Held Hostage, Part I of III: Violence and Video Games

We’ve all heard it: video games cause violence. Video games don’t cause violence. Video games are the enemy. Video games are a stress relief. What side it right? Who should we believe?

As it turns out, both sides of this argument have solid points and should be taken seriously. So this week, we’re going to start taking a look at the bugaboo of the video game world: do video games cause violence?

Or, the question AmbiGaming asks: what does the research say about video games and violent behavior?

The Argument

After any tragic mass shooting, the shooter is immediately put under a psychological microscope in an attempt to understand what could cause a person to commit such an atrocity. More often than not, the shooter’s video game habits are discussed. He played Call of Duty; he was addicted to Modern Warfare. He played games that glorified violence, and he was led astray by the unassuming-looking box sitting beneath the television. Video games, it’s concluded, caused the violent behavior.

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Except it’s not that simple.

The Devil in the Definitions

In research, there are two words that are often used when describing the relationship between the dependent variable (in this case, video games) and the independent variable (in this case, a person’s behavior). Sometimes, they are used interchangeably in common parlance, and this is very incorrect and can cause a great deal of confusion. So let’s clear those up right away.

samuel-johnson

Correlation is when two events happen at the same time, but they could possibly be influenced by a third variable that hasn’t been accounted for. As an example, in the summertime, incidence of eating ice cream go up. In summertime, the incidence of drowning goes up. There is a correlative relationship between these two, because they both “go up” in the summer. But eating ice cream does not cause drowning.

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Causation is much more cut-and-dry. Event A happens, and Event B happens as a result. An example would be that the presence of streptococcus bacteria causes strep throat. There is a direct link between the two events.

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Image from Insight Squared

But Wait, There’s More

Two more words that are often confused are violence and aggression. You know the drill.

Aggression is a broad term used to describe any act, physical or verbal, that is performed to intentionally injure, irritate, or harm another person.

Violence is a very specific aggressive behavior, referring to physical acts of aggression, from smacking someone to shooting them.

Backstory

Oftentimes, video games are used as the whipping boy when it comes to blaming media for violence, but the fact is that all media violence can have a negative impact on a person’s aggression and propensity for violence. This means that television shows, music, movies, comic books, video games, and any other media you can think of that glorifies violence can impact how a person thinks and behaviors.

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Especially if the person being violent is the “hero” or “good guy.”

The troubling question posed is that, if humans are not, by nature, killers, why can some people commit horrible acts with seeming ease? Or, perhaps more troubling is the question: why have the incidence of juveniles committing homicide steadily increased since 1975, as televisions became more common in homes?

The 1980s saw the rise of the VCR, the 1990s the advent of the home console (and 1993 touting the release of the then-maligned Mortal Kombat), and the 2000s, the rise of the internet. How has access to more media – and therefore more media violence – affected our development, and the development of our children? Has it had an effect at all?

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And if all media can have an effect, what is it about video games in particular that causes so much ire?

Please note: I will be talking about CAUSATION and ADULTS below. Correlative results begin to get a little messy, and talking about children and teenagers makes everything a little more complicated, so we’ll be talking about them next time.

Do Video Game CAUSE Increased Aggression in Adults?

Yes.

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Numerous studies (referenced below) offer some support of a direct causative link between playing violent video games and subsequent aggressive actions.

I can hear you all beginning to pound away at your keyboard in the comments, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Other media, such as music, can be used to induce a mood (Mitterschiffthaler et al., 2007). Once a mood has been induced, the person will act on that mood. So, if I were to use music to induce a high-arousal state like anger, you would then act more aggressively. It’s therefore very logical that this type of mood induction effect can be done with any type of media.

Furthermore, many of these studies comment that they can’t completely account for other factors, like enjoyment. Obviously, if someone is not enjoying something, their reaction will be different than someone who is. And if a game frustrates someone with a lower skill level (for instance), their mood is more influenced by the game’s difficulty than by the subject matter.

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However, after all these caveats, time and again studies have shown that after an adult was exposed to violence in video games, they were more likely to not only assume that other people would act more aggressively, but would act more aggressively toward other people and, in some instances, increase instances of violence (causing physical harm).

Please note, the violence in these studies was measured by having participants choose a volume of sound for someone perceived to be “beating” them in a game (or similar). No one experienced what is considered traditional bodily harm, but this still counted as a violent action.

Do Video Games CAUSE Violence in Adults?

It’s not that simple, but no.

While playing a violent video game will, in the short term, cause adults to become more aggressive, and while playing a violent video game may increase the likelihood of an adult acting more aggressively in the future (little research exists for this side of the matter), there is no evidence that a non-violent adult can be convinced to physically harm another person by playing violent video games – even if they play them a lot.

Causation implies that every time (or almost every time) one event occurs (the stimulus), the same result happens (the response). Because there is no evidence that shows that “adding video game violence” to an otherwise non-violent adult causes them to go and murder people, we cannot say that video games cause long-term violent tendencies in adults.

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But we’re just getting started.

Conclusion and Questions

It’s encouraging to know that video games can’t brainwash adults into becoming cold-blooded murderers, but there is more to this story than is presented here. While research doesn’t support causation, the implications of correlation between violent video games/violent media and violence and aggression can’t be ignored. And once children are added into the mix, the issue becomes even more important to understand and discuss.

Next time, we’ll be looking more into:

  • Can video games cause permanent changes to aggression in children?
  • Do video games cause children to become violent people?
  • What effect can exposure to media violence have on childhood development?
  • What might be different about video games than other media? Is there a difference?

A lot of information was just thrown at you, and we’re not done yet. Join us next time as we peel back more layers into this very important gaming issue. For now, leave your thoughts on this issue in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

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References:

American Psychological Association. (2015). Resolution on Violent Video Games. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/about/policy/violent-video-games.aspx

American Psyhological Association. (2015). APA review confirms link between playing violent video games and aggression. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/violent-video-games.aspx

Anderson, C.A., & Dill, K.E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors i the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 772-779.

APA Task Force on Violent Media. (2015). Technical report on the review of the violent video game literature. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/violent-media.aspx

Bushman, B.J., & Huesmann, L.R. (2006). Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Medd, 160, 348-352.

Hasan, Y., Begue, L., Scharkow, M., & Bushman, B.J. (2012). The more you play, the more aggressive you become: A long-term experimental study of cumulative violent video game effects on hostile expectations and aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 224-227.

Huesmann, L.R. (2007). The impact of media violence: Scientific theory and research. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41(6 Suppl 1), S6-13.

Mitterschiffthaler, M.T., Yu, C.H.Y., Dalton, J.A., Andrew, C.M., & Williams, S.C.R. (2007). A functional fMRI study of happy and sad affective states induced by classical music. Human Brain Mapping, 28, 1150-1162.

 


34 thoughts on “Held Hostage, Part I of III: Violence and Video Games

  1. One of the biggest issues with this is people want simple answers to a complex question, and it doesn’t work like that. There are so many factors involved in what causes violence , one of which is lack of empathy. If someone hasn’t been taught or is not naturally empathetic, there’s a higher chance they’ll be influenced by what they see, play, listen to, read et al. I also see people fall into the trap of comparing statistic when prior ones were either unavailable or not as accurate (when people claim autism rates are higher, but autism wasn’t properly diagnosed or heard of before a certain point).

    Thank you for tackling this complex subject!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Very true! And simple answers, soundbites, and 140 characters are just not enough to tackle any soirt oif psychological or sociological issues… There are a *lot* of factor related to violence, with personality and overall environment being important ones, as you mentioned. We’ll be discussing some of that a little more later 😉

      On the autism topic (a pet interest of mine as you know), there has also been a decrease in the diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder, and a widening of the diagnostic characteristics, which folks also don’t take into account. I think of some folks I work with who have Asperger’s and I remember going to school with people like them. They were just the shy, awkward kids back then. Also, Asperger’s Rhetts, fragile X… these are all lumped together…. oh no I’m rambling about ASD now, aren’t I? But yes, in a soundbite, autism rates are up, and that’s what people remember….

      I’m looking forward to hearing people’s thoughts as this topic continues, so thanks for sharing yours!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s a great one panel comic that has two people at booths. One booth says “Simple but wrong answers” and the other says “Complicated but correct.” All of the people are lined up at the former. It’s the most frustrating thing about humanity. We have the capacity and ability to solve our big problems, but because they’re complicated with a difficult solution OR because we conflate correlation with causation, we often miss the point entirely.

        What gets me with the autism and other issues of being neurodivergent or atypical is people honestly believe it just started 10-20 years ago. Just because it wasn’t defined doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Mount Everest wasn’t discovered until sometime in the 1800s, but it obviously existed before then!

        I’ll have to check back myself to see what others think, too 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I look forward to reading your upcoming posts! This is truly a complex topic with some very strong opinions from multiple sides. I once asked my students about violence in media, video games specifically, and what constituted as violent behavior. Students readily agreed that running over a pedestrian in GTAV was violent, but some of them questioned if swinging a sword at another player in Minecraft was violent. It is fascinating how a game, its style, realism of graphics, and even the genre can influence people’s perceptions of violence.

    Btw, I like the Samuel Johnson pic. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It is a *very* complex topic, and I wonder if sometimes it’s hard to talk about because for a “gamer” to even entertain the idea that video games might have a negative impact on someone can be considered traitorous.

      And you’re so right about people’s perceptions of violence. Most people wouldn’t consider Superman to be anything but a squeaky-clean, upstanding member of society, but how many bad guys has he acted violently toward? Even the Powerpuff Girl beat the stuffing out of people who are “bad.” But often these are overlooked (and I’ll be talking about this more later, so I’ll stop there haha).

      I’ve always liked that Samuel Johnson, and it can be so useful in posts like this! haha

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That reminds me of something, a while ago there was an article that dared question if Batman’s no-killing policy was really all that good. The article said something along the lines that if you considered how much pain and suffering certain kind of injuries cause, maybe it would be more merciful and better if Batman did kill*.

        It seems like, because he doesn’t kill people, the public considers Batman to be morally superior to other heroes, even when he does inflict life-altering levels of violence. And maybe the only reason people think so is because we rarely see the consequences of violence against “bad guys”.

        *I think that limiting the choice between killing and potentially mangling someone’s health for the rest of their life is, well, limiting, but it is a very interesting observation in the context of comic books published by the big two.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d tentatively agree with that. If Batman didn’t kill people and just skipped them off to jail or something, that’s one thing. But if Batman didn’t kill them and, say, broke their kneecaps and chopped off their fingers, well…. that’s not exactly heroic or moral, is it? And to judge from the way he’s portrayed in video games, he’s not above a little, erm, morally questionable actions. I’m thinking of him sticking someone’s head under the wheels of the Batmobile…

          That’s a very interesting concept. I think I might go try and find out more about this argument!

          Like

          1. You expressed better what I was trying to say. Of the two choices given, killing is morally better and more merciful, but I wish there were more options, you know?

            If I find the article again I’ll send it your way. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Really interesting article here. I’ve always that it seemed like video games, music and films are the big three in terms of being blamed for violent behaviours. I’ll be looking forward to the article covering what the difference between different media forms is too.
    It really isn’t as black and white as it’s sometimes made out to be, is it? Aside from anything else, a blanket statement of blame simply doesn’t take into account how different people are affected differently by different types of media.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, those three are definitely the favorites for the blame… It’s certainly not as clear-cut as people and the media make things out to be, and blanket statements are never good for any scenario. You’re right that there are so many different factors that can affect someone, and so it’s hard (if not impossible( to say that any one thing “causes” violence. That’s why we’ll be looking at “correlation” next, and see if that sheds light on the subject!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Honestly, I think that in a lot of cases, they’re more of a catalyst than an actual cause. Yes, sometimes tragedy happens the aggressor is found to have watched film x, listened to band y or played game z, but often you find that the people involved had shown signs of unstable behaviour for a long time. While they may have taken some for of inspiration from whatever media they used, it’s entirely possible that they would have reacted the wa the did with different stimulus too due to underlying tendencies. That’s in extreme cases of course. It’s a fascinating subject, and often misrepresented.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d agree with you. They can be a catalyst, but they can also influence (not cause) behaviors, as well (again, something that will come up later). However, you are right that there are often other issues that the person’s has, and those might not be as emphasized as the terrible music, movies, or games the person enjoyed. It is a fascinating subject. Next to gender and video games it’s one of my favorite topics to explore.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. People like to place blame on things they can see and feel. So it is easy to blame a video game, movie, music, etc… for a tragedy as opposed to the fact that maybe a person’s neurons are firing differently.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s also easy to blame easy targets, or find easy solutions to complex problems. There are a lot of components to violence and aggression, and media exposure is one of them (more on that to come), but to say *one* thing and *one* thing only is responsible is not helpful when finding a solution, because it’s just not true!

              Liked by 1 person

  4. I did a big research paper on this subject several years ago and it’s amazing how blatantly biased and misleading a lot of those “video games cause violence” research studies are. They didn’t seem to do any investigation at all into what the kids they were testing and their home lives were like beforehand, there would be no control groups, their definitions of how they measured alleged increased aggression were often incredibly vague or nonexistent, and etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, a few of the review studies I read addressed this, saying that the terminology is often misleading, using “violence” when “aggression” was actually measured, or not defining “violence” clearly enough. In the studies with adults, they definitely had very clear-cut methods, and a few took personality, video game enjoyment, and video game experience into account, but the controls for the variables is all of the map when looking at the research as a whole.

      When it comes to children, like I said, it’s more complicated. I mentioned in another comment that it’s near impossible to point to one thing and say “THAT is what makes people violent!” so it’s important to look at correlations and other factors as well. If we can identify risk factors and see how games and other media may or may not influence a person’s violent tendencies, then I think that could result in a productive conversation that we need to have, rather than always pointing fingers or hunkering into defensive stances. I’ll be interested to see your thoughts as this little mini-series continues!

      Like

  5. Excellent scholarly article! Though I’ve seen the research, I’ve never really thought about it in terms of aggression vs. violence. It’s such an important distinction that makes too much sense not to consider. I think that gamers who play violent games tend to be more aggressive, though obviously it’s correlation not causation. But to say games cause violent behavior ignores a lot of external factors like outside media and proneness to violence. I also feel like many people tend to ignore the sheer amount of gamers who are not violent. Aggression, I can see, which is why I like the distinction – but violence? Looking forward to Part II!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mr. Panda! The difference between violence and aggression is definitely one to think about, and one that is unfortunately hardly ever discussed (or the terms are used interchangeably or vaguely).

      You’re right that there are a lot of external factors that don’t often get taken into account, or perhaps can’t be taking into account because researchers simply couldn’t collect data on every iota of a person’s existence. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts as this topic continues!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic article! You gave us a lot of information, but it was not hard to keep up. I’ll admit that, for the most part when I think of violence in video games I think more about noxious messages (say, something like Duke Nukem) and abusive behaviour in multiplayer games, rather than the psychological and physiological impact of stimuli.

    I remember the uproar in the 1990s about Mortal Kombat and Doom, but I was rather crap at fighting games and absolutely scared of the religious undertones of Doom, so the whole thing was pretty much far away from my interests.

    What really got me thinking that maybe there was more weight to the claims about games making people act violently was my comp-sci class in my last year in high school (back when dinosaurs roamed this Earth). My teacher made the class reproduce some studies about video games and online interaction and one of them was about the physiological response to playing video games for long periods of time. I was surprised to learn that FPS games caused a fight or flight response not unlike actual, real-life stressors.

    But, like you said, we really need to make a distinction between violence and aggression. I never really paid attention to that, and it seems like it’s key if we want to talk about the issue.

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling. I am really looking forwards to the next articles in the series.

    Like

  7. I’ll keep this short. I believe we are drawn to video games because we are violent, not the other way round There will be cases where an individual may be ‘influenced’ by a video game. But in the end, they have that video game because they are interested in violence in the first place.

    Personally, I am pleased that video games have allowed me to indulge my more unpleasant drives, without imposing them on the real world. I have mowed down waves of enemy troops in Toy Soldiers; I have violently conquered and subjected to my will countless people’s in Civilisation Revolution; I have thrown fireballs at cities in Simcities; I have cut down swathes of enemies in Mass Effect, I have shot down Starfighters in Starwars Battlefront; I have caused thousands of casualties in Pike &Shot; I have killed numerous innocents and police in Saints Row.

    Does this make me more violent? No. Just the opposite. As I get older, I reflect on the pain on suffering that would be caused if this happens in real life. It satisfies my violent fantasies in a virtual world and allows me to reject them in real life.

    I actually think that video games and movies are a useful psychological tool.

    If you want to enter the mind if a terrorist, watch the movie ‘They Live’, while imagining that the aliens are the infidels.

    If you want to enter the mind if a psychopath, play Saints Row in a ruthless way. While you slaughter virtual innocent civilians in the street, it shows you what psychopath feels. Because they must feel the same way about their victims.

    Far from causing violence, video games provide a window into the mind of ruthless killers (whether they are heros or villains). They lay bare they worst instincts in humanity. And perhaps that is why some fear them so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that we as a species have violent tendencies. I also agree that violent video games give us a safe outlet to indulge those tendencies, and that is something that I’ve done myself. I would never say that violent video games could convince someone who would not hurt someone in real life to murder someone. Like I mentioned, this is a very complicated issue, and so many factors determine if a person is going to act violently.

      I think the label of video *game* is why some take such umbrage at the more horrific scenes. Torturing someone is not, after all, a *game* (I’m thinking of a certain bit in GTA5). The worst parts of human nature aren’t a *game.* And, because of the interactive nature of video games, *performing* a heinous act isn’t a *game.* For a moment, a gamer *acts like* a murderer, a torturer, an amoral person. To some, that makes games seem like the force people to act horrifically.

      I’m not saying I disagree with you. I do think that violence sells, and I think it’s because humans have a lot of violence within them. But I also think each person reacts to that violence (internal and external) in different ways. They do lay bare the worst of humanity (sometimes), and sometimes those places are frightening places to experience, and make us act (in the game) in disturbing ways.

      Like

  8. This gets to be one of those frustrating arguments, as if you come the data and pick and choose what you’re using, there’s stuff there to support both major sides, but neither of them really gives you the whole picture, yet people still stick to them anyways because they support their preconceptions. Aren’t people great?

    The politics around it led me to stop paying attention to the studies surrounding video game violence a while back. There are some people who are predisposed to be influenced towards violence by any violent form of media, including video games, but it takes a lot more factors than just the imagery and content they choose to consume. Violent imagery could feed back into someone and push them a bit closer to the edge, but a) that can come from way more than videogames, particularly in a culture that finds as much entertainment in combat as ours, and b) it would take some much more significant factors, a lot of which are at least somewhat manageable and really a much bigger deal, to get them there in the first place. Focusing on video games is attractive for a lot of people because it’s easier and more comfortable to deal with, but that only gets at a portion of a portion of the problem that is real world violence.

    But this is a dance we’ve been going through for generations. Once, it was radio, then it was horror movies, then it was rock music, then it was television, then it was pornography, then it was video games, and whatever new media gets a foothold will have to deal with it too. It’s more than I’ve got in me to put together a convincing explanation as to why, but this is a discussion we’ve cycled through culturally for a long time, every single time without it coming to a real conclusion, just fading away until the next thing comes along.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. It’s not just video games, and that;s something I’ll be looking at in upcoming parts. It’s very complicated. I’m not looking for a solution, though, because I’ve read a lot of literature and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that takes all of what you’ve said into account.

      I hope this article didn’t come across like I have an ax to grind. I’ll be playing both sides of the argument a bit, because above all I want people to be informed. There’s enough sensationalism out there that I don’t need to add to it! In order to make an informed decision as to what’s best for them, folks should be informed as to the information that’s out there and available. The hope is that some of this information can also be generalized, so it’s clear that video games are not the Enemy anymore than television, movies, music, or porn is one catch-all “Problem.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very cool read, looking forward to the entire series of this post. Very interesting take on the violence vs aggression concept of this. And I love that you will be approaching this by taking all factors into account and not just settle on the black and white answers we typically get. You’re not afraid to get into the grey area! I’ve yet to properly understand the different between aggression vs violence, I hope to further my understanding of this as this series goes on. The concept is new and never considered it until now and how it relates to gaming. Even now I re-read the definitions and I can’t quite differentiate the two.

    I saw some people talk about how violence of aggression is perceived in different styles of game, like someone said, running over someone with a car in GTA vs the powerpuff girls beating the living snot out of someone. I felt this way about Wind Waker actually. The scene where Link stabs Ganon in the F*****g face! I first saw that, and yes it was a cartoony game, yes it has cheery music and was deemed for kids by the mass public, but man, that was a pretty unsettling image I thought. I was pretty shocked when I saw that, and of course, I thought “man that’s a pretty violent or aggresive image to show in a game that’s considered for kids”. I didn’t think kids shouldn’t see it, or that it would cause kids to stab others in the face, but found it highly contrasted what we knew of that game at the time. Basically my point is, in a game that doesn’t seem edgy and violent, these themes can be portayed and be effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve hit on a very important point: that how the violence is presented is incredibly important when people are deciding how “palatable” it is. Superman beating up a bad guy is somehow considered more “wholesome” than Nico Bellic beating up someone. And that’s an important consideration that we’ll be delving into next week!

      I saw that scene in Wind Waker!! I couldn’t believe that they put that in a game that had such cartoony artwork! It was quite an unexpected duality there of “adult” content in a “child” package…

      Regarding aggression and violence, aggression is any act meant to irritate or hurt someone. So, losing a game and calling someone a stupid casual is aggression. Referring to that person in conversation as “a jerk” is aggression (even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that term is meant to hurt the person’s reputation somehow).

      Violence is a *specific* type of aggression: it’s a physical act of aggression. So a violent response to losing a game would be breaking the console over the person’s head.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ok, so is it safe to assume, based on your definition of aggression, “any act to irritate or hurt someone”. When you say hurt, you mean like psychologically? and not physically?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. For the most part. Aggression is a big umbrella term that “violence” falls under.

          Aggression is an act intentionally used to harm someone psychologically or even socially. So, saying something really nasty about someone behind their back is aggression, because it harms their reputation. Misplacing important materials so the person looks stupid is also aggression (which we usually call passive aggression). Calling someone a nasty name or threatening them in some way is aggression.

          Violence is *physical* aggression (it’s a subtype of aggression). So, once I stop insulting someone and start throwing things at them, I’ve passed from “aggressive” to “violent.”

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Very well put. I wrote a similar paper in my psychology class in college. Most of my research lead me to the conclusion that we have an idea of what video games does on the mind, however, nothing is really concrete. It’s true that video games have shown some people to have spiked aggression, but it also showed the exact opposite in others. My conclusion was that it came down to how the individual was raised and how they interpreted law and order in normal day society. I found that people like to place blame on outside sources rather than blame themselves for the actions they caused or a loved one caused.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! You’re right that there are a lot of factors when it comes to violence and the effect media can have on aggression and violence. Much of it is environmental, but that’s not to say media gets a pass, either. I do agree that folks look for easy answers and people to blame when bad things go down, and its easier to point fingers at other people and forget to point them at yourself (as needed), too.

      Hope to see you back for parts two and three!

      Liked by 1 person

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