Five Misconceptions About the Effects of Violent Video Game Play

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When tragedies such as mass shootings occur, blame is often placed (at least partially) on video games (see here and here). As interactive spaces, video games – and violent video games in particular – are often at the centre of the debate, as arguments are made that they actively “train” and “motivate” would-be attackers. However, these claims are not based in science nor supported by a vast majority of the scientific community. In fact, here are five erroneous assumptions often made about the violent video games role in inciting violent behaviours in society*:

Researchers who study video games and video game effects agree that violent game content is a problem for society.

There is actually a dramatic lack of consensus among scholars on violent media effects. A recent survey found that only 10% of game studies scholars agree that the effects of digital games on aggression are a problem for society and only a little more than a third of media researchers agree that violence in the media (in general) is a major factor in real-life violence.

Violent content in video games directly contributes to increases in aggression.

This claim is one of the most common and one of the more difficult ones to deconstruct as the term “aggression” can refer to behaviours, tendencies, or attitudes. When taking all possible definitions into account, researchers have found short-term increases in aggression following violent video game play. However, this is not analogous to saying video games contribute to violent behaviour, which is a generalization that is often made. Furthermore, more recent research has provided strong evidence that it is frustration – not violence – that contributes to the increases in aggression following video game play.

Playing violent video games directly contributes to increases in violent behaviours.

It is difficult to conclusively link violent video game exposure to changes in behaviour. However, of the limited research that has assessed this link specifically, the results have been conflicting and the relationships that have been found have been very small in magnitude.

In fact, most scholars agree that aggression and violence are multi-determined and influenced by a range of factors such as genetic factors, immediate environmental factors (such as being provoked by a person in close proximity), pre-existing tendencies (such as personality traits), and life history (such as previous exposure to violence). It is also widely recognized that no single factor can determine whether or not a person will act aggressively or violent in a given satiation. While violent video game play cannot be ruled out completely as one of the potential risk factors, it is unlikely that its influence would supersede the a other aforementioned contributors.

An increase in violent video game play has contributed to an increase in violent crime rates.

If violent video games directly lead to increases in aggression and violence, one would expect the rates of violent crime to increase in relationship with an increase in the consumption of violent video games. However, the pattern is the opposite. While sales of violent video games have increased dramatically over the last decade, the rates of most forms of violent crime has steadily declined.

Playing violent video games desensitizes players to real-world violence.

This is the idea that exposure to simulated violence through violent video game play reduces its emotional impact and “normalizes” the behaviour. Therefore, through exposure to violent games individuals become desensitized to violence and, consequently, are more likely to be violent in the future. The scientific evidence to support these claims are quite tenuous, however, indicating the unlikelihood that this is the case.

To learn more about the effects of video game game play on physical, social, and psychological outcomes, be sure and check out The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the physical, social, and psychological effects of digital games!

*All of this information was drawn from Coulson, M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2016). The influence of digital games on aggression and violent crime. In R. Kowert & T. Quandt (Eds.), The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the physical, social, and psychological effects of digital games. New York: Routeldge.