Do violent video games actually decrease violent behaviour?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

It’s currently Mental Health awareness Month, and with that in mind we wanted to take a moment to look at video game violence and the level of legitimacy behind it being linked to an increase in violent behaviour.

But before I take a deep-dive on the matter, the video by The Game Theorists ‘Do Violent Games Cause Violence? It’s Complicated’ is a particular good take on this topic matter. We’ve embedded.  it below and highly recommend that you give it a watch.

We’ve all heard someone in our world whether it be our mothers, a public figure, or some other form of authority in our lives utter the phrase “Playing violent video games makes you more violent”. Even if you don't agree with this statement, at face-value it sort of makes sense when you hear it right?

If you're constantly immersed in a violent setting and engaging in violent actions, it seems quite plausible that as a result you would start seeing the world through a more aggressive lens. This view point is referring to the term “Priming” which is concerned with the unconscious rewiring of the mind to have a subconscious association with an activity.

While priming is very much a real thing in certain cases, there are no substantial lab tests that can confirm a long-term connection between video game violence and violent acts in real life.

This scape goat thinking often occurs during times of moral panic, as older generations that don’t quite understand the platform often fall into a fear-induced categorisation and association between on-screen violence and real life violence. There needs to be a specific activity associated with violent acts to explain away why this things happen in the first place.

To illustrate this let's do a thought experiment. Imagine you wanted to see if playing sad video games led to depression, to test this you have participants play a sad video game and then afterwards you measure the level of sadness through questionnaires or maybe by observing the time spent smiling. You crunch the data and find that playing sad games makes you sad.

What would you then conclude? that this short-term effect eventually leads to depression? That's quite a big jump yet this is exactly what happens with many of the violent video game studies out there, in fact when you look at studies which try to measure the longer-term impact of violent games, the data shows weaker and more mixed results.

The point here is that you can bring up convincing evidence for both sides of the argument and this is a huge problem. It means that anyone can pick a side, produce a theory for why they're right and then cherry-pick a couple of studies. This is an interesting approach on the topic as it is clearly one of convenience. Steven Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter that committed the worst shooting in US history was 64 years old and did not fit the demographic for the violent games narrative so it simply never was brought up at the time.

Researching this subject matter is hard, partially because so many people play video games along with so many other variables in play during these studies that unless you can somewhat control all other contributing factors there’s no way to truly study the effects of violent games on the mind.

When laboratories study various violent video game titles, as well as the effect on same-day assaults, we find that violent crime decreases on days when violent games release new titles & updates. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation, as those that would otherwise be engaged in violent acts have chosen to substitute that time with a game as their outlet for such aggression.

The results emphasise that media exposure affects behaviour not only via content, but also because it changes time spent in alternative activities. Our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent games deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend (isn’t that wild). While our design does not allow us to estimate long-run effects, we find no evidence of medium-run effects up to three weeks after initial exposure.

While violence in video games has been present for some time, it wasn’t until the early 90s when it truly began to show up in mainstream video game titles across multiple platforms. This is when we began seeing games such as Mortal Kombat, GTA, and DOOM all first appear on the scene. Comparing the levels of video game consumption and the level of violent crimes should see an almost synchronised uptick from the 90s onward right? Actually, no.

Violent crime rates have plummeted from the early 90s and have continued to do so, seeing homicide rates from 1991 to 2016 decrease over 45%!

Personalities & Preferences

Like a lot of behavioural psychology the results aren't One-Size-Fits-all. Different players have different preferences and personalities, so instead of just asking whether people can be affected newer research is trying to understand who might be more affected.

Various studies have found that the angrier or more aggressive someone tends to be the more likely they are to show aggression after playing a violent game. Games psychologists have also tested for Moral disengagement in players, the feeling that moral standards don't apply in some situations, like it can be okay to steal sometimes because at least you're not committing acts of arson.

One study in 2014 for instance had people play either a violent grand theft auto game or a non-violent game like pinball or golf and then have them answer survey questions to measure their moral disengagement then participants did a short logic test to win raffle tickets for a prize and they scored the test themselves, so if they wanted to they could cheat. Lastly they were placed in a competitive reaction time game where they could blast a partner with a loud noise and after playing the violent video game the more moral disengagement someone reported the more aggressive behaviours in cheating they showed.

I will say that GTA is basically a game that, like, its entire worldview is moral disengagement, so it's not just the violence it's got a perspective.

Self-Determination Theory

Another line of research uses Self-Determination theory to understand people's motivations while they play game. This theory states that people have three innate psychological needs; competence or feeling capable, autonomy or feeling in control and Relatedness or feeling connected to others, all of which fall under the PERMA model that Gamify subscribes to when creating marketing game campaigns. You can experience all these things while playing video games but without them, researchers think games can cause negative things like aggression.

When a series of experiments in 2014 focused on competence they made games more or less difficult by making the controls easy or hard to use or by changing the challenge level of the game itself and when the participants felt like a bad player they showed more aggressive feelings thoughts and behaviours whether the game was violent or not didn't even matter.

I mean, there's a whole genre of YouTube videos of this and this could also explain why some research has found a difference between hardcore and casual gamers. A 2015 study for instance found that more skilled players showed fewer aggressive thoughts after playing a violent game made from like a modded version of Skyrim, the researchers thought more experienced gamers might be more likely in the zone while playing, focusing on the actions as a means to an end instead of on the violence of it all. But players with less skill could have just been more frustrated by the game and any difference in aggression could be chalked up to frustration not the violence which could be a flaw in those kinds of games.

Now what you do in video games might also matter when experiments in 2010 controlled the narrative of a violent game people played as U.N. soldiers trying to free tortured prisoners or played as the forces trying to stop the U.N. soldiers. Those who played with Justified violence, since freeing prisoners seems like the right thing to do, showed less guilt and fewer negative emotions afterward and a 2015 experiment had similar results, they found that when people played as the hero rather than the antihero they showed less aggression afterwards. So psychologists can't exactly say what effect a game like Grand Theft Auto might have on you personally because new studies seem to show the differences in gamers and the games.


Full disclosure, we at Gamify may be biased on the topic up for discussion, as we not only love games but see the benefits that come with playing games regularly. That being said, we can’t help but see the unsubstantiated claims stacked up against violent video games and their supposed link to real life violence.

During Mental Health Awareness month, we strongly encourage those that are going through troubling times to be in communication with trusted loved ones and professionals about the matter/s. Video games can be a good escape from the stresses of life, yet they do not contribute towards resolving any of the problems you may be facing.

For those that are looking for answers as to who is to blame for acts of violence, instead of looking for a scape goat maybe we need to be playing more of an active role in asking those in our world how’re they’re doing.

Food for thought. Look out for each other.

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