Longitudinal Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression in Japan and the United States”
Anderson, Craig A.; Sakamoto, Akira; Gentile, Douglas A.; Ihori, Nobuko; Shibuya, Akiko; Yukawa, Shintaro; Naito, Mayumi; Kobayashi, Kumiko. Pediatrics, November 2008, Vol. 122(5), e1067-e1072.

Abstract: “We tested whether high exposure to violent video games increases physical aggression over time in both high- (United States) and low- (Japan) violence cultures. We hypothesized that the amount of exposure to violent video games early in a school year would predict changes in physical aggressiveness assessed later in the school year, even after statistically controlling for gender and previous physical aggressiveness…. Habitual violent video game play early in the school year predicted later aggression, even after controlling for gender and previous aggressiveness in each sample. Those who played a lot of violent video games became relatively more physically aggressive. Multisample structure equation modeling revealed that this longitudinal effect was of a similar magnitude in the United States and Japan for similar-aged youth and was smaller (but still significant) in the sample that included older youth…. These longitudinal results confirm earlier experimental and cross-sectional studies that had suggested that playing violent video games is a significant risk factor for later physically aggressive behavior and that this violent video game effect on youth generalizes across very different cultures. As a whole, the research strongly suggests reducing the exposure of youth to this risk factor.”


Tags: video games, violence, aggression, desensitization, empathy, technology, youth, cognition, guns, crime, entertainment, research roundup

    Writer: | Last updated: January 31, 2015


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