Forget what media says about how violent gaming causes violence. Sensationalism gives science a bad name. Instead, let’s look at research flooded with nuanced insights that do not give an easy answer.
Video games, even violent games, improve many aspects of cognition because of gameplay. Still, there is a slight downside in some circumstances. This article excludes game addiction and only considers recreational gaming.
- Why do we play violent games?
- Myth: Violent video games make players violent
- Do violent games make people violent?
So, what explains the observed violence claims?
- The environment pushes people toward aggression
- Violent games may make players less helpful
- Some violent people choose violent games to maintain their identity
- Sensational stories are sticky and make us overestimate their occurrence
- Games are played as an excuse to protect oneself
- Gaming frustration leads to aggression
- Violent games bring out aggression in angry people more than others
- Toxic gaming
Why do we play violent games?
Why people play violent games has a relatively easy answer. They improve mood through entertainment and cognitive engagement. Games also tend to make us feel more attractive and powerful. Other mechanisms sustain a gaming habit, too. Many forms of rewards from the game increase the likelihood of playing again and again. Pure points, victories and defeats, motivation to overcome defeats, social bonding through multiplayer gaming, etc., make it easy to play violent games. The very sensations involved in violent games make them more attractive to our senses.
A personality trait called sensation-seeking affects what games we choose. The more sensation-seeking we are, the more stimulation we need. So we may choose more intense games. Sensation-seeking is an overall tendency to prefer intense, novel, and varied stimulation. And sensation seekers are often easily bored, take risks, and prefer instant gratification. This trait can lead a person to choose aggressive games that satisfy sensation-seeking needs. Because sensation seeking reduces as we grow older and is more intense in men, we see more young men choosing violent games who also grow out of them.
Myth: Violent video games make players violent
- Claim: Violence in games make people violent.
- Consequences: Parents, educators, and laypeople blame games for violence without probing into other more significant causes of violent behavior. They also lobby to restrict game-time and encourage political agendas that devalue video games.
- Realistic version: Violent games do have the capacity to desensitize people to violence, but studies show healthy individuals do not get violent because of gaming. In most cases, factors other than the actual violence within the game better explain real-life violence.
- Reasonable action: Focus more on general mental health, addiction problems, environmental stress, and a person’s thought process and previous learning instead of blaming games. They are known to cause violent tendencies.
Do violent games make people violent?
No long-term aggression after habitual and temporary violent gaming
The amount of research exploring the link between violent gaming and aggression is exponentially increasing, with possibly thousands of studies getting published each year. Reviews and meta-analyses of those studies are also rising to settle the debate. And we are very close to one scientific consensus – there are short-term increases in aggressive feelings after violent gaming, but they are weak, so they vanish, and there are no long-term negative effects of violent gaming. However, there are many, many social and biological factors that create an external link between aggression and violent games (next section).
Gamers can clearly distinguish between game violence and real-life violence, even after long-term gaming. Their neural patterns show their brains don’t respond differently than non-gamers to actual violence. However, each individual’s history with violence and personal tendencies are more significant than gaming regarding violent behavior. Desensitization can reduce the necessary “stop signal” to not act on violent ideas induced by the games, but this is very rare. Like when people have used guns to kill others as if they are in a game. In most cases, more severe mental health issues and previous learning influence such violent choices.
A longitudinal study compared those Grand Theft Auto 5 players (a violent anything-goes game), Sims 3 players (a life simulation drama game), and non-gamers. Their psychological profile was detailed on many aspects of mental health, social behavior, and cognitive functioning 2 months before and after 2 months of daily gaming. Contrary to popular belief that violent gaming makes people violent and aggressive, researchers found no long-term evidence of violent tendencies emerging from violent games.
There is some (read: very weak) link between increased video game spending and fewer homicides across the globe. This may be because those spending more on video games have an outlet for aggression. Or spend more time gaming, so less time killing. Or have money to afford help and cope with difficulties (gaming can be an expensive hobby). Or it’s an accidental correlation.
Children are at risk, but watching games isn’t a problem
When it comes to children playing violent games, research says 10-13-year-olds are quite malleable in what they learn and what they think is expected or normal. For them, playing violent games is linked to more aggression in real-life play for boys and not girls. However, watching games doesn’t seem to increase aggression much for boys and possibly does not affect girls. The study shows that watching streams on YouTube or Twitch isn’t necessarily bad.
The player character induces aggressive or non-aggressive behavior
Many games are played with an avatar on screen. This avatar can be male, or female, with customized clothing and accessories, or sometimes even something like a spoon or an apple. The nature of this avatar affects behavior. Researchers found that men using male avatars had higher aggression shortly after gaming than men using female avatars, women using male avatars, and women using female avatars. The expected behavior of the avatar might affect how a person uses it in-game. For example, making your avatar a predatory monster might inspire more aggression than a worm with a hat. One amplifying factor is how much the gamer relates to the avatar; higher emotional investment in the avatar might make gameplay more stereotypical of the avatar. A wizard might show intelligent behavior, while a troll smacks enemies with a club.
Violent games make us feel good but don’t reduce aggressive thoughts
Many gamers believe violent games are cathartic – they feel good after releasing pent-up anger and frustration. They often play an aggressive game after feeling aggression in real life and then hope to release that energy. However, research shows that violent games are not cathartic but do improve mood. They don’t reduce aggressive thoughts after gaming, but that arousal from gaming is more positive. Gamers who experience a positive mood after gaming believe their aggression has reduces because of virtual action. And that continues the cycle of using games to feel good. Violent games can improve mood after gaming in many ways: Rewards, a sense of accomplishment, distraction, social connection, high-energy engagement, etc. Aggressive behavior isn’t generally cathartic – it doesn’t erase the aggression; it tends to amplify it. For example, an angry person punching or shouting into a pillow might make them feel worse and angrier. Similarly, those who are generally angry tend to get more aggressive after violent gaming, the same way aggressive behavior during anger makes it worse.
Since there is no black-and-white conclusion to how violent games affect behavior, why do we see a link between the two?
So, what explains the observed violence claims?
Assuming the claims of violence through gaming are not fake or exaggerated, where would they come from? Are there real mechanisms that indirectly connect violent gaming and real-life aggression?
The environment pushes people toward aggression
Environmental factors amplify the association between violent video games and aggression, reduced empathy, and aggressive thoughts (not actions). The link is stronger for more extreme violence in games, but it’s not a direct link. Hostile environment, unsafe space, poor lighting, high noise, easy drug access, overcrowding, lack of healthy entertainment options, and high temperature determine how much video gaming translates into aggressive behavior. Without these factors, the link between violent video games and violence almost vanishes. These factors are known to make people violent, even without exposure to violence in games. These are also reasons that make a person prone to addictions and escapism.
Violent games may make players less helpful
A meta-analysis concludes that violent gaming reduces a helpful attitude toward society (prosocial behavior) and empathy. And, men and women are equally prone to these negative effects. A more recent study tested novices and regular gamers on the impact of violent games, violent media, and violent books on cooperative behavior. Their results showed violent media does not reduce cooperation and prosocial behavior. Both novices and regular (single-player and multiplayer) gamers were equal in prosocial tendencies. According to them, the media does not prime a person to instantly induce violent tendencies. Lack of empathy or helpfulness may be considered passive-aggressive or negligent in some cultures.
Some violent people choose violent games to maintain their identity
Already violent people choose violent games to channel their impulses and aggressive tendencies. Desperation for power and control makes people aggressive. Unhealthy beliefs like “I will do what I want when I want, and no one can stop me” manifest in games first and then in real life. People tend to choose activities that are more in sync with their identities. So a mild person would choose calm games, and an aggressive person would choose aggressive games. Sometimes, the opposite might occur if they use games to regulate their emotions – a calm person might choose aggressive games to increase their excitement. In contrast, an aggressive person might choose quiet games to control their aggression.
Sensational stories are sticky and make us overestimate their occurrence
Games make people less sensitive to violence, so they talk and joke about violence, creating the illusion that they are more violent. Similarly, sensationalized studies and news that involve gaming and violence are more available in people’s awareness. So we estimate the frequency of such events to be higher than it is because we judge prevalence using ease of access to examples. This is the availability heuristic.
Games are played as an excuse to protect oneself
People use violent movies and games as an excuse to justify behavior. One mechanism here is that violent people may believe circumstances control their actions more than themselves. They may also be biased to believe negative behavior is caused by outside influence and positive behavior is their own choice. This is the “self-serving bias,” where good things are attributed to the self and bad things are blamed on circumstances or outside forces. Research shows that aggressive adolescents tend to have a strong self-serving bias and an external locus of control – their behavior was caused by others and not their own choices. These tendencies occur when one self-image is threatened.
Gaming frustration leads to aggression
Frustration because of high game difficulty might be causing aggression instead of violent themes. This aggression may be short-lived because there is a big chance that frustrated gamers don’t continue the game and move on to something else that is less frustrating. The game difficulty itself discourages gaming.
Violent games bring out aggression in angry people more than others
People’s baseline angriness affects the link between violent games and negative attitudes toward anger and online aggression. Consider 2 gamers who play the same amount of violent games and everything else is the same. Then, the angrier one will show a more casual attitude toward violence and more online aggression. For the non-angry one, there may be no connection. If violent gaming doesn’t cause a change in attitude toward violence, there may be even lesser aggression. The key insight here is that violence from games is less important than a person’s default anger and attitude toward aggression. Developing a healthy attitude toward aggression can be enough to remove violent games from the list of possible causes of aggression.
Takeaway: It appears that those already on the edge of getting more aggressive become aggressive after violent games. And factors unrelated to violence within games should sufficiently explain most cases where violent video games get linked to violence in real life.
Many gamers know of a toxic gaming culture. In it, gamers bully new or weak players, attack with insults, cross boundaries into personal lives, and make a hostile environment around gaming. Toxicity occurs with a nudge of competitiveness that brings out the worst behavior, much like in many sports and music fandoms. This is when gaming is less about fun and engagement and more about unhealthy behavior. One major problem is that gaming can be contagious and contagious behavior amplifies as it spreads. A few aggressive gamers in a group can convert an entire group into aggressive gamers, which normalizes aggression. This becomes an opportunity to increase aggressive behavior just a little bit till there is a new normal.
Those between 10 and 19 years of age (adolescence and teenage) are quite prone to the problem of normalizing aggressive behavior through a toxic gaming culture. Research on German adolescents shows that violent gamers tend to have more physical aggression 30 months later and show a toxic trait – hostile attribution bias. This is a bias where we assume others’ neutral or unclear actions as aggressive/hostile actions even when there is no evidence of aggression. The hostile attribution bias can normalize interpreting others negatively and promote aggressive defensive behavior. Combine this with contagious gaming, and it becomes a slippery slope.
While violence isn’t the biggest concern in games, there is a problem with sexist games that cultivate sexist attitudes. But this is a story for another day. It is likely to have the same controversy for decades ending with a soft conclusion that environmental factors and not actual gaming imagery affect sexist attitudes. The question is then – are sexist games for sexist people or is a game making people sexist, or is it both or none, or is it specific elements that affect each individual uniquely?
Long and short exposure to violent gaming generally does not induce violent behavior, even if there is a temporary rise in violent thoughts. The violence in games is probably not the main reason for violence. But it could be a small nudge toward aggression. Environmental factors like lack of safety, upbringing, ideologies, normalizing aggression, etc., are likely to explain violent behavior better. Children and adults risk learning that violence is normal through a toxic gaming culture. The best way to look at the effect of violent gaming on aggression is to consider specific individual factors on a case-by-case basis and not generalize. Considering the case of a random well-adjusted gamer, violent games appear safe for the mind.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.