Violence and Video Games: The Real Facts

Violence and Video Games: The Real Facts

It seems any discussion of families, kids and video games always includes at least a mention of the impact of “violence in video games.”

On one side, entities in support of regulating and restricting games based on violent content often point to research that says that video games, without a doubt, lead to increased aggressive behavior as well as other negative consequences, just as other forms of violent media do.

On the other hand, advocates that consider video games as a form of free speech say that not enough relevant research has been done to show any correlation between only video games and violence, and even go so far to say that no causal link exists between the two.

So what’s really the latest on violent video games and the violence in video games issue?  Here’s our attempt to make sense of it all.  It’s surprisingly more complicated than it seems like it should be.

What do “noise blasts” have to do with discussion of violent video games?

In an attempt to measure aggression and violence on individuals, researchers have to come up with ways to quantify violent outcomes without actually allowing violence.

As Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, told us in a phone interview, it’s impossible to perform cause-and-effect scientific studies on violent behavior because you can’t give test subjects knives or weapons and have them inflict harm on one another.

So, to attempt to measure this correlation, Bushman and other researchers use techniques involving “loud noise blasts,” in which research subjects are able to use sound aggressively against others.

But these noise blasts themselves are the source of some controversy, as many argue they aren’t a good measure of violent behavior.

For now, though, these noise blasts seem to be the best tool that researchers have to measure the impact of violent video games.

New research using “noise blasts” is showing a link for the first time between playing violent videogames and aggressive behavior.

A May 2011 study from the University of Missouri shows that the brains of violent video game players become less responsive to violence, and this diminished brain response predicts an increase in aggression.

“Many researchers have believed that becoming desensitized to violence leads to increased human aggression. Until our study, however, this causal association had never been demonstrated experimentally,” said Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri.

During the study, 70 young adult participants were randomly assigned to play either a nonviolent or a violent video game for 25 minutes. Immediately afterwards, the researchers measured brain responses as participants viewed a series of neutral photos (such as a man on a bike) and violent photos (such as a man holding a gun in another man’s mouth).  Finally, participants competed against an opponent in a task that allowed them to give their opponent a controllable blast of loud noise.  The level of noise blast the participants set for their opponent was the measure of aggression.

The researchers found that participants who played one of several popular violent games set louder noise blasts for their opponents during the competitive task than participants who played a nonviolent game.

In addition, participants that had not played many violent video games before completing the study and who then played a violent game in the lab caused a reduced brain response to the photos of violence, which researchers considered an indicator of desensitization.

“More than any other media, these video games encourage active participation in violence,” said Bartholow.  “From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behavior is violence.”

Video game industry advocates still maintain that there is no link between violent video games and real-life violence.

The Entertainment Consumers Association (The ECA) uses carefully-worded statements as they stand against research that links violent behavior with violent video games.  According to The ECA’s Web site, there has “never been a causal link established between real-life violence and video game violence in any verifiable scientific study.”

To support this claim, they point to facts such as a decreased national crime rate at the same time that video games have increased in popularity, as well as evidence that recent rampage killings could not be attributed to violent video games. Ultimately, they also argue that the research that does exist is too focused on video games, which excludes the impact other forms of violent media may have on kids.

ECA President Hal Halpin explains his organization’s “unique” position that not enough research has been done.   “I’m unsure about the conclusions that can be drawn or even inferred by qualitatively looking at the results so far and extrapolating from there,” says Halpin.

“We would like to see more research regarding the impact of media on both children and adults,” says Halpin. “Our concern is that no research to-date has been done that is longitudinal, objective and inclusive of other forms of media (i.e. movie, music, etc.).  Instead, what we’ve seen is study after study that examines gaming to the exclusion of all other forms, clearly biased studies, and/or ones that do nothing more that correlate adrenaline spikes and dopamine responses to stimuli… essentially the very same as if you were to surprise someone, saying, ’Boo!’”

How can some experts say there are no negative effects to violent video games when others say the opposite?

Many experts recently, and very publicly, sided with Halpin and the ECA as part of the Supreme Court Case Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association, which recently brought the violent video game debate into a more public view. Now resolved (a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games was declared unconstitutional), the case centered on the issue of whether the government should play a role in limiting access to video games that contain mature content to minors, or if the game industry’s current system of self-regulation was enough. Much of the debate around the case, which ultimately determined that games were protected by the First Amendment’s rights to free speech, focused on the impact of violent video games on youth.

In an amicus filing known as the Millet Brief, more than 80 professors, researchers and industry experts poked holes in evidence citing a correlation between violent video games and psychological or neurological harm to minors.  Problems cited include the gap between proving a correlation and causation (“Are young adolescents more hostile and aggressive because they expose themselves to media violence, or do previously hostile adolescents prefer violent media?”), methodological flaws with the studies, small sample sizes and the problems with “meta-analysis,” which amplify erroneous results from previous studies.

Ohio State’s Bushman, who has performed many studies on the effects of violent digital media, wondered how so many experts could sign off on a bill that contradicts what, in his opinion, 25 years of research clearly shows.  He administered a study examining the credentials of all who signed the Millett brief.  His conclusion is that experts who say violent video games are harmful to teens in a different amicus brief  filed in the Shwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association case have published much more evidence supporting their claims than have experts signing the amicus brief arguing there is no correlation.

“We took what I think is a very objective approach: we looked at the individuals on both sides of the debate and determined if they actually have expertise in the subjects in which they call themselves experts,” said Bushman. “The evidence suggests that those who argue violent video games are harmful have a lot more experience and stronger credentials than those who argue otherwise.”

Is it possible there are actually positive effects to playing violent video games?

In a recent interview with CBS 11 news in Dallas, economist Mike Ward from the University of Texas in Arlington discussed his study that showed that the more time children spend playing games, the less time they have to get into trouble.

“Video games not only cost money, but they also cost time,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to beat the game, and so all those hours you’re playing the game are hours that you’re not getting into trouble.”

Although the study doesn’t directly debunk other analysis that playing violent video games leads to aggressive behavior, it does indicate that playing any sort of game, violent or not, leads to a reduction in crime.

There are also potential visual and sensory benefits to playing action-oriented, violent games.  Studies with adults have shown that violent video games can improve several aspects of visual perception and visual attention.  One recent study out of Duke that was published in the journal Attention, Perception and Psychophysics showed that the benefits of action video game playing extends to other senses by demonstrating “enhanced multisensory perception and integration.”

Given the problems with proving a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior, is it possible that a link can ever be proven?

A recent Dutch experiment has come close to proving a causal link, according to Bushman.  Again, noise blasts are used as the measure of aggression.

In the study, a group of 14-year-old boys played either a non-violent or violent video game for 20 minutes. After playing they then performed a competitive task, and the winner was given the ability to send a noise blast to the loser’s headphones, and they could choose the intensity on a scale of 1 to 10.  The kids were warned that levels 8, 9 and 10 could cause permanent hearing damage, even though in reality they would not.  The boys that identified with the violent characters chose to blast their opponents with levels they believed would cause permanent hearing damage.

This type of research, however, is exactly the kind that the ECA’s Halpin thinks doesn’t prove anything. “Exclusionary studies amount to little more than hit man research,” he says. They have “less than no value, to my mind. They harm the impact that truly valuable studies will have going forward by creating bias on both sides. It’s unfortunate that politics and funding play such a significant part of what directs most of these matters, but then again, you can certainly see what motivates them as a result.”

What do most parents think?

Although unscientific, we asked parents recently via Twitter and Facebook if there was an age younger than 18 that they’d allow their kids to play violent videogames. The result was an overwhelming no, with a couple parents offering a lower age such as 17.  We also looked at the comments on M-rated games on, and found a few parents who were willing to stretch the limits as low as 13 years old for M-rated titles that they themselves deemed to be on par with what “kids would hear at school or in an intense PG-13 movie.”

Keep in mind, though, these groups are not necessarily a good representation of the entire population.  It is, however, a decent sample of the interests of parents who are engaged in their kids’ video game activity.

What can parents do to protect children from violent video games?

For those parents that do want to protect their kids against violent video games, there are many tools in place to make it easy.

For starters, the video game industry has been recognized as a better self-regulator than the music and movie industries.  Through their rating system, the ESRB provides a guideline of a game’s content, and games rated M for Mature are only to be sold and marketed to kids 17 and up. This is a voluntary system, but a recent FTC survey showed that video game retailers did a better job at limiting minor’s access to this content than did the music and movie industries.

Today’s consoles also have a number of parental controls which allow parents to restrict access to games that carry a certain ESRB rating.

Parents can also work closely with their kids to reach an agreement on ESRB ratings that are appropriate for them, since it’s likely that consoles at friend’s houses will not carry the same content restrictions as their own.

Ultimately it’s up to you to draw your own conclusion based on the information available and make an informed decision for your family.  Although it seems like the issue of whether or not exposure to violent video games would have an effect on kids should be pretty clear, the debate ends up centering around issues such as research methodology and even ends up with arguments in favor of violent video games for kids.  As it turns out, this is far from a simple issue.

In new running series The Family Perspective, founder Johner Riehl takes a closer look at important and noteworthy issues that relate to families and video games. Over the coming weeks, we’ll examine research and topics from a family gaming point-of-view to dig deeper into issues and research that parents should be aware of, promote healthy gaming habits and highlight positive impacts of video games as part of family life.

About Johner Riehl
Johner Riehl is founder and editorial director for, a site that provides reviews and recommendations geared towards families, with an emphasis on games that can be played together. He’s also been a PR rep for Nintendo, Microsoft, Midway and more.

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