The Effects of Violent Video Games: Blasting the Myth
In defence of his client Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the snipers who terrorized the greater Washington area during October of 2002, attorney Craig Cooley said that his client’s mind state was altered by extended playing of violent video games (VVG). While this defence was not enough to keep Malvo from being convicted of the charges laid against him in a court of law, the relationship between antisocial behaviour and VVG appears to be quite strong in the court of public opinion. From the nightly news desk to the United States Senate (Anderson & Bushman, 2001), the message is clear: society needs to know the full effects of VVG.
With sales total of $800 million in the first 24 hours of sale of its most recent title, the Grand Theft Auto video game series is one of the most profitable titles of all time. Also famous for its violence, it remains one of the only games where a player can solicit the services of a prostitute and then stomp her to death to get back the money. Due to its popularity and the level of violence, the game is often the focus of attention during these debates (e.g. Kutner & Olson, 2008). The public wants to know what effect playing VVGs like Grand Theft Auto 5 will have.
Here is the critical question: if a youth murders a woman in a virtual world, does that action have any relationship to actions, thoughts, or behaviours in the real-world? The National Rifle Association (widely known as NRA) has an answer for us. After a gunman killed 26 in an elementary school shooting in 2012, top lobbyist for the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, pointed to the video game industry to explain the violence. LaPierre called the video game industry a “shadow industry” that “sows violence against its own people,” singling out Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and Splatterhouse. Does LaPierre’s explanation make sense? Do video games make killers?
Considering that 97% of adolescents play video games (Blumberg, Altschuler, Almonte, & Mileaf, 2013) for an average of seven hours a week (Janssen, Boyce & Pickett, 2012; some estimates are as high as 13 hours, see Adachi & Willoughby, 2011) and those who engage in extended video game play are more likely to prefer violent video games (Anderson & Bushman, 2001), empirically determining the impact of VVGs like Grand Theft Auto has never been more important.
What do we know about the effects of violent video games? Broadly speaking, we have two main messages from the research on VVG. The first message, that VVG play can improve performance of cognition tasks (e.g. visuo-spatial competences; e.g. Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, & Gratton, 2008), is widely accepted. The second message, that VVG play prompts aggression (e.g. Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Sherry, 2001), is hotly contested and generally misunderstood.
Benefits of VVG Play
As mentioned, the benefits of video game play are uncontroversial. It is widely believed that the inherent characteristics of the video game can improve learner motivation (MacCormack, 2013), allow active participation rather than passive reception (Buckley & Anderson, 2006), and promote development of skills through repeated practice (Anderson & Dill, 2000). Learning games can be designed to specifically teach isolated skills or foster broad outcomes like problem-solving.
A video game designed by cognitive psychologists called Space Fortress was shown to improve competences in novel tasks such as piloting skills (Gopher, Weil, & Bareket, 1994) and measures of physics knowledge (Frederiksen & White, 1989). A wealth of findings from clinical studies consistently shows that expert VVG players outperform those who do not play VVGs on spatial and perception tasks (Boot et al., 2008). For example, the shot accuracy of expert VVG players is so much higher than those who don’t play VVGs, military training programs include components of video game training in real-world training (e.g. Israeli air force, Gopher, Weil, & Bareket, 1994; United States Marines, Buckley & Anderson, 2006).
Aggression and VVG Play
This leaves the question: do we have evidence that VVG play can cause aggression? Here’s the quick answer: well, yes and no. Players of VVG display short-term aggression, a phenomenon known as “violent video game effect” (Sestir & Batholow, 2010). These effects don’t last long and don’t seem to change the personality of choices of the players. Aggressive feelings and thoughts last less than four minutes; aggressive behaviour and increased heart rate last until nine minutes (Barlett, Branch, Rodeheffer, & Harris, 2009).
Carnagey and Anderson (2005) designed a study to look specifically at how violence is treated in the game. The participants played a violent racing game called Carmageddon 2. In the game, the player races to a finish line while attacking other racers with weapons. The participants played in three modes which handled violence differently. For the first mode, violence was rewarded; in the second mode, violence was punished; and in the final mode, violence was absent. Carnagey and Anderson found that when violence is rewarded, aggressive emotion, thinking, and behaviour increases. When violence is punished, aggressive emotion is increased, but aggressive thinking and behavior were not increased (Carnagey & Anderson, 2005)
While the phenomenon of short-term violent video game effect has been held as truth since the 1980s when studies focused on participation at arcades (when at-home consoles were rare), studies conducted in the last few years have started to look at game features other than violence as the primary cause of aggression. New generations of video games are much more sophisticated than previous generations. Whereas early study designs had a very short list of games title to choose from, modern games can choose games that best represent the exact recipes required (e.g. high competition, low violence; high frustration, low violence; high cooperation, high violence). The extended range of game types has allowed studies to control for features to determine their exact inter-relationship. Currently, researchers are focusing on three features as the most important components to explain aggression in video games: (i) competition; (ii) hardware; and (iii) social features.
Although there are exceptions to the rule, violence and competition are usually packaged together in video games. Most of the games listed as violent are also highly competitive so it has been difficult to see if violence or competition is the most salient component (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013). To remedy this flaw, researchers have been designing studies to specifically look at the role that competition plays in aggression. Aggressive behaviour is predicted by competition in video games irrespective of the games’ violence (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013).
In one study, Schmierbach (2010) used three game modes of the same video game HALO. In the first game mode, the single player played against computer-controlled alien enemies (solo). In the second game mode, the player worked with other human players against alien enemies (cooperation). In the final mode, the player played against other human players (competition). Schmierbach found that playing competitively against other humans caused the most aggression and playing cooperatively with humans caused the least aggression. These findings align with other studies that have shown that competitive play modes were better predictors of aggressive behaviour than cooperative or solo modes (Adachi & Willoughby, 2011; Schmierbach, Xu, Oeldorf-Hirsch, & Dardis, 2012).
The findings of research on the effect of the hardware have been mixed. Whether the player has a controller in hand or a model of a gun affects the level of aggression. The use of the light gun increased aggression levels (Barlett, Harris, & Baldassaro, 2007) which is consistent with research on effect of visual representation of weapons in priming for aggression “weapon effect” (Börsche, 2010). Some studies have found that the more realistic the depiction of violence, the more aggression is created. In that way, the development of technology creates a deeper emersion into increasingly realistic virtual environments and is a proxy of level of aggressive cognition (Sherry, 2001). Other studies have found the opposite: that the quality of the depiction of the video game (e.g. graphics capacity of the console) does not mediate the aggressive response to violent video games (Barlett, Rodeheffer, Baldassaro, Hinkin, & Harris, 2008).
The next step in technology will likely be the mainstream use of immersive virtual environment platforms. The displays of immersive virtual environment platforms are not through a screen like typical game experiences. Immersive virtual environment screens are head-mounted displays that track head movement and body actions. Use of immersive virtual environments for violent games increased aggression compared to violent games using screen-based outputs (Persky & Blascovich, 2007).
Despite the stereotype of a lonely youth playing video games in the basement of his parents’ home, video games are a social activity. Web interfaces like Twitch.tv provide platforms for gamers to share content and communicate. This new level of game-related socialization demonstrate that gaming is not a solitary activity. Unfortunately, there has not been much attention paid to the social benefits of membership in gaming communities in the research. Moving forward, social researchers will know more about online interactions and how gamers co-exist in these communities.
Furthermore, studies show that enjoyment is significantly improved by cooperative play with another human regardless of relational ties (Schmierback et al., 2012). In game behaviour can be a factor in whether the overall effect is positive or negative; for example, coordination in role-playing games increases prosocial behavior (De Simone, 2013). Cooperative play of video games with no other prosocial content increases prosocial behavior (Sestir & Batholow, 2010) Video games with prosocial content increased prosocial behavior (Greitemeyer & Osswald, 2010). Aggressive outcomes are mitigated when violence in video games is a part of a prosocial context (e.g. protecting a loved one from danger; Gitter Ewell, Guadagno, Stillman, & Baumeister, 2013).
NOTE: if you’re interested in knowing more about how behaviour is rated as aggressive or prosocial, you may want to know how it is measured in the lab. Commonly used aggression measures fit broadly into two categories: ambiguous and unambiguous measurements. An example of an ambiguous measurement is a lexical test. The participant is asked to complete a word with letters missing (e.g. “K I _ _”). Participants who have recently played VVGs are more likely to respond with words like “kick” or “kill” than words like “kiss” or “kiln” (Bösche, 2010). An example of an unambiguous measurement is the Hot Sauce Paradigm. The participant is asked to season a plate of food for another person who does not like spicy food using one of four hot sauce varieties. Participants who have recently played VVGs are more likely to season the plate of food with the spiciest sauce.
Ask your grandmother what happens to kids who play violent video games and you may be told that Call of Duty Black Ops 3 changes docile adolescents into rage-hounds. It’s not just your grandmother; perhaps we all believe that a little bit. The problem is that it is not true. While violent video games may cause aggression, the “violent video game effect” is temporary and does not transfer to personality. Furthermore, the culprit in VVG is not the violence. People become agitated because of game types, devices, and the social aspects of video games. Think of the last time you rage-quit HALO. Was it because the inherent violence of the narrative finally wore you down? Or was it that a 13-year old from Wisconsin noob-tubed you while shouting homophobic insults?
Granted, consuming countless hours of unfettered blood and gore can’t be healthy. Of course, no one is recommending you decorate your 5-year old’s birthday party with a Witcher 3 theme. But let’s agree on this point: although it’s tempting to assume that violence in video games translates to the real world, there is simply not enough evidence to support it.
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