Violent Video Games and Aggression

The last twenty years have brought about a lot of technological advances, especially in the field of computer games. From virtual reality (VR) to streaming services, you can either play the game, be in the game, or watch someone else play instead. With smartphones capable of running computer-like games, gaming is now more accessible than ever, and being away from a console or desktop no longer means you can not play online. 

Violent Video Games and Aggression Violent Video Games and Aggression

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Table of contents
    • Is there a link between video games and aggressive behaviour?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses surrounding the debate on the connection between violent video game exposure and aggression?
    • What are some research studies that provide evidence regarding the psychological effects of violent video games?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of research that investigates violent video games and aggression?

    Violent Video Games and Aggressive Behaviour

    Given the increased use and availability, the media tends to blame computer games for instances of violence and aggression, but are these claims based on evidence? Let us examine the impact of computer games on aggression. Many computer games contain some element of violence exposure, whether fighting bad guys or good guys. Aggressive acts are often encouraged, if not necessary, for computer games to be played.

    Consider some of the following top-rated and played games:

    • Grand Theft Auto
    • Call of Duty
    • The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
    • Dark Souls
    • Fortnite
    • League of Legends

    All of the above games are among the most played games globally, and each of them contains some form of violent or aggressive gameplay. We need to ask how these games affect the development and behaviour of children who grow up playing them (despite age restrictions). In particular, we want to know how these games affect aggression.

    Violent Video Games and Aggression, man playing video games in dark room, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Video gaming has long been implicated in violent behaviours, according to the media.

    Media Influences on Aggression

    Several explanations that specifically address this issue exist.

    Explanations for Media Influence on AggressionDescription
    Desensitisation Desensitisation refers to how repeated exposure (as in video games) reduces the usual fearful and anxious response to aggressive or violent actions. It may be frightening the first time you see blood, but if you were a doctor, the thousandth time you see blood would not have the same effect.
    DisinhibitionDisinhibition refers to how morally bad or aggressive behaviours become seen as more acceptable through repeated exposure (e.g., in television shows or video games). In a sense, they become the norm, and the inhibitions we usually have about aggressive behaviours are less pronounced. We behave more aggressively because it seems more acceptable.
    Cognitive priming Cognitive priming refers to how watching aggressive actions in the media triggers aggression in a person when they experience something similar in real life, as the information one was previously exposed to in the media is stored. They become a memory and can be used as a reference for behaviour when exposed to a similar stimulus again, i.e., schemas.

    We have been primed to respond to the stimulus, and that response was previously seen as aggressive.

    Computer games can induce aggression through desensitisation, disinhibition, and cognitive priming.

    The General Aggression Model (GAM) by Anderson and Bushman (2002) explores the nature of aggression by providing a framework of different factors that may influence aggression (e.g., social, cognitive).

    • According to GAM, attitudes are pieces of learned knowledge that become innate and automatic after learning aggressive schemas that become part of your aggressive personality and predict aggression.

    Some also claim that learning theory has to do with aggressive behaviour. Aggressive behaviour is learned through observation and imitation and is reinforced positively or negatively. Playing your favourite characters and observing how they behave and react aggressively can make the person more aggressive.

    The hero is rewarded when he punishes the bad guys. Computer games reward players by advancing to the next level, usually through aggressive actions. Bandura’s Bobo doll study shows that aggression can stem from imitation.

    Carnagey et al. (2007) examined the nature of desensitisation based on physiological changes (heart rate and galvanic skin response) during exposure to violence in video games. Participants played a violent or nonviolent video game (control group) for 20 minutes and then watched a 10-minute video about real-life violence.

    They found that participants who played violent video games and then watched real-life violence had lower heart rates and galvanic skin responses than the control group, suggesting a desensitised response to violence.

    Positive and Negative Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression

    Numerous studies have looked at the psychological effects of video games, particularly their influence on aggressive behaviours. As mentioned earlier, repeated exposure to violent media can lead to desensitisation, disinhibition, and cognitive priming, affecting many aspects of life, especially when considering the impact of video games on child development.

    Harris and Williams (1985) found that high school students who played more video games had lower grades in English class.

    Similarly, Lieberman et al. (1988) found that children who played more computer games performed worse in school, but when they used the computers for schoolwork, they performed better in school.

    Psychological Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression

    In general, the influence of computer games on aggression has been strongly criticised because computer games encourage violent problem-solving. Whether this is true is up for debate. Others argue computer games increase dexterity and various aspects of cognitive functioning.

    Lynch et al. (2010) performed a literature review on video games and their ability to improve surgical techniques. They found that overall, video games helped surgeons learn endoscopic techniques (cameras navigating inside the body) faster; however, it did not help them learn robotic techniques faster. Those who played video games also had improved overall performance.

    Notably, most evidence or research on this topic can only establish a correlational link between aggressive behaviours and video games. Consider the following two studies that examine the psychological effects of video games and highlight the positive and negative effects of video games.

    Violent Video Games and Aggression, Man playing a first person shooter game, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Violent video games may have a psychological effect on players.

    Anderson and Bushman (2001)

    Anderson and Bushman’s (2001) meta-analysis examined 35 research reports that included 54 independent samples of participants. Of 4,262 participants, approximately 46% were under the age of 18. The studies reviewed were included when examining the effects of violent computer games on aggressive behaviour, cognition, affect, prosocial behaviour, and physiological arousal. If someone observed a person playing a game and was examined, they were excluded from the review.

    The studies examined showed different versions of aggressive behaviours when measuring the above effects:

    • Some included behaviours such as punishing an opponent
    • Others included real-world behaviours, such as assaults

    They found a positive and significant effect in 33 independent tests of the association between computer game violence and aggressive behaviour:

    • Violence in video/computer games was associated with higher levels of aggression.

    • This finding was true for men, women, children, and adults in both experimental and nonexperimental settings.

    • Exposure to violent computer games is negatively correlated with prosocial behaviour.

    They concluded that the study highlights a growing problem in exposure to violent video games and a public health threat to developing children. Early exposure to these forms of media leads to long-term problems if it is consistent, increasing the likelihood of developing an aggressive personality.

    This review exemplifies how repeated exposure has demonstrated desensitisation, disinhibition, and, more importantly, cognitive priming in computer game use. This finding relies on the general aggression model, which states that adaptation to repeated exposure to violent media leads us to approach such situations differently in real life, as shown by several studies used in the analysis.

    Gentille et al. (2004)

    In this study, Gentille et al. (2004) examined adolescents' video game habits and parental control over acceptable use levels. They also wanted to determine if there was a relationship between these habits and hostility in real-life situations (while also considering the effects on school grades). The participants were 607 8th and 9th-grade students from four schools. 52% were male, and 87% were caucasian.

    Teachers volunteered their classrooms after obtaining parental consent. Students completed an anonymous questionnaire collecting information about their habits. Data on academic performance and hostile characteristics were also collected.

    • Participants were asked to name their three favourite video games and to rate the frequency with which they played them on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from rarely to frequently (1 to 7, respectively).

    • They also rated the violence in each game on the same 7-point scale from little or not at all to extremely violent.

    • Participants also indicated how much violence they would like to have in their games. To do this, they used a 10-point scale ranging from no violence to extreme violence and compared it to that of 2–3 years ago (much less to much more).

    Participants indicated how much time they spent playing games during the week, and hostility was measured using the Cook & Medley Hostility Scale (modified for appropriateness).

    • Parental limits were reported on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from always to never.

    • Disputes with teachers were recorded on a 4-point Likert scale from almost every day to less than once a month.

    • Grades were reported using average school grades.

    • Physical altercations were determined based on a yes or no response in the last year.

    Students spent about nine hours per week playing video games, with males playing more than females. Boys preferred higher levels of violence than girls.

    Parents were not mainly involved in their children's video game habits, and few set limits on usage and rating systems. 23% of children argued with teachers almost weekly/daily, and 34% reported fighting in the past year. Boys were more likely than girls to be aggressive in this regard, showing an interesting sex difference in aggression.

    Overall, exposure to violent computer games and time spent playing them is positively related to trait hostility, argumentative behaviour, and physical aggression.

    Violent computer games are negatively associated with school grades. Adolescents who played more violent games were more hostile.

    Children who played more violent video games were more likely to be involved in physical altercations, with a stronger correlation between video games and altercations with teachers. This demonstrates the impact of video games on children's development and behaviour.

    Evaluation of Media Influences on Aggression: The Effects of Computer Games

    There are some strengths and weaknesses of this theory.

    Strengths

    Positive and negative effects of video games: computer games have been shown to increase aggression levels, but we can adjust the current standard of computer games to potentially provide non-aggressive solutions to situations, preventing aggressive behaviour. These games may also serve as an outlet for aggressive behaviour, and more research is needed to determine the positive effects of these games.

    .

    Several studies support this link: as discussed above, both Anderson and Bushman (2001) and Gentille et al. (2004) support the idea that violent computer games trigger aggressive behaviour.

    • Silvern and Williamson (1987) found that exposure to violent computer games increased aggressive behaviour in children. Interestingly, watching violent TV and playing violent games produced similar results in terms of increasing aggression.

    • Anderson and Dill (2000) conducted two studies and found that real-life violent video games were positively associated with aggressive behaviour and crime. In their research, particularly in the second study, exposure to violent video games in a laboratory setting increased aggressive thoughts and behaviours, and males had more hostile views than females. This research supports GAM, both short and long term, for aggressive behaviours.

    Weaknesses

    Experimental studies lack ecological validity. Although experimental studies provide more evidence of causal relationships, they lack ecological validity because the studies we discussed above cannot explicitly state their participants would respond in the same way outside of a laboratory setting. Another point worth noting is that controlled exposures in laboratories provide a systematic approach to identifying associations between the two variables.

    Correlation, not causation: the above studies cannot say that violent computer games cause aggressive behaviour, only that they are correlated.

    Other variables could be influencing aggression in these studies. Some of the meta-analyses discussed above include non-experimental data. Confounding variables make it difficult to say conclusively that the effect is due to a particular variable. We cannot say that the hero in a video game being aggressive with situations is the only cause of increased aggression when there are other forms of aggression in the media.

    Given recent news on this topic, it is common to blame aggression and violent acts on computer games. School shootings in America, for example, have been linked to video game use. Studies relevant to the current sensational press may subsequently be published.

    There are also not enough longitudinal studies on the topic. Several of the studies mentioned above point to the lack of longitudinal research on this topic. More research is needed on the long-term effects of computer games.


    Influence of Computer Games - Key takeaways

    • Repeated exposure to violent computer games can lead to aggression due to desensitisation, disinhibition, and cognitive priming.
    • Desensitisation means that the usual fearful and anxious response to aggressive or violent actions is reduced by repeated exposure (e.g., to video games).
    • Disinhibition means that morally reprehensible or aggressive behaviour is viewed as more acceptable through repeated exposure (e.g., in television shows or video games), lowering the inhibition threshold for aggressive behaviour.
    • Cognitive priming means that watching aggressive actions in the media triggers aggression in a person when they experience something similar in real life.
    • Several studies have shown that individuals who play violent computer games generally act more aggressively in real life as well.

    What is disinhibition?

    Disinhibition is where behaviours that are morally bad or aggressive are, through repeated exposure (such as in television shows or video games), seen as more acceptable. They become the norm, in a sense, and the inhibitions we usually have about aggressive behaviours are less apparent. We behave more aggressively as it seems to be more acceptable.  

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Violent Video Games and Aggression

    What are the positive and negative effects of playing video games? 

    Positive effects include improved memory, dexterity, and improved cognitive functioning.


    However, some negative effects include issues with desensitisation and disinhibition to violence in real-life and issues concerning cognitive priming and aggressive behaviours. Some media sources claim computer games cause violent behaviours. However, only correlational research can be found between these two variables. 

    Do video games affect behaviour? 

    Video games affect behaviour in multiple ways. They can incite different feelings, such as anger and happiness, and as a result, can induce certain behaviours, such as aggression when frustrated and relaxation when satisfied. 

    How do video games affect aggression? 

    Video games may affect aggression through desensitisation, disinhibition, and cognitive priming. Repeated exposure affects how an individual responds to situations that may induce feelings of fear and aggression. 

    How do violent video games and aggression affect individuals? 

    Research has revealed that violent video games affect an individual's aggression levels. Violent video games were associated with higher levels of aggression in both experiment and non-experimental conditions, and exposure to violent video games is negatively correlated with prosocial behaviours (Anderson & Bushman, 2001)

    How do violent games affect the brain? 

    As video games offer simulated environments, they can incite brain regions similar to real-life situations, including arousal of brain regions associated with fear and excitement alongside other emotional reactions.  Both memory and visuospatial skills improve when playing video games.

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