“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society — this includes the gruesome and grizzly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy for our youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
While this quote may sound like early 1990s America, it was a quote we all heard American President Donald Trump make in 2019 in response to the horrific tragedies that took place in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. These events took the lives of at least 29 innocent people on August 3rd and 4th respectively. Mass shootings are becoming disturbingly commonplace in the United States — 340 were recorded just last year — and the blame has been pushed from gun control to mental health awareness to race relations to hate crimes. It seems, however, the blame has shifted once again and this time, it’s targeted at violent video games.
With a surface level analysis, this makes sense; violent video games give individuals direct control over characters capable of committing horrible acts of violence. Take Grand Theft Auto (a staple in the center of the “effects of video games” discussion) as an example. In multiple iterations of the franchise, you have the ability to steal a car, murder the driver, pick up a prostitute, pay her to have intercourse with you, murder the prostitute, and steal your money back. From start to finish, every act committed in that scenario is heinous, cited for many years as the go-to framework in this debate, and is executed by your character with little to no moral repercussions. It would seem that most individuals, especially children, would be impacted by committing these acts, possibly giving them inspiration for dolling out this same treatment in the real world. So, do video games actually cause real world violence? There seems to be three answers to that question: “No,” “No and,” and “No but.”
Starting with “no” is relatively easy. The fact is that there have been no studies conducted that show that video games, regardless of the content, make people more physically violent. An excellent paper penned by Patrick M. Markey, Charlotte Markey, and Juliana E French published in 2014 explains that there is no evidence correlating the rise in violent crimes and the purchasing of video games. The study compared analytical data to the release of violent video games (such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto 4) and the rise and fall of violent crimes. They concluded that there is a negligible to non-existent correlation between the two. In the case of Grand Theft Auto 4, there was actually a sharp decrease in violent crime four months after the game had been released. The study went as far as analyzing the data of crimes subsequent to when the game guides were being looked up on websites like Google and Gamefaqs, and had the same finding; the best selling, most violent video games at the time had no effect on violent crime. It is worth it to mention that these studies simply find correlation, and warn readers to the potential of “correlation bias” (essentially seeing correlation as causation and thus taking it as fact.) This does not definitively prove there is absolutely no connection between video games and violence, just that there is no established correlation between the two.
Next up is “no and.” Do video games cause real world violence? No, and they’ve actually been proven to relieve stress and calm down individuals. Relaxing games, such as adventure game Journey or the swimming simulator Endless Oceans not only relax players and calm them down, but leave them in a better mood than prior to playing. This caused them to be more likely to help people — even with mundane tasks — and be generally kinder. While the former trait seems to be more linked to relaxing games, even gamers who are subjected to highly violent video games such as survival horror game Resident Evil report being in a better mood after playing. A 2010 study at Texas A&M conducted by Associate Professor Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson shows that adults that regularly play single player violent video games handle stressful situations better, as well as show fewer symptoms of depression and hostility after the situation has been dealt with. Ferguson explains the existence of this phenomenon through “mood management.” In other words, you are able to get most of your aggressive feelings and behaviors out in the virtual world, which makes you better equipped with dealing with stress in the real one. Ferguson warns, just as the previous study, that these are only correlations and more research is needed, although he states his findings are promising.
Lastly, “no, but.” Are video games causing individuals to go out into the world and inflict lasting violence? No, but those who play violent video games show an increase in minor aggressive behavior over those who don’t. A study done in the University of Missouri aptly named This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure ran a series of tests trying to show a correlation between violent video games and desensitization, as well as an increase in aggressive tendencies. The brain waves of players who habitually partook in violent video games showed these players were desensitized when violence was on screen in front of them while playing Grand Theft Auto. While this may be considered disturbing to some, it isn’t proof of an increase in aggressive behavior. Another phase of the test, however, allowed two players to compete with each other, and gave the winner of the game the ability to send a measured blast of noise into the ear of their opponent. The study showed that violent video game players tended to send louder noise blasts to their opponents than non-violent game players. Researchers commented on how this is an example of increased aggression, although it does not prove to be the reason of the increase in violent crime over the last few decades.
Are video games truly the reason the odious, wicked, and downright evil acts of violence against society have been happening so regularly in the United States? Research generally points to no, and if you talk to anyone who considers themselves a video game enthusiast, this comes as no surprise. While the papers cited are a water droplet in a sea of research, parents, if you are reading this and are concerned about the video game content your child is consuming, it is highly recommended you become familiar with the ESRB rating system, as well as the parental controls on whatever console your child is playing on, and take an active role in monitoring what they can and can’t play. As for the rest of us, the United States has a serious problem discussing what the root cause of all this abhorrent, violent behavior is, but years of studies and analytics show that video games — for better or worse — probably aren’t the reason for it.
If you wish to help the victims of either of these tragedies, you can donate to the Dayton Foundation here, as well as the El Paso Community Foundation here. If you are in the Dayton area, and are able to give blood, you can set up an appointment here.