Shoot to kill: The real impact of violent video games


Art Bamford Image Art Bamford | Jul 28, 2014

Photo by pawpaw67.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.

This is the second of two posts in which we’re tackling a pair of questions that often arise in families when it comes to video games:

  1. How can parents get their kids to stop playing games so much and do something more “social?”
  2. Are violent video games as bad as they seem in the media?

Throughout this series so far, we have sought to offer a more balanced approach than so much of what circulates in the media about digital technology and young people. In that same vein, we began researching violent video games thinking they were pretty harmless, eager to find proof that would help alleviate a lot of parental anxiety. However, the more we dug into the research, the more we became convinced that the genre of games known as “first-person shooters” are indeed capable of producing negative effects on young people.[[“First-person shooters” are games in which the player views the action through the eyes of a protagonist whose primary task is to shoot various other characters while moving through the levels of the game.]]

In the previous post on video games we looked at the amount of time young people spend playing games, and the question of playing with family and friends as part of hanging out, versus playing recreationally. Where, how, and for how long a young person plays games are ultimately the most important considerations for parents and leaders. Gamers who play in public parts of the house with subtle but consistent parental supervision, for limited amounts of time, typically rate substantially lower on all the various negative effects researchers have investigated, regardless of the game content.

So how bad are violent games?

There is still a lot of disagreement among scholars as to just how much of an effect violent games have on players, partly because faster processors have made these games much more realistic in recent years. While ongoing research needs to be conducted, there is now enough evidence to comfortably say that playing first-person shooters can be a hindrance to the formation and wellbeing of today’s young people.

Researchers Lavinia McLean and Mark Griffiths published an article in 2013 titled “The psychological effects of videogames on young people: A review” in which the authors catalog and review all the existing data on the subject up to that point. Here is how they conclude their analysis:

“[One] cannot ignore the comprehensive reviews that indicate violent game play has a significant effect on aggressive behavior, affect, cognition and empathy across work conducted with over 130,000 participants…the effects have consistently been reported as significant findings with various age groups and in a number of different cultural settings.”[[McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The Psychological Effects of Video Games on Young People. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l'Educació i de l'Esport, 31(1).]]

In just one of the studies McLean and Griffiths reviewed, there is a pretty clear example of the desensitizing nature of these games. A 2009 study was conducted in which undergraduate students were asked to play violent or non-violent games for several hours. While they were playing, the researchers simulated a Good Samaritan scenario: there was a fight just a few feet from where the game players were seated in which one person assaulted the other then ran away, leaving the victim in need of assistance. The students who were playing violent games took 450% longer to respond to the person in need than those playing the non-violent games.

To be very clear, research does not condemn all action-adventure games. Many games carry a “Mature” rating, intended to be played by adults over 18 years old (who may be less affected by them). But in the case of first-person shooter games, particularly those with lifelike, photo-realistic graphics,[[Photorealistic graphics and a more realistic in-game environment have been shown to cause players to identify more strongly with their avatars, which heightens the effects described above.]] we need to be aware of their potential harm on children and teenagers. Young people might enjoy these games, but there are other equally enjoyable games on the market that are less likely to increase aggression or diminish empathy towards others.

Finally, it is important to address the claim we hear in the media that video games are a major cause or inspiration for many of the teen perpetrators of mass shootings. That claim has found very little support from social-scientific and psychological research, even among scholars who argue that games do produce negative effects.[[Strasburger, V. C., & Donnerstein, E. (2014). The New Media of Violent Video Games Yet Same Old Media Problems?. Clinical pediatrics, 53(8), 721-725.]] The perpetrators involved in those shootings exhibited substantial unrelated psychological pathologies and were entangled in other circumstantial factors that contributed to the tragedy. The appeal of violent games is that they give a sense of power and control to individuals who feel they lack those things in their real lives. The affinity for violent video games that school shooters have shared in common seems to have been a symptom, not a cause.

What can we do about violent video games?

First, parents and leaders should learn and follow the ratings provided by videogame manufacturers, similar to the MPAA film rating system. The ratings are outlined in the image below, or you can click here for more in-depth descriptions.

Take note of the list of “Descriptors” as well—each game specifies why it falls under the given rating category. The first-person shooters described above will likely contain the descriptors “violence” or “intense violence” (as opposed to “fantasy violence” or “violent references”) in their rating. The phrase “first person shooter” will likely also be included somewhere on the package since this has become a popular genre. Retail stores are required by law to ask for ID from anyone attempting to purchase a rated ‘M’ game, and larger rental subscription services, like GameFly, allow parents to determine the rating-levels that their kids may rent.

On the positive side, access is a huge factor in curbing the potential negative effects of games. Research indicates that teens are not going to any great lengths to play games behind their parents’ backs—they are just playing the games they have available. A number of teens interviewed by researchers said they had received games intended for a mature audience from older family members as gifts on birthdays and holidays. Parents can help teens steer clear of potentially problematic games by purchasing others instead, and by encouraging friends and relatives who give games as gifts to do the same.

Concluding Thoughts from the Author

As I said at the beginning of this post, I was surprised by what I found on this topic. First, as someone who has studied and conducted research on media effects I was impressed by how consistently studies found substantial effects—such effects are not typically found with other media, especially screen media like televisions or computers. Second, I was shocked because, like a lot of adults who grew up playing Mario Kart and Street Fighter, I assumed that games were nothing but harmless fun. While reviewing this research, I cringed knowing that I have bought games for my own nephews without consulting the rating, even though I would never in a million years take them to a PG-13 or R rated film underage.

To be clear, the effects described above won’t appear all at once if your kids play for an hour at a friend’s house. But I do want to urge Christian parents and leaders to stop and think about whether you want to allow first-person shooter games into your home or church. Many Christians may be weary of hearing condemnations of media like this, especially after having heard similar warnings about everything from comic books to MTV to Harry Potter over the years. But research on violent games makes a compelling case that they produce pronounced negative effects on young people—and that case should be considered.

My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance
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Art Bamford Image
Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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