In 2016, the gaming market generated $91 billion in revenue. A majority of households in the U.S. have a video game device and an overwhelming majority of children play video games with 85% or more of the video games on the market containing some form of violence. Violence in video games started in 1976 with the release of Death Race. Death Race allowed players to use a car-shaped apparatus to run over stick figures turning them into tombstones. It wasn’t until 1993 that the video game industry released Mortal Kombat, a fighting game featuring bloody violence and fatalities, and Night Trap, where players protect inadequately clothed women from vampires. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) created the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) as a result of the uproar these two games created among society and politicians. The ESRB assigns one of six ratings to every video game to help parents decide what is right for their kids. The ratings tiers include Early Childhood, Everyone, Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature 17+, and Adults only 18+.
Attempts by states to make it a criminal offense to sell violent video games to minors have been unsuccessful thus far. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down California’s law banning the sale of violent games to minors without parental permission in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. After over two decades of analysis, researchers remain divided over whether violent video games cause violent behaviors. This divide exists in the public as well. According to the Pew Research Center, four-in-ten adults believe a connection exists between violence in video games and violent behavior.
Those that believe violent video games cause violent behavior argue that these games desensitize people to violence. One experiment found evidence that repeatedly playing violent video games reduces the video game’s ability to generate guilt. This desensitization to violence may increase bullying. For example, a study found that girls who play a lot of violent video games are more likely to bully others. Desensitization to violence as a result of playing violent video games was also demonstrated in a study that examined violence against women in video games. The researchers found that a video game featuring sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in an increase in rape-supportive attitudes among the male participants.
Another argument supporting the concept that violent video games cause violent behaviors is that these games offer a reward for violent behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that violent video games teach “children to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.” An associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri describes violent video games as “excellent teaching tools” because of how they reward behaviors leading to reinforcement of those behaviors; behaviors that unfortunately are violent. The effect of this reward dynamic is evident in a series of experiments that found rewarding violent actions in games increased hostile emotion, aggressive thinking, and aggressive behavior while punishing violent actions did not increase aggressive thinking or behavior. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Resolution on Violent Video Games refers to the link between violent video games and aggressive behavior as the “most studied and best established.” In addition, an APA task force report found consistent evidence of a link between playing violent video games and “increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect.” However, the APA cautions that aggression does not equate to violence or criminal acts. This link between violent video games and aggressive behavior is also demonstrated in a survey which found that 8th and 9th graders who played violent video games had a greater incidence of “hostile attribution bias” and got into more arguments with teachers.
Many believe studies identifying a connection between violent video games and aggression are deeply flawed. Whitney Decamp, a social scientist, explained that these studies do not take into account the possibility that kids who play violent video games may be predisposed to aggression. He conducted his own study controlling for a predisposition to aggression and found that playing violent video games does not predict violent behavior. For some, playing violent video games is a way to safely get out one’s aggression. One study examining the video game playing patterns of girls and boys found that boys use video games to manage their emotions with 61.9% reporting that the games help them relax, 47.8% reporting that the games help them forget their problems, and 45.4% reporting that playing video games helps them get their anger out. In addition, playing any video game may lead to aggressive behavior regardless of whether the video game has violent content. Research has shown that poorly designed or very difficult nonviolent games cause frustration levels that can lead to aggression.
Violent video games as a safe outlet for aggression may explain a perceived connection between a reduction in crime rates and violent video games. For example, one study looked at criminal offenses after the release of popular violent video games and found that violence decreased in the weeks after the release of the new game. In addition, violent video game sales have increased over time while the number of violent youth offenders have decreased over time. People that refute the connection between violent video games and violent behaviors question how crime could decrease if these games have the power to make people violent.
There is also debate in the media and among politicians over whether violent video games play a role in mass shootings. In the aftermath of these horrific events, violent video games are often used to explain the perpetrators actions. Adam Lanza, who was responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, was reportedly obsessed with violent video games, including one called “School Shooting.” Despite this continual debate, the APA warns that no evidence to support such claims exists. Furthermore, suggesting a link takes away from the important discussion on the more likely causes of violence such as mental health conditions. Families of Columbine victims attempted to sue video game makers claiming that they influenced the shooters, but a U.S. District Judge dismissed the lawsuit saying that there was no way the game creators could have foreseen the events at Columbine.
Do violent video games desensitize people to violence and reward violent behaviors? Or are these games a safe way for people to get out their aggression? What do you think?