Violent Video Games Linked to Aggressive Behavior

From the WebMD Archives

April 24, 2000 -- The one-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting has come and gone, reopening old wounds and revisiting unanswered questions. The unthinkable remains unexplainable: What could have caused two seemingly average kids to go on such a rampage?

Some of the blame has fallen on violent video games, which the two Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, played religiously. But are these games actually part of the problem, or just an easy target?

Two new studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology add some scientific weight to the claim that violent video games can increase aggression.

"These two studies, plus other research on video game violence ? all point in the same direction," researcher Craig A. Anderson, PhD, from Iowa State University, tells WebMD. "It's a direction that's not unexpected, because the effects of playing violent video games look to be very similar to the effects of lots of exposure to violent TV. Basically, kids who play a lot of violent video games are at risk for becoming more violent people."

Still, other researchers say much more study is needed before one can say definitively that violent video games can lead to aggression. And representatives of the video-game industry say findings of these studies don't always correlate to real life.

Anderson collaborated with Karen E. Dill, PhD, from Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C., on the two recent studies. He was with the University of Missouri-Columbia at the time.

The first study surveyed more than 200 college students about their traits of aggressiveness and any delinquent behavior in the near past, in relation to the kinds of video games they played and how often they played them.

Ultimately, those who had played more violent video games as teenagers reported engaging in more aggressive behavior. Men exhibited more aggression, and men who are more prone to exhibit aggressive behavior may be even more vulnerable to violent video games, the study found.

The researchers also found that the more time a student had spent playing video games in the past, the lower his or her college grades were likely to be.

The second study was designed to show a more short-term relationship between aggression and video violence. More than 200 college students played either a violent or nonviolent video game (Wolfenstein 3D or Myst, respectively). The games have similar difficulty levels, so frustration could be ruled out as one cause of aggression. The students played the games three times, in two separate sessions, about a week apart.

After the students played the video games for a third time, they played another game in which they had to set up a blast of noise that their opponents would hear if they lost. Those who had played the violent video game set the noise blast to last longer than the others, which the researchers interpreted as being more aggressive. Women displayed higher levels of hostility and aggression than did the men.

"We now know for a fact that playing a violent video game for even a short period of time increases aggressive behavior in the short term," says Anderson, who recently testified before the U.S. Senate on the impact of "interactive" violence on children.

Leaving aside extreme examples like the Littleton shooting, Anderson says that the way people learn to react to conflict can show up in day-to-day life. "I think the message I'd like to give the average parent is that when kids -- adults as well -- play violent video games, it makes them at least temporarily think about the world in more aggressive terms," Anderson tells WebMD.

Anderson's colleague, Dill, tells WebMD that video games can affect behavior because they require participation. "Video games offer direct rewards for acts of violence," Dill says. "Thus the player learns that violence is the desired response to conflict situations."

Anderson and Dill "have executed the best study of video game violence to date," says David A. Walsh, PhD, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family. At the same time, he says, more studies need to be done before we can claim there is a cause-and-effect relationship between video game violence and real-life aggression.

John Sherry, PhD, an assistant professor of communication at Purdue University in Illinois, agrees. He analyzed the research on video game violence while he was a doctoral student, which then included about 20 studies, and says he found an "equivalent effect to what we get with television." But, he says, the lack of long-term studies and these studies' failure to account for individual differences means there is still no definitive answer.

Sherry that even if violent video games gave Klebold and Harris ideas about carrying out their rampage, they would have probably committed some type of violent act regardless of whether they had ever played these games.

"Think of what it would have taken to do what they did. For most people it's unfathomable, so I don't think video games got them there," Sherry tells WebMD. "So I think some people can play video games and it's a fun pastime ? and some people are going to become more aggressive, so we really need to sort out what types of people have what types of reactions."

Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software, the company that made Wolfenstein 3D, calls the idea that violent video games are dangerous "a popular myth." He cites an Australian government report that reviewed research on video games up to 1999 and "failed to find evidence of strong links between play and behavior, or play and self-concept."

Similarly, Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), says of the second study by Anderson and Dill, "how long you blow a horn, I would submit to you, is a far cry from concluding that that same person leaving a laboratory is likely to commit a physical, violent act in the real world."

Lowenstein points out that most games are bought by adults and says so-called "shooter games" make up just 3% of games sold. Further, he says, some research shows some games may be more "cathartic" than harmful. He also notes that there is a clearly worded rating system for video games, which can help parents control what their children see.

Dill, who says she has personally spent "hours" involved in video games, is not down on the concept, just the violence. "There are some good video games that try to teach pro-social behaviors," she says. "Video games themselves just seem to be incredibly engaging. ? I think it's just like any medium; television can be wonderful or horrible, and so can video games."

Vital Information:

  • Two new studies show that playing violent video games may contribute to aggressive behavior, similar to the effect of watching violent television.
  • Those who reported playing violent video games as a teenager were more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, and the more time they spent playing the games, the lower their college grades were.
  • Observers say it's still too early to say for sure what the effects of video violence might be. Industry representatives say the study findings don't always translate to the real world