By Dr. Brent Conrad
Clinical Psychologist for TechAddiction
What are the effects of violent video games on children?
It is commonly assumed that video games cause violence. But, what do video game violence studies say about this? Are teenagers and adults affected by violence in video games? What can we say about how violent video games effect children in the real world?
Although research on the effects of media violence has been conducted for over 40 years, the first serious studies on the effects of violent video games on children only appeared in the 1980s.
Today we finally know the exact effects of violent video games on children, teens, and adults...
Well, actually, we don't.
Despite three decades of research on the effects of violent video and computer games on children, there seems to be as much confusion as ever. Do video games lead to increased aggression and violence? Do video games cause violence, or… do those already with a propensity for violence choose to play games with aggressive themes?
Whether you argue that playing violent video games increases the risk of violence, or that these games do not increase the likelihood of later aggression, you can probably find several studies to support your argument.
Summarized below is a comprehensive list of published studies essentially asking the same question - what are the effects of violent video games? In contrast to most of the articles you may find on this topic, the goal is to simply present the research and let readers come to their own conclusions. There is no agenda here - just a review of what published research has concluded about the effects of violent computer games on children, teens, and adults.
Opinion articles, unpublished dissertations, and theoretical papers with no accompanying research are not included in this list - just journal-published, peer-reviewed, scientific research on the effects of violent video games.
An important note: The findings are summarized in web-friendly snippets. For the complete story make sure to hunt down and read the full articles.
Studies finding harmful effects of violent video games are coded in Red.
Studies finding no effects of violent video games are coded in Green.
Studies with inconclusive or mixed results on violent video games and children are coded in Orange.
Note: You can jump to the end of article for a quick summary on the effects of violent video games.
Effects of Violent Video Games on Children: A Comprehensive Research List
1) An examination of psychoticism and motion capture controls as moderators of the effects of violent video games. Markey et al. (2009).
Conclusion: Individuals with elevated levels of psychotocism responded to violent video games with an increase in self-reported aggression and hostility.
2) Exposure to violent video games and aggression in German adolescents: A longitudinal analysis. Moller et al. (2009).
Conclusion: Longitudinal study finding that exposure to video game violence predicted physical (but not relational) aggression 30 months later.
3) Violent video games put teens at risk. Kalning (2009).
Conclusion: Brain scans reveal "negative effects of violent video games" with teens.
4) Violent video games have not been proven to harm teens. Radford (2009).
Conclusion: Studies arguing that playing violent video games has a negative effect on children are generally lacking in scientific validity.
5) Experimental study of the differential effects of playing versus watching violent video games on children's aggressive behavior. Polman et al (2008).
Conclusion: Actively playing violent video games (as compared to passively watching the same games) leads to an increased perception of aggressiveness in boys. The effect did not hold true for girls.
6) Violent video games and aggression: Causal relationship or byproduct of family violence and intrinsic violence motivation? Ferguson et al. (2008).
Conclusion: Trait aggression, family violence, and male gender were predictive of violent crime, but exposure to violent games was not.
7) Hostile and hardened? An experimental study on (de-)sensitization to violence and suffering through playing video games. Staude-Müller et al. (2008).
Conclusion: Self-reported emotional responses to aggressive pictures were not affected by playing violent video games. Physiological responses (skin conductance) suggested sensitization to aggressive cues.
8) Gender, video game playing habits and visual memory tasks. Ferguson et al. (2008).
Conclusion: Playing violent video games is associated with higher visual memory recall.
9) The role of violent video game content in adolescent development: Boys' perspectives. Olson et al (2008).
Conclusion: Boys aged 12-14 did not believe that they experienced any negative effects of violent video games, but believed that younger children might imitate violent games. They did not believe that video games cause violence.
10) The school shooting/violent video game link: Casual relationship or moral panic? Ferguson et al. (2008).
Conclusion: No significant effects of violent video games and school shooting incidents have been demonstrated in the existing scientific literature. Authors did not believe that violent video game cause violence in the real world.
11) Violent video games and anger as predictors of aggression. Giumetti et al. (2007).
Conclusion: Angry people are more likely to show negative effects of violent video games.
12) The good, the bad and the ugly: A meta-analytic review of positive and negative effects of violent video games. Ferguson et al. (2007).
Conclusion: Once corrected for publication bias, studies of video game violence provide no support for the hypothesis that playing violent video games is associated with higher aggression. Playing violent video games is associated with higher visuospatial cognition. Violent video games do not seem to actually cause violence in players.
13) Are violent video games harmful? Porter et al. (2007).
Conclusion: Aggressive behavior may be the result of playing violent video games, the expression of traits that were present before playing violent video games, or it may be a result of several possible combinations of these and other factors. The effects of violent video games and whether video games cause violence in the real world are unclear.
14) The effect of playing violent video games on adolescents: Should parents be quaking in their boots? Unsworth et al. (2007).
Conclusion: Inconsistent research conclusions on the effects of violent videos games are due to differences in methodology. The majority of people who play violent video games show no changes in their level of anger. The assumption that video games cause violence has not been consistently demonstrated in scientific research.
15) Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Ferguson et al. (2007).
Conclusion: There is a publication bias for experimental studies of aggressive behavior. The authors suggest that studies demonstrating that video games cause violence are more likely to be published.
16) I wish I were a warrior: The role of wishful identification in the effects of violent video games on aggression in adolescent boys. Konijn, et al. (2007).
Conclusion: Boys who identify with violent video game characters are more likely to be aggressive in a lab setting.
17) Review of the effect of violent video games on children and adolescents. Guo et al. (2007).
Conclusion: Exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behavior, emotional & physiological arousal, and decreases helping behavior. A positive intervention from parents can decrease negative effects of violent video games.
18) The unintended negative consequences of exposure to violent video games. Swing et al. (2007).
Conclusion: A review of the research suggests that children and young adults, males and females, high aggression and low aggression people are all susceptible to increases in aggression, after even short exposures to violent video games.
19) The Appeal of Violent Video Games to Lower Educated Aggressive Adolescent Boys from Two Countries. Lemmens et al. (2006).
Conclusion: Boys who are naturally aggressive are attracted to violent video games. Lower educated boys play more violent video games than higher educated boys. The question of whether violent video games leads to violence in children was left open due to the correlational nature of the studies.
20) Contextual Features of Violent Video Games, Mental Models, and Aggression. Farrar et al. (2006).
Conclusion: The inclusion of blood in video games leads to more physically aggressive intentions while playing the game.
21) Aggressive Political Opinions and Exposure to Violent Media. Eyal et al. (2006).
Conclusion: Exposure to violent television programs was predictive of aggressive political opinions (e.g., forceful resolution to political issues). Exposure to violent video games predicted only a few aggressive opinions.
22) Effects of Affective Orientation and Video Game Play on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors. Cicchirillo et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Participants who played a violent video game rated the researcher of the study as less courteous and less deserving of financial support.
23) Correlates and Consequences of Exposure to Video Game Violence: Hostile Personality, Empathy, and Aggressive Behavior. Bartholow et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Repeated exposure to violent video games causes desensitization which then leads to increased aggressive behavior. Violent video games may cause violence and aggression.
24) The Effects of Reward and Punishment in Violent Video Games on Aggressive Affect, Cognition, and Behavior. Carnagey et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Games that reward violent acts can increase aggressive behavior by increasing aggressive thinking.
25) Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game. Williams et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Longitudinal study on the effects of violent video games suggests that they do not cause increases in real-world violence.
26) Deciding to Defect: The Effects of Video-Game Violence on Cooperative Behavior. Sheese et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Playing violent video games is associated with increased likelihood to exploit a partner in the study for one's own benefit.
27) Violent Video Games Induce an Affect Processing Bias. Kirsh et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Violent video games are associated with greater cognitive interference for negative words on the Stroop test.
28) Exposure to violent video games increases automatic aggressiveness. Uhlmann et al. (2005).
Conclusion: Playing violent video games can lead to aggressive self-conceptualizations.
29) An update on the effects of playing violent video games. Anderson et al. (2004).
Conclusion: Meta-analysis concluding that exposure to violent video games is linked to increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, and cardiovascular arousal, and to decreases in helping behavior. Researchers believe that violent video games are harmful to children.
30) Media violence research and youth violence data: Why do they conflict? Olson et al. (2004).
Conclusion: There is little evidence of a substantial link between exposure to violent interactive games and serious real-life violence or crime. There is insufficient evidence to conclude that video games cause violence outside of the lab setting.
31) Playing violent video games, desensitization, and moral evaluation in children. Funk et al. (2003).
Conclusion: Long-term exposure to violent video games contributes to lower empathy scores on hypothetical vignettes.
32) Immediate and Prolonged Effects of Videogame Violence. Deselms et al. (2003).
Conclusion: Men who played violent video games gave lighter punishments to hypothetical criminals. The effects of violent video games persisted for 1 hour after playing the game.
33) High versus low aggressive priming during video-game training: Effects on violent action during game play, hostility, heart rate, and blood pressure. Panee et al. (2002).
Conclusion: Players that receive aggressive training when first playing a potentially violent video game use more aggressive methods when actually playing the game.
34) Violent video games and hostile expectations: A test of the general aggression model. Bushman et al. (2002).
Conclusion: Compared to those who played a non-violent video game, subjects who played a violent video game attribute more hostile thoughts to characters in fictional stories.
35) Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior: Potential sex differences. Bartholow et al. (2002).
Conclusion: Compared to playing a non-violent video game, playing a violent video game resulted in more provocation and retaliation against a confederate in a laboratory experiment.
36) Video games and real-life aggression: Review of the literature. Bensley et al. (2001).
Conclusion: Among young children (4-8 yr olds), playing an aggressive video game increased aggressive play during free-play immediately after the video game. Among college students, there is no consistent evidence that playing violent video games affects aggression or hostility.
37) Effects of violent versus nonviolent video games on children's arousal, aggressive mood, and positive mood. Fleming et al. (2001).
Conclusion: Playing a violent video game did not increase the aggressive moods of children. Compared to a paper and pencil game, violent video games increased the positive moods of children.
38) Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Anderson et al. (2001).
Conclusion: Playing violent video games increases physiological arousal and aggression-related thoughts and feelings.
39) The effects of violent video games on aggression: A meta-analysis. Sherry et al. (2001).
Conclusion: The effects of violent video games on aggression are less significant than the effects of viewing television violence on aggression.
40) The effects of video game play on young children's aggression, fantasy, and prosocial behavior. Silvern et al. (1987).
Conclusion: Violent video games arouse children in the same way that violent cartoons do.
As was previously mentioned, the research is mixed. Based on the information above, it seems potentially misleading to conclude that video games cause violence without some serious qualifications.
What can we say about the effects of violent video games on children and and whether video games cause violence?
A few points:
As is true in many areas of study, several primary researchers seem to be producing many of the studies suggesting a link between violent video games and aggression. Always keep this in mind when reviewing the research.
Violent video games do seem to produce increased physiological arousal (skin conductance, heart rate, brain activity).
There is virtually no evidence that violent video games increase actual real-world aggressive behaviors in adults.
There is some evidence that violent video games increases aggression in young children in free-play situations immediately after exposure. This effect does not appear to be long-lasting.
There may be a bias towards publishing research showing the negative effects of video games.
When they do have an effect, violent video games seem to impact boys more than girls.
Trait aggression is a far better predictor of actual violence than exposure to violent video games.
Most people do not believe that they are negatively affected by violent video games.
Compared to the natural environment, it is far easier to find support for the theory that violent video games lead to aggression in a lab setting.
Aggressive people are more likely to be attracted to aggressive games.
Exposure to violent television content may be potentially more harmful than exposure to violent video games.
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What are your thoughts on violent video games?
Serious problem? No big deal? Somewhere in between?