Are violent video games bad?
April 18, 2010 11:44 PM   Subscribe

Is playing violent video games going to adversely affect my mental health? (looking mostly for links to good scientific studies)

I'm a relatively sane 23 year old male. I have no violent tendencies, and like all sorts of sports and games. I've been playing multiplayer Call Of Duty lately. My girlfriend has questioned what it will do to my brain.

Obviously, I have heard a lot of people say violent video games cause violence. But, I have also read that this is a myth.

I don't mind reading science papers, but don't really care about anecdotal evidence.

posted by notnathan to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Jury's still out, I think, but here's a Washington Post article from last month summing up a recent study and the objections to it.

Anecdotally, all violent video games do to Mr. F is make him invent entirely too creative new obscenities.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:51 PM on April 18, 2010

Wikipedia has a good page On video games and violence. There are heaps of references there that you should be able to find if you have pubmed access. Cochrane doesn't seem to have anything on it.
posted by sien at 12:11 AM on April 19, 2010

I have not (yet) read this book, but it does have a section on violence in popular culture and it's psychological impact.

On preview of the Wiki page, this author & his works are mentioned in a paragraph.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:25 AM on April 19, 2010

Penn & Teller have an episode of Bullshit! on video game violence. What it boiled down to was that the idea that violent video games make people violent, was, well, bullshit.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 1:52 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Penn & Teller have an episode of Bullshit! on video game violence. What it boiled down to was that the idea that violent video games make people violent, was, well, bullshit.
Given that Penn and Teller also think global warming is bullshit, I would take that with a few tons of salt.


One thing that the studies do show is that shortly after playing a violent video game, aggression is higher then it otherwise would be. When I was in school I worked in at a Virtual Reality lab and helped out on an experiment, one of the interesting things they said was that it was very important that the subjects be moved from playing the game to aggression testing quickly because actually the effect was short lived. If people waited to long, the measurable effect would be gone.

(In the study they measured aggression in two ways, one was playing another game where you got to 'punish' another player with a loud sound, and more agressive people will punish harder. Another was a word game where they would show you a word like p__ch and have you fill in the blank. More aggressive people would be more likely to fill it out like 'punch' rather then 'pouch', so you're basically measuring how violent their 'mindset' is. Pretty interesting)


But anyway, I think a lot of the hysterics are being disingenuous by taking this temporary increase in aggression and spinning it as though it produces a long term increase in not just aggressive feelings but actual violent tendencies, which I have never heard specifically. But I don't really care that much. I think it's extreemly unlikely to have any noticeable effect on you personally.
posted by delmoi at 3:12 AM on April 19, 2010

The most recent relevant references on Pubmed listed below. Unfortunately, you won't be able to read the papers/comments unless you want to pay, or have access at a University. But you should be able to get the gist from the abstracts.

I think the second to last line in the last abstract summarises the issue pretty well:
Despite a number of methodological flaws that all appear likely to inflate effect size estimates, the final estimate of r = .15 is still indicative of only weak effects.

Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review.
Anderson et al. 2010
Meta-analytic procedures were used to test the effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, empathy/desensitization, and prosocial behavior. Unique features of this meta-analytic review include (a) more restrictive methodological quality inclusion criteria than in past meta-analyses; (b) cross-cultural comparisons; (c) longitudinal studies for all outcomes except physiological arousal; (d) conservative statistical controls; (e) multiple moderator analyses; and (f) sensitivity analyses. Social-cognitive models and cultural differences between Japan and Western countries were used to generate theory-based predictions. Meta-analyses yielded significant effects for all 6 outcome variables. The pattern of results for different outcomes and research designs (experimental, cross-sectional, longitudinal) fit theoretical predictions well. The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior. Moderator analyses revealed significant research design effects, weak evidence of cultural differences in susceptibility and type of measurement effects, and no evidence of sex differences in susceptibility. Results of various sensitivity analyses revealed these effects to be robust, with little evidence of selection (publication) bias.

Nailing the coffin shut on doubts that violent video games stimulate aggression: comment on Anderson et al. (2010).
Over the past half century the mass media, including video games, have become important socializers of children. Observational learning theory has evolved into social-cognitive information processing models that explain that what a child observes in any venue has both short-term and long-term influences on the child's behaviors and cognitions. C. A. Anderson et al.'s (2010) extensive meta-analysis of the effects of violent video games confirms what these theories predict and what prior research about other violent mass media has found: that violent video games stimulate aggression in the players in the short run and increase the risk for aggressive behaviors by the players later in life. The effects occur for males and females and for children growing up in Eastern or Western cultures. The effects are strongest for the best studies. Contrary to some critics' assertions, the meta-analysis of C. A. Anderson et al. is methodologically sound and comprehensive. Yet the results of meta-analyses are unlikely to change the critics' views or the public's perception that the issue is undecided because some studies have yielded null effects, because many people are concerned that the implications of the research threaten freedom of expression, and because many people have their identities or self-interests closely tied to violent video games.

Much ado about nothing: the misestimation and overinterpretation of violent video game effects in eastern and western nations: comment on Anderson et al. (2010).

The issue of violent video game influences on youth violence and aggression remains intensely debated in the scholarly literature and among the general public. Several recent meta-analyses, examining outcome measures most closely related to serious aggressive acts, found little evidence for a relationship between violent video games and aggression or violence. In a new meta-analysis, C. A. Anderson et al. (2010) questioned these findings. However, their analysis has several methodological issues that limit the interpretability of their results. In their analysis, C. A. Anderson et al. included many studies that do not relate well to serious aggression, an apparently biased sample of unpublished studies, and a "best practices" analysis that appears unreliable and does not consider the impact of unstandardized aggression measures on the inflation of effect size estimates. They also focused on bivariate correlations rather than better controlled estimates of effects. Despite a number of methodological flaws that all appear likely to inflate effect size estimates, the final estimate of r = .15 is still indicative of only weak effects. Contrasts between the claims of C. A. Anderson et al. (2010) and real-world data on youth violence are discussed.

posted by kisch mokusch at 4:03 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know you mentioned that you don't care about ancedotal evidence, but I'm going to share mine because it might give you another avenue for research. I think that a lot of the focus on violent video games is the concern that young people will then exhibit these so called violent tendancies. In other words, the concern is obviously mostly on the physical results, ie what will people do more aggressively because of these video games.

I would posit that you, like many people, are thinking that I'm not more likely to murder someone just because I play Call of Duty. I don't think personally I would be more likely to murder someone, fight with my spouse, drive aggressively, etc. because of playing these games. However, I have found that after playing some video games, GTA being one of them that I can visualize killing people, running them down, their head in the gun scope. Of course I could have visualized this before, but the mental pictures where not quite so close to the surface. After playing those kind of games, those mental pictures are the kind of thing that would arise unbidden to my mind when I was not playing the game. I find this adversely affects my mental health, but it might not bother you. Or maybe you are just used to looking at pedestrians in this light.

Perhaps someone can find a scientific study on that aspect of video games as I would be interested in it as well.
posted by aetg at 4:12 AM on April 19, 2010

It is interesting to me how video games, rap music, violent films, etc. come under this criticism, but not stuff like, say, football. No one questions the psychological impact of a sport where the crowd cheers when you run full speed and slam into other people as hard as you can, where people are often injured (and sometimes even killed) by these impacts? Where players are selected specifically for their size and aggression, and where that aggression sometimes gets dangerously amplified by steroid abuse?

It just seems funny to me that for whatever reason no one seems to care that football rewards the most aggressive, violent players, has killed well over 1,000 people, permanently disabled and injured thousands more... but video games are a bigger concern.

Sorry for the derail, but I have often had to break up physical fights between college football players, but never a brawl between guys after a round of GTA...
posted by Menthol at 4:57 AM on April 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

The jury's still out, except for the fact that every study conducted worth it's salt shows that no, they won't make you violent. Unless you have mental health issues, hidden or not, it is incredibly unlikely to have any effect.

On the anecdotal front - I've been playing video games since before I could talk, including all the GTA games obsessively, early CoD and other wargames, and I'm no less a short-tempered pacifist than I've always been. It baffles me that people are so concerned by this issue, since my friends and I don't seem to have had any adverse effects from playing these 'murder-simulators' (groan).
posted by opsin at 5:28 AM on April 19, 2010

"It just seems funny to me that for whatever reason no one seems to care that football rewards the most aggressive, violent players, has killed well over 1,000 people, permanently disabled and injured thousands more... but video games are a bigger concern."

Good point. We should probably wait until guns have killed that many before we start to worry about it.

This is an interesting question, but I think most people can agree that playing COD isn't going to turn you into a mass-murderer overnight. So, even if it does have some effects, they are likely going to take place gradually. So, then, on an individual level (especially for adults), we should probably be more concerned with our actual behavior. The question, as posed, makes me wonder if your girlfriend wasn't hinting at something.

Are you sure she's not trying to broach an awkward topic more obliquely?
posted by toomuchpete at 6:22 AM on April 19, 2010

There are a few incidents of video games leading directly to violence.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:32 AM on April 19, 2010

The biggest proponent (with credentials) of the theory that violent media leads to aggression is Craig Anderson from Iowa State. Searching for his research should give you plenty to look at, both with his work and the work of people that disagree with him.

You have hit on a very hot topic in the world of social psychology and you won't find any clear cut answers as of yet. Anderson has done a lot of correlational research with findings that suggest there is a very high correlation between violent media consumption and aggression. His opponents are quick to point out correlation NEVER equals causation, that some of his methodology can be questioned, and that the link is very weak.

I had a chance to listen to Anderson present at a colloquium as an undergrad. His research was certainly interesting and suggestive although I didn't find it conclusive.

If I may offer an opinion? The research does suggest there might be a correlation between aggression and violent media consumption, so we should remain cognizant of that fact. If you are responsible for small children and they are exposed to violent media it is important to point out the differences between games (or movies and TV for that matter) and real life. However that doesn't mean you shouldn't play games yourself. That doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy games yourself. What it means is make sure you understand the difference between a game and reality. I don't think this is hard for the average person to accomplish.
posted by Silvertree at 6:49 AM on April 19, 2010

I recall reading a study -- and I don't have the reference, sorry -- that first-person shooters make people more willing to shoot other people. In WWI and WWII, they had a big problem with soldiers unwilling to shoot other humans; over time target practice (with cops, say) evolved from targets, to human-shaped targets, to sometimes realistic-looking human targets. Cops and soldiers were more willing to shoot actual humans if they practiced on more realistic targets; there's a mental hump to get over before most people can fire at another human. Trainers are now finding that recruits who grow up playing realistic FPS games don't have trouble getting over the mental hump ... they've been "training" for it for years.

(Which isn't saying it makes them more trigger-happy, but that they find it easier to fire at other people than recruits in the past who didn't have that "training" experience with video games.)

Whether you think that's a good or bad thing would be an open question.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2010

I'm skeptical of that, Eyebrows, for the reason that shooting a person in real life is nothing like clicking on them in an FPS.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:06 AM on April 19, 2010

The study was about looking at a human as a target, and the psychological hump of that. Not about the mechanics of shooting/clicking/whatever. I ran across it not because of video games, but relating to a study of "cowardice" and punishment for cowardice in military service over time, and how changing training methods in the military resulted in soldiers more willing to fire at enemy soldiers. Only incidental to that was the observation by training sergeants that the newest recruits who grew up playing realistic FPS games didn't have the same issues as recruits 20 years ago, and that the military (which has been an enthusiastic adopter of video "games" for scenarios ranging from cultural sensitivity training to combat and tactics) has been considering how to incorporate that information into training.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:32 AM on April 19, 2010

I play violent video games. I've heard lots of times that violent video games desensitize people to violence. I find this completely untrue. I was saw someone I didn't know die in a car accident. I found myself very upset and was bothered by it for months. This is just my anecdotal evidence. I've never felt more aggressive after playing violent video games nor do those games seem to have desensitized me to violence.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:53 PM on April 19, 2010

Not a research itself, but a very interesting related article
Why Video Game Research is Flawed
posted by CarolynG at 7:31 PM on April 19, 2010

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