Do Violent Video Games Make People Violent or Aggressive?

Here's what science says, once and for all.
Christopher McFadden

Intuitively, one would think that watching violence would desensitize individuals to it, making them more apt to act out in aggressive ways and mimic the things they've seen. And many people do make that assumption.

Over the years, computer games have been blamed for inciting (or at least, encouraging) a variety of crimes, illegal activities, and anti-social behavior. But do such claims have any real support? Do video games actually cause violence? 

Do video games cause violence? 

This is a debate that has been raging back and forth for decades, and numerous scientific studies have been conducted in an attempt to find a clear link. However, despite all of this work, the controversy over whether the shoot-‘em-up world transfers to real life persists. 

It doesn't have to, though. Although science is rarely ever truly settled, at this point, we have enough information to make a few (relatively) conclusive statements.

But before we dive into the topic, it's important to acknowledge the ways that video games are erroneously singled out as being somehow different from other cultural artifacts, like books or movies. 

It's true that video games do tend to have more violence than other types of media. Many computer games include some form of violence, graphic content, or other behavior that would be considered socially unacceptable in the real world. However, it's important to note that, if we exclude games primarily designed for education, video titles haven't been shown to have a different influence on us. In this sense, regardless of whether or not they tend to include more violence, they should not be considered different from films, books, or any other media that includes violence. 

most destructive games are games violent
Source: christianladewig0/Pixabay

What science says about violence in video games

As mentioned, multitudes of studies have been conducted on this subject. The results and conclusions are, admittedly, mixed. However, the general consensus is that there is a very weak correlation between violence in video games and violence in real life. It's so weak, that most scientists assert that violence in video games does not translate to violence in real life. 

According to a policy statement from the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association, there is no clear link. The statement reads in part, "Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities."

That said, younger children do seem to be more influenced by things like computer games than teenagers or adults. But the impact is not large enough to assert that video games are, or should be, a concern. In fact, the Supreme Court has even rejected the idea. When they struck down a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children in 2011, the court thoroughly disputed the evidence California managed to muster in support of its law.

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Writing the majority opinion, Antonin Scalia noted that the evidence was entirely lacking. "These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively,” he said, adding, “They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game."

And what we see in the real world supports this view. If video games did actually cause violence and shootings, then one would expect these events to be common in Japan or South Korea. Each spends more per capita on video games than the United States. Yet, they have some of the lowest rates of crime in the world.

How does media influence people? 

Although science indicates that violent media doesn't cause people to go out and commit violence, it is important to note that our thoughts, beliefs, and actions don't come from a vacuum. They are the result of all of our experiences, interactions, and influences — whether that be through reading opinion pieces on news sites, listening to podcasts by scientific experts, a real-life conversation, or through the consumption of books, films, social media posts, and other forms of media we interact with on a regular basis. 

In this sense, saying that video games don't have an impact on us at all is the same as saying that Eddie Adams Vietnam War photo, which is known as “The Photograph That Ended a War But Ruined a Life,” didn’t help galvanize the antiwar movement in the United States (it did). 

So video games do contribute to our ideas and values, but they are just a very small part of the totality of our experience. 

Ultimately, science indicates that antisocial behavior is likely more a consequence of each individual's personal preference, whether innate or learned. And in this sense, blaming certain media, like computer games, for someone's real-life actions may be a matter of "putting the cart before the horse". 

If, for example, someone already possesses a predilection for violence, it is more likely that they would also be drawn to excessively violent content for entertainment, rather than the other way around. And notably, they would likely still be violent even if a particular game did not exist. 

In the majority of cases, consumers of media (like computer games) can readily distinguish fact from fiction and are able to self-reflect and self-regulate their behavior to fit social norms. This is, after all, part of the very foundation of our psyches as social animals

affects of computer games on the brain
Source: gorodenkoff/iStock

However, it is important to note that, like anything in life, playing computer games should be done in moderation. Excessive gaming can lead to some very serious mental and physical problems, and it's even considered an addiction 

But not being able to moderate how much you play is very different from mimicking a video game in real life or having your perspective and worldview changed by a video game. 

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