Friday, January 20, 2006

The Effects of Video Games on Aggression

With Jack Thompson waving his penis around as of late, and with the continuing discussion of the "dangers" of video games (and my not having a new post ready yet) I thought I'd post a research paper I did in undergrad on the subject.

The Effects of Video Games on Aggression
by Kelly Hoffart
Concordia University, Nebraska
December 9, 2002

Video games are everywhere in our society today. They constitute a $6 billion dollars per year market (Olson, Godfrey, Allen, 2000), or even in excess of $10 billion per year (Vessey & Lee, 2000) depending on whom you ask. "One out of every ten U.S. households owns a Sony Playstation, and children spend an average of ten hours per week playing video games" (Olson, et al.). And “among 8- to 13-year-old boys, the average [time spent playing video games] is more than 7.5 hours per week” (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). For years, video games have been accused of causing aggressiveness and aggressive behavior in those who play them. Many studies have been done on the subject, some focusing only on violent video games, others on video games in general. Some state that it is irrefutable that video games increase aggression, and others state that there is no solid evidence to back up those claims. Similar studies have been done for decades focusing on television rather than video games, and some of these studies overlap. Video games, however, are of greater concern to some because of the more active role taken in participating in video games rather than just watching television, forcing the player “to identify with the aggressor” (News Potpourri, 2000).

In 1992 a study by Carl Sneed and Mark A. Runco attempted to assess opinions about the effects of television and video games. Sneed and Runco "asked 23 parents between the ages of 30 and 52 years and 26 children between the ages of 10 and 19 years to list effects of television and video games on children." They then developed a questionnaire based on these responses, and "administered [the questionnaire] to different groups of parents and children and a control group of adults without offspring." The parents "held more positive beliefs about the influence of video games than the other adults,” and the parents tended to agree with the children on this influence.

The Sneed and Runco (1992) study seems that it may have a gender and socioeconomic bias. The subjects used to formulate the questionnaire were overwhelmingly female, with "17 women, 2 men, and 4 subjects who took the option of not reporting gender" among the adults and "14 girls and 6 boys, and 6 subjects not reporting gender" among the children. Also, "the adults were drawn from classes at California State University, Fullerton," and 20 of the children were "children of the adult participants; the other 6 were approached at a winter church camp." They acknowledge this weakness in their study, and attempt to guess at the effects of this weakness, but I will ignore their conjectures in that regard.

Sneed and Runco (1992) divided the responses relating to video games into a desirable effects cluster, for example hand-eye coordination, and an undesirable effects cluster, for example aggressive behavior. Some of the adults were given the questionnaire with direct reference to children and others without any reference to children. They "gave lower ratings to the effects of video games when they thought they were judging the effects on children." They found that "men were more likely to believe the positive influence of video games than women."

Interestingly enough, "subjects were more critical of television than video games" (Sneed & Runco, 1992). There were still more negative responses to video games than positive ones, but "subjects had more favorable opinions of video games when they rated aggression and confusing reality with fantasy" when compared with television. The researchers went on to guess "they may have rated television less favorably on these two items because television is often associated with violence, but video games have received little attention in this regard." I find this interesting, but I attribute it to the release of this study being in 1992, possibly prior to the controversy over the extremely violent and bloody video game "Mortal Kombat" released that same year.

“Fueled by the media, the controversy over whether playing popular arcade/computer games increases aggressiveness has only been compounded by inconsistencies within empirical research” (Scott, 1995). Scott’s “experiment…was designed to explore some of these inconsistencies.”

Scott (1995) regards the previous studies’ failures as including the study of “feelings of aggressiveness” as opposed to “overt [aggressive] behavior.” Scott points out the differing results in even the same types of studies, including a 1985 questionnaire study by Kestenbaum and Weinstein that “reported that aggressive games had a calming effect” in opposition to a 1984 questionnaire study by Dominick that “reported a significant relationship between video game playing and aggressive delinquency in adolescents.” He also cites studies that find that free play by boys does not change significantly based on video game playing, whereas free play by girls is affected by video games.

Scott (1995) also points out that many of the previous studies on the subject were flawed, even as admitted by those involved in the study.

Scott’s study uses the Buss-Durkee inventory (1957), which “groups items into subscales representing various aspects of aggression and hostility” (Scott, 1995). The aspects used in Scott’s study are assault, indirect hostility, irritability, negativism, resentment, suspicion, and verbal hostility, and are all clearly defined within the study. The study also uses the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975) to determine any difference that personality type would have upon the research findings. And “to avoid confounding effects of age, educational level, and so forth, [he] used a homogeneous group of university students.” This may, however, have caused the findings to be biased in this regard. This study, as in Sneed and Runco’s (1992) study, seems to be biased towards having more women (75) than men (42).

The Scott (1995) study used three games, designated as non-aggressive, moderately aggressive, and highly aggressive. The participants were told that the study “concerned a hand-eye coordination task in relation to personality,” and after playing a game they “were asked to rate the game in terms of aggressive content on a 0-10 scale.”

Scott’s (1995) study found no “significant difference…between total aggressiveness change and game aggression level.” He found no “linear increase in aggressive affect after playing non-aggressive, moderately aggressive, and highly aggressive games,” although he had expected one. He found that “the overall pattern was that the moderately aggressive game substantially decreased feelings of aggression” and that the other two games also decreased feelings of aggression, although not as much as the moderately aggressive game. Scott concludes that “the interactions between the variables are obviously complex, and glib statements relating aggression to game playing, whether appearing in the mass media or in scientific journals, seem totally unwarranted.” This discrepancy may be due to his focus on university students whereas most people are concerned more about the effect of video games on children.

Although Scott’s (1995) study found no direct correlation between playing violent video games and aggression, Schroeder’s (1996) article still shows concern. Schroeder believes that the only way to remain competitive in the video game market is to “increase the frequency and intensity of the violence.” This appears to be true even six years later, with games such as Grand Theft Auto 3 and Metal Gear Solid 2 dominating the market (although these newer games, with added realism, have added risks to using violence, and have alternative methods for dealing with many situations).

Schroeder (1996) agrees that video games are not the only place where violence is the choice way to sell a product, pointing also at television, movies, and even books, but he points to the ever-increasing realism of video games paired with the active role that the player takes in committing video game violence.

Schroeder (1996) cites several studies that discount or minimize the relationship between video games and aggression and also a few sources that claim a relationship between the two but no studies to directly connect them. Yet he goes on to theorize that “virtual reality takes the issue beyond depiction vs. interaction: if postmodernist cultural critique is accurate, immersive media increasingly collapse distinctions between different kinds of space, indeed, collapse the real into the hyperreal.” He points to the way that gamers refer to what they do in the games as reality-one does not simply win the game, he kills his opponent.

Although Schroeder’s (1996) concerns seem realistic, he gives no evidence to suggest a link between video games and real-life aggression, and cites no such evidence, only theory.

Judith A. Vessey and Joanne E. Lee (2000) echo Schroeder’s (1996) concerns. They point out that “80% of today’s most popular video games contain violence.” They also show concern that along with the increased realism of video games there comes an increase in violence. They cite evidence of violence in video games, whether it is realistic or “cartoonish and slapstick.” Although they contend that there should be concern, they point out that studies that have linked video games and aggression have often been flawed. They cite Anderson and Dill’s (2000) study that “postulate[s] that the effect of violent video games is ‘cognitive in nature.’ Learning and repeatedly practicing aggressive situations may alter children’s basic personality structures, leading to more hostile thoughts.”

In spite of their rejections to violent video games, Vessey and Lee (2000) do not recommend a “total ban of video games.” They contend that video games could have just as much positive effect as negative, depending on content, and have other side benefits, including increased hand-eye coordination and attention to detail. They recommend that parents refer to the game’s packaging, which usually includes a description of the game and screen shots, and always includes a rating and content label. Still, they recommend that “regardless of the type of game, daily playing time should be limited,” mostly due to couch potato-like side effects of video games including obesity.

Vessey and Lee (2000) recommend that parents should refer to the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) label on video games before purchasing them for their children. Walsh and Gentile (2001) performed a study to determine the validity of ratings systems in movies, television, and video games, and attempted to compare the three systems.

First, I should go over the ratings system. The ESRB rates video games as EC for “Early Childhood,” E for “Everyone,” T for “Teen,” M for “Mature,” and AO for “Adults Only” (Vessey & Lee, 2000). Although a recent game has raised controversy due to inclusion of topless women on BMX bikes (and consequently causing many retailers not to carry the title), to date no game has received the “Adults Only” label. The ESRB also includes content descriptors to help parents understand why a game deserves a particular rating.

Walsh and Gentile (2001) found that “when an entertainment industry rates a product as inappropriate for children, parent raters agree that it is inappropriate for children.” But parents and the industry do not necessarily agree on content that is appropriate for certain age groups. They recommend that parents should still personally oversee content available to their children, but that the ratings are tool to help decide what is appropriate.

Walsh and Gentile (2001) express concern that only 25% of parents use industry ratings to help select appropriate video games, compared with 69% of parents who use the ratings to select appropriate movies. They suggest that this may be because the movie ratings system has been in place since 1968 while video games have been rated since 1994 (and this ratings system has changed since then). And even though they say they use the industry ratings, only 1% of them have ever prevented a purchase based on the ratings (Anderson & Bushman, 2001).

Walsh and Gentile’s (2001) study is once again gender-biased, with 13 men and 42 women. They recognize that their newspaper-advertised study is not random, but they did a random sample of 600 parents to test the validity of their findings. This proved to be accurate, but asked for agreement or disagreement and may have led on the participants, although only 1% believed that they did a poor job. They tested 166 computer games sold between 1997 and 1999, along with over 200 movies and television shows from the same time period.

Walsh and Gentile (2001) found that in general parents agreed with the industry ratings, but there tended to be disagreements “when comparing the parent and industry ratings for different age groups.” Fewer than half of the T-rated games were considered completely appropriate for 13- to 17-year olds.

Walsh and Gentile (2001) conclude that “ratings of media products can play a critical role in preserving artistic and economic freedom, while simultaneously protecting public health.” However, they believe that “the ratings systems do not adequately fill this role.” They advise that “ratings are not intended to be an industry seal of approval, and individual parents are not relieved of the duty to monitor their children’s use of media products.” They recommend that a universal ratings system be introduced for all media products; a ratings system that will be systematically applied and easily understood. Until this happens, they suggest that parents educate themselves and become involved in the media selection process for their children.

But why check the ratings at all? The president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, Doug Lowenstein, said, “I think the issue has been vastly overblown and overstated, often by politicians and others who don’t fully understand, frankly, this industry. There is absolutely no evidence, none, that playing a violent video game leads to aggressive behavior” (as cited in Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Is there a basis, beyond the case studies like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, for people to assume that video games can contribute to aggression?

Anderson and Bushman (2001) contend that “many of the underlying psychological processes identified in the TV-movie literature also apply to video games” and that since there has been much more research done on TV and movies, that we can apply the same findings to video games. They cite evidence that shows that TV and movies can contribute to aggression, even in the long term.

Anderson and Bushman (2001) discuss the problems with sorting out the difference in effects between violent and nonviolent games, since “even nonviolent games can increase aggressive affect” and “exciting nonviolent games can increase arousal,” but what they want to find is what they call the “unique ability of violent video games to directly increase aggressive cognitions.”

To put things in perspective, Anderson and Bushman (2001) “conducted a meta-analysis of the existing video game literature.” They compiled the results of 35 research reports, including the use of 4,262 participants, almost half of which were under 18.

They found that violent video games are more likely to increase aggression and aggressive affect, but can decrease it (Anderson & Busman, 2001). But they found that playing violent video games always increases arousal. Dividing the results of the experimental studies into two categories “based on whether the aggression target was another person,” they found that the “average effect was larger if the target was an inanimate object,” so people still maintain a respect for other human beings.

More importantly, Anderson and Bushman (2001) found that playing violent video games always increases aggressive cognition in all age groups and genders. The setting for most of this research was experimental, so it demonstrates “a causal link between exposure to violent video games and aggressive cognition.”

Anderson and Bushman admit that they have a lack of longitudinal research to show the long-term effects of exposure to violent video games, but they contend that the research that does exist is very convincing. I would point to Vessey and Lee’s (2000) statement that much of this research, likely the same used by Anderson and Bushman, is flawed, and since Anderson and Bushman did not really perform a study themselves, it can largely be ignored.

Karl E. Miller (2001) refers to a study done by T.N. Robinson, et al. of 2001 in which “two sociodemographically matched public elementary schools” were used, one as a control and the other implementing a six month curriculum designed to reduce exposure to television, videos, and video games. They encouraged the children and the parents to go without any of these media for ten days and to implement a 7 hours per week budget for these media. The children reported on “their peers’ aggressive behavior and reported their own perception of the world.” Some of the children, randomly selected, were observed in the playground. Parents were also interviewed.

The school into which the curriculum was introduced showed an improvement in reported behavior and perception of the world, but the playground observation difference, although improved, “was not statistically significant” (Miller, 2001). Perhaps reducing the media exposure simply changed their perceptions of aggression, but the actual observation does not back up the assumption that it actually reduced aggression.

Anne D. Walling (2002) refers to a study by L. Bensley and J. van Eenwyk of 2001. She contends that violent video games are linked to aggression, although she admits that “some authors suggest that video games may provide a safe outlet for aggression and frustration.” Apparently, Bensley and Eenwyk note that “rates of adolescent violence, homicide, weapon-carrying, and other markers of antisocial behavior fell consistently during the period when violent video games became ubiquitous, more graphic, and more realistic.” Bensley and Eenwyk’s study is also apparently a review of literature, this one with 29 studies reviewed. They found that “in children of middle school age and younger, no association was found between video games and aggression in girls” but that “in boys, studies report both increased and decreased aggression.” They also found that there was no consistent relationship between video games and aggression among high school age or college age students either, but “calming effects were more common.” They state that although the subject is complex and difficult to truly study, they find “little evidence [that] supports concerns that violent video games are linked to aggressive or antisocial behavior.” I find it interesting that even in a review of a study that discounts the link between video games and aggression, the author still shows a great deal of concern.

I conclude that even among all the hype and fear that people have about the possible link between video games and aggressive or violent behavior, there is no solid evidence showing a causal relationship. I contend that it is more likely that a personality trait can cause the same individual to be aggressive and to play violent games, much in the same way that a good Christian may prefer to listen to Christian music. I would still recommend that parents monitor their children’s use of all media products, including video games. I agree with Walsh and Gentile’s (2001) position that the media industries should implement a universal ratings system, and that they should be held accountable. Even with industry ratings systems, parents are still ultimately responsible for their children, and all adults are ultimately responsible for their own actions, and should judge for themselves whether they can handle violent video games and other media.

I contend that with increased realism in video games, there is actually decreased violence. Gone are the hordes of enemies that were slaughtered in late 80’s and early 90’s games, such as Contra and Streets of Rage. Now players are more likely to avoid detection by their enemies rather than engage them in combat. The tournament fighting type games, epitomized by Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (franchises over ten years old), have been losing popularity for years. Game developers are learning that atmosphere and storyline are impossible with constant action, and that constant fighting is not necessarily the only way to create solid gameplay.

Regardless of the game’s content, the evidence linking video games and violence is weak, and Columbine is the exception rather than the rule.


Anderson, Craig A., & Bushman, Brad J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: a meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, vol. 12, no. 5, 353-359.
Miller, Karl E.(2001). Video games, TV and aggressive behavior in kids. American Family Physician, vol. 64, issue 5, 863.
News Potpourri (2000). Southern Medical Journal, vol. 93, issue 8, 838-839.
Olson, Beth, Godfrey, Donald, & Allen, Craig (2000). Electronic media reviews. Journalism History, vol. 26, issue 3, 133.
Schroeder, Randy (1996). Playspace Invaders: Huizinga, Baudrillard and Video Game Violence. Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 30, issue 3, 143-153.
Scott, Derek (1995). The effect of video games on feelings of aggression. Journal of Psychology, vol. 129, issue 2, 121-132.
Sneed, Carl, & Runco, Mark A. (1992). The beliefs adults and children hold about television and video games. Journal of Psychology, vol. 126, issue 3, 273-284.
Vessey, Judith A, & Lee, Joanne E. (2000). Violent Video Games Affecting Our Children. Pediatric Nursing, vol. 26, issue 6, 607-610.
Walling, Anne D. (2002). Do video games lead to violent behavior in children? American Family Physician, vol. 65, issue 7, 1436-1437.
Walsh, David A., & Gentile, Douglas A. (2001). A validity test of movie, television, and video game ratings. Pediatrics, vol. 107, issue 6, 1302-1308.

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