Do Video Games Make People More Violent? (Science-Based)

Whenever young people—whether teenagers or children—are involved in a violent crime, the media start to get angry. Right away, from some musty closet all kinds of “experts” appear and declare how evil video games are, that the games are the work of Satan, and that they teach kids only negative things. And when some game is found in the house of perpetrator… accusations are even more intense.

The problem is that research and statistics don’t justify such conclusions. On the contrary, they indicate a number of positive consequences that result from playing video games. So let’s leave the media persecutions behind and look at the facts.

Games and violence: Let’s get some perspective

The video game market is currently bigger than the movie and music markets. Worldwide, half a billion people currently play games for at least an hour a day. Neither of these statistics considers mobile games played on smartphones and tablets; they refer only to games played on computers and video game consoles. This means that the probability that a randomly chosen person is a gamer is pretty high. Among American teenagers, 99% of boys and 94% of girls regularly play games (source: the survey from 2008). So if we take a typical teenager we can be practically sure that he or she is a gamer.

The typical gamer will have many games in his collection, just as a typical music fan will have a large music library, and a typical movie lover will not just watch the same movie over and over again. About 35% of games, calculated according to volume of sales, can be classified as violent (based on age restrictions); however, this number will be higher when taking into account pirated copies. Some researchers use a broader definition, so that as much as 90% of titles are placed in the “has violent elements” category. As a result, the likelihood that we will find some violent games, and perhaps several such titles, in the house of any gamer is high.

In other words, if a crime is committed by a male approximately 18 years old, it is almost certain that violent video games would be found in his house. This has no relation whatsoever to the crime itself, but simply to the demographic group to which the perpetrator belongs. Finding violent games at such a person’s place is as shocking as finding clothes in his closet (ah!) or discovering that he is breathing (oh!).

From this perspective, media reports titled “Violent games found in perpetrator’s house” are just ridiculous in their attempt to assign the fault for the tragedy to gaming—a hobby that, despite its increasing popularity, is still considered weird or atypical by some segments of society.

Social picture of games

The social attitude toward video games is probably the main source of their persecution. Maybe that’s the reason why most of the “experts” talking about the harmfulness of games comes from the generation that experienced Pong or Pac-Man, but probably doesn’t know what “frag,” “n00b,” or “hp” means. This divide can also be observed in many research papers in which researchers confuse terms, types of games, or even specific titles. It is hard to take seriously the opinions of people who so clearly demonstrate a lack of discernment on the subject—unless you are someone who does not know about the subject, as is the case of many media decision makers.

Here we have to deal with generational conflict, in which the older generations demonize the younger’s hobbies. This is not something new; the same pattern of conflict emerged over many musical genres (e.g., metal, hip-hop) and even comic books. The median age of gamers is between 25 and 34 years, with only 8% being older than 55 (data from 2013), yet this generation of 40- to 60-year-olds is deciding about media programs and attitudes toward many subjects. It is also the generation in which a large group of doctors and professors is ready to write essays (not research studies, but popular science essays!) about video games.

Many of the older generation still consider gaming to be ridiculous entertainment for kids, ignoring the fact that among younger generations it is universal entertainment that beats all alternatives in terms of popularity. This attitude will continue until regular gamers begin to fill decision-making positions.

In time, the change will take place, we simply need a lot of patience and to stick to the facts coming from scientific research. What do the facts look like?

Games and violence: What the research says

Early research about video games seemed to indicate that playing games increased aggression. However, the key in the case of such research was the fact that these were correlation studies. When asking whether people who play video games often show more aggression, researchers found this to be true. However, the problem is that the question could have been reversed—asking whether people who show more aggression play more games—and the results would have been the same. This is how correlation works, and it’s hard to determine which factor is the cause and which is the effect. Maybe the games promote aggression. Maybe aggressive people try to channel their aggression into playing video games. Maybe one is the cause for the other. And maybe some other issue is the driving force behind both the aggression and playing games.

Contemporary research (for example, Ferguson, 2007) and meta-analysis indicate a weak influence of video games on aggression (smaller than TV, for example: Sherry, 2001; Sheryll, 2007), or a lack of such influence (Boyle & Hibberd, 2005; Ferguson, 2010). Some studies suggest that a moderate amount of video game playing is beneficial for kids’ development (Przybylski, 2014).

Moreover, exposure to negative and immoral behaviors in video games could, contrary to popular belief, make gamers more sensitive to immoral behaviors (Gizzard et al., 2014). Gamers can feel shame in relation to the behaviors in the game, and this shame increases their sensitivity to such behavior in real life.

So do video games promote violence or not?

Maybe the key to the problem are Markey and Markey’s conclusions from 2010, which examined the relationship between the personality of the gamer and his or her tendency toward violence, and identified a specific type of personality called the “aggressive gamer.” In the case of people who are highly neurotic (have a tendency to fuss and a sensitivity to stress) and not very conscientious (have little motivation to stick to the rules), in fact, increased aggression is observed and these are the people for whom playing should be limited—and the best option would be to offer them help in dealing with excessively neurotic behavior. Other studies have indicated that aggression might not result from the violence in games, but from the failures experienced by gamers (Przybylski et al., 2014).

To sum up, early reports suggesting a strong relationship between violent video games and increased levels of aggression were rejected by further research. If any influence actually exists, it is weak and applies to the specific group of people who are particularly susceptible, and for whom additional care should be assured regardless of the issue of video games: the combination of highly neurotic behavior and low conscientiousness is very harmful in itself.

Other consequences of playing games

Gaming is often described as a “lazy” hobby, that is, one that does not provide any benefit to the people who are playing. The reality happens to be very different. Izabela Granic and her team showed, in their review of the scientific literature (Granic et al., 2013), that many studies revealed developmental benefits of games. These researchers described, contrary to the popular view, many benefits in numerous areas (Green & Bavelier, 2012), including the following:

  • Spatial coordination (sense of direction)
  • Spatial processing (mental circumvolution of solids, etc.)
  • Attention coordination
  • Visual processing of imprecise factors (a skill very useful, for example, for drivers who are driving in very poor visibility conditions)

These effects were particularly apparent in the case of the type of game most often demonized because of violence: first-person shooters, which feature shootings from the perspective of the gamer. Moreover, meta-analysis from 2013 showed that the level of these effects observed in “naïve” gamers (people who had not had prior experience with them) was similar to the effects of school or university activities designed for development of such skills (Uttal et al., 2013). Learning through games was very fast and permanent. Most importantly, this learning was generalized across different areas of life and was not limited to video games, as is often the case with other educational entertainment or games—for example, chess. Taking into consideration how strong an influence spatial skills have on success, this potential of video games is something that should be valued.

It is important to mention here that the research discussed above does not consider all types of video games, so there is a possibility that some types would be even more beneficial, and some would be less valuable. For example, strategy games (in comparison with fighting and racing games) seem to increase long-term problem-solving skills (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013). As of now, the results of this single study need replication; however, they are promising. Playing games is also positively correlated with creativity (compared with using other forms of new technology: Jackson et al., 2012). However, this is a correlation, which means it is not clear whether the games increase creativity or whether creative people play games more often than others do.

Numerous studies also show that the mechanisms of motivation used in video games could promote effective daily motivation. Most games reward perseverance and multiple attempts to overcome obstacles. There is also a hypothesis that gamers who develop this type of motivation in games will use it in their daily life. So far there has been only one study in this area, in which the level of game playing happened to be directly correlated with perseverance in solving real-life problems (Ventura et al., 2013).

It won’t be shocking that gaming as a hobby could have a positive influence on the mood of players. Research shows that even simple games such Angry Birds help to improve mood, reducing stress and fear tendencies (Russoniello et al., 2009). The popularity of such games probably results largely from how easily they can change someone’s mood.

Lastly, games help with the development of social skills. Over the last 50 years, games have evolved from individual hobby to largely social entertainment. Many of the most popular titles in the world exhibit the social functions of entertainment—there are even known cases of people who have met and married thanks to gaming.

Research shows that games in which social interaction has great significance, including influence on local society within the game, promote numerous prosocial behaviors, including a tendency toward volunteering or voting (Lenhart et al., 2008).

To be fair, it should be mentioned that these are introductory studies and in almost every area (perhaps excluding spatial skills), several replications should be performed in order to confirm the reliability of the studied effects. Nevertheless, these early results are very promising.

Some real dangers

As you can see from the above discussion, video games are surely excessively demonized, and in reality they have a positive rather than negative influence on players. The actual problem could lie with people who have a predisposition for problems controlling their violent tendencies. These people need special attention and help; however, for them these games may often be a form of self-therapy, an attempt to limit the consequences of their problems.

The real danger related to video games is, in fact, their addictive potential. Their mood-changing ability and the escape they provide from real-world problems can be entertaining. They are easily available, becoming more socially accepted, and offer people numerous powers that they do not have in the real world. The primary factors that increase the risk for addiction are escapist tendencies (the desire for temporary escape from real-life problems) and the use of games as a significant, or the main source, of socialization. The games that seem to pose the greatest risk of addiction are MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), mostly because of their strong social functions (Hilgard et al., 2013)—while at the same time having huge value and teaching prosocial behaviors. As discussed, some of the games’ advantages are equal to their dangers.

How should you protect yourself from such dangers? As with all things, the key to protection is making sure that there is balance with the other areas of your life. As long as gaming is enjoyed for the experience it provides, rather than the escape it provides, video games will be a form of entertainment, not an obsession.

Just a normal hobby

It’s time to take a closer look at the evidence and see clearly that video games are a hobby like any other. They have their advantages and disadvantages, their dangers and benefits. Gaming is a popular hobby, not a sin, and many older people simply do not understand the subject. There is no reason to demonize video games or try to link actual crimes to players’ actions in the fictional gaming world. If such make-believe behavior were to actually occur, it could be estimated that 90% of people under 25 years old have no contact with reality, which, of course, is absurd. Maybe—eventually—we will get to the point where we treat games as games and simply have fun with them.

Photo by The World According To Marty / CC BY – ND

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