Videogames and Violence: What are the Facts?

Something horrible happened recently. You might have heard about it. A young man named Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot twenty seven people dead, most of them children. He then turned the gun on himself.

It emerged afterwards that Lanza, in addition to being just generally obsessed with killing people, compulsively played online shooters like Combat Arms and Gears of War. A predictable chorus of commentary followed: Violent videogames are to blame; Lanza trained for massacre in a virtual murder simulator.

It’s understandable. As has been observed countless times before, people have a strong and reasonable tendency to seek certainty in the face of unimaginable horror. We want answers: Who did it? How did he do it? Why did he do it? What made him do it?

Thus, a complex social phenomenon – which is what mass-shootings are – is reduced to a simple cause-effect relationship. Videogames are to blame. Ban videogames and the problem will go away. Done and dusted. Everything’s back to normal.

It’s nonsense, of course: wishful thinking at best, pernicious opportunism at worst. But in our haste to defend videogames from such absurd charges, we should be cautious not to toss out the baby with the bathwater. While it’s clear that videogames could never be the sole or principal cause of mass homicide, it’s possible they might be a contributing factor.

In this article, I intend to examine this possibility through the lens of the available scientific literature. Do games increase aggression and desensitise us to real violence? Do first-person shooters train more efficient killers? With so much disinformation surrounding this issue, it’s important to know the facts, to be informed. Consider this a primer.

Do violent games make people more aggressive?

The possibility that violent videogames cause increased aggression has been exhaustively investigated by academics from a broad variety of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, and media studies.

In a literature review published early last year by the Swedish Media Council, it’s reported that “a clear majority of the laboratory studies report results that [violent games] increase aggression among the players.” However, the authors then go on to say that the studies “suffer from such obvious methodological and epistemological deficiencies that their relevance may be seriously questioned.”

Chief among these deficiencies is a lack of methodological rigour and consistency. To determine whether a variable (like aggression) has changed in response to a stimulus (like violent videogames) what you typically do is measure the variable, introduce the stimulus, and then measure the variable again – using the same tool to take both measurements. If you don’t use the same tool both times, the comparison is moot: it’s apples and oranges. But out of seventy-one reviewed studies, the Swedish Media Councils notes that only seven percent (five studies) adhere to this basic principle.

Also, because aggression is gauged using non-standardised measures, results are difficult to compare across studies, and researchers can cherry pick metrics that confirm their hypothesis. This was illustrated in a 2000 study in which researchers used four measures of aggression, only one of which showed significant effect. This was the one used by the authors to support the thesis that violent videogames increase aggression, while the other three measures were downplayed.

The most popular theoretical model explaining observed correlations between violent videogames and increased aggression is called the General Aggression Model or GAM. The GAM is an old and fairly well supported model that grew out of earlier research on aggression, and on violent media in particular. It posits that aggression is caused by socially learned knowledge structures (schemas) that are strengthened and aroused via exposure to violent videogame content.

The GAM has been criticised on psychological grounds, with critics arguing that stable personality traits are not so easily changed as the GAM presupposes. As a consequence, a number of alternatives have been proposed, the most promising being the Catalyst Model.

The starting point of this model is not the game, but rather the player: biological factors, temperament, personality and environment are the filters through which people interact with games, determining their impact. According to one study, environmental factors (like domestic violence) are more likely to “motivate a biologically predisposed individual to aggression” than violence depicted in media, the impact of which is limited to providing “models” for expressing aggressive tendencies. In other words, violent videogames don’t cause aggression, but already aggressive individuals may use them as a source of inspiration for violent behaviour.

Do videogames desensitise us to violence?

Whether or not violent media desensitises us to actual violence has been a contentious issue for a very long time now. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies that claim to demonstrate the effect, but many of these – like the studies on aggression discussed above – employ questionable methodologies to obtain their data, and make questionable assumptions on the basis of that data. The debate is far from over.

There are a number of ways to measure desensitisation. For example, when someone is exposed to a violent or disturbing image, it elicits a variety of involuntary physiological responses: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, perspiration, and so on. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to violent imagery decreases physiological response to the point where it disappears entirely. We become habituated.

But does the desensitisation effect carry over to the real world? Recent studies suggest not. For example, in a paper published by Raul Ramos in Psychology of Popular Media and Culture, it was found that violent films had no appreciable effect on viewer capacity to empathise with victims of real world violence:

“Participants were significantly more empathic […] when they knew they were watching real violence rather than fictional violence. However, previous exposure to a violent or nonviolent TV show did not reduce empathy.”

The extent to which violent videogames desensitise us to other forms of violent media is also up for debate. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, authors Holly Bowen and Julia Spaniol investigate the impact that violent videogames have on emotional memory and subsequent reactions to violent imagery. Evolution, the authors argue, has programmed our brains to more readily remember things that upset us, which makes recall a reliable indicator of desensitisation. Shown an assortment of violent and nonviolent images, individuals desensitised to violent media will recall the former with less clarity and force than a normal person.

Using this method, Spaniol and Bowen looked at 122 undergraduates divided into two groups: those who had “chronic” exposure to violent videogames, and those who did not. They found no significant difference between the two. Those who regularly played violent videogames were just as sensitive to violent imagery as those who didn’t.

Another way to measure desensitisation is by using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines to look at how the brain processes violent media. In a 2011 study conducted by Vincent Matthews and his colleagues at Indiana University, it was found that regular exposure to violent videogames leads to decreased neural activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional response, attention, and inhibition. This is evidence, it is claimed, of desensitisation. Other studies have found similar effects.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that behavioural neuroscience is still a nascent discipline, and it isn’t clear to what extent neurological phenomena correlate with how people actually behave. That there is some connection is indisputable, but the nature of this connection is far from obvious, and will likely continue to be the subject of furious debate for some time to come.

Can videogames train people to kill?

In his rambling online manifesto, Anders Breivik claimed that he spent up to sixteen hours a day playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II in preparation for his shooting rampage in Utøya, Norway. He says playing the game made him a more proficient marksman. But is he right?

Again, this is a subject of ongoing debate, and has been for a long time. One of the chief proponents of the notion that violent videogames train people to be more efficient murderers is American author and retired lieutenant colonel, Dave Grossman. In his numerous books and papers on the subject (one of which is entitled Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill) Grossman argues that violent videogames are functionally identical to the simulators used by the military to train soldiers. On the basis of this, he contends that violent videogames, particularly first-person shooters, are effectively “murder simulators” and that people who play them are being trained to kill – whether they realise it or not.

Widely reported in the media, Grossman’s views are far from uncontroversial. In an essay entitled 8 Myths About Videogames, noted gaming academic Henry Jenkins argues that Grossman’s theories rely on untenable assumptions about how people acquire and retain new knowledge and skills. Specifically, they assume

1) that violent videogames (or military simulators) will have the same effect irrespective of the context in which they’re played;
2) that learners are passive receivers incapable of resisting what they’re being taught;
3) that people inadvertently take what they learn in videogames and apply it to the real world.

Those are some pretty big assumptions, but as it turns out, Grossman’s views are not without empirical warrant. In a paper published last year in the journal Communication Research, authors Jodi Whitaker and Brad Bushman found that subjects exposed to shooting games (either with a control-pad or lightgun) were better at target shooting in the real world than control subjects who played a nonviolent game. In their conclusion, they write that “playing a violent first-person shooting game for only 20 min increased accuracy in shooting a realistic gun, especially at the head.”

By itself, this is not nearly enough to establish the thesis that games are murder simulators that train people to kill, but it is certainly suggestive. More research is warranted

Why is any of this important?

The controversy surrounding videogames and violence is important for all sorts of reasons, some of which aren’t immediately evident. For starters, it has obvious implications for legislation, both with regard to videogames and in other areas as well. If people are talking about violent videogames, then they’re not talking about something else, like gun control or mental health.

That’s why it’s so crucial to resolve questions like the ones posed by this article. When these debates are finally put to rest, we will be free to concentrate on more important things: on solving real problems and – hopefully – preventing future tragedies.