Experts Debate Impact of Violent Video Games

The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December rekindled a national debate over the extent, if any, to which violent video games set off individuals who go on deadly shooting sprees.

When President Barack Obama announced a plan in January to curb gun violence, one of his recommendations was to have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research the causes and prevention of such violence. The directive included an examination of "links between video games, media images and violence."

One prominent individual who sees a connection is Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's executive vice president, who said a week after the massacre:

"There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here's one: it's called Kindergarten Killers. It's been online for 10 years."

LaPierre went on to say that "media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes ..."

But when "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace quizzed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in February about the necessity of the Democratic-backed plan to conduct more research on the connection between popular culture and violence, the California Democrat responded in part:

"The evidence says that, in Japan, for example, they have the most violent games and the rest, and the lowest -- death, mortality from guns. I don't know what the explanation is for that except they may have good gun laws."

Researchers who study video games usually begin with the premise that they are indeed violent. UNLV sociology professor Simon Gottschalk published a study in 1995 in which he wrote:

"The central organizing assumption of videology is unarguably that of violence. Although the humans, machines, robots, animals and mutants video games simulate are technically capable of a wide range of activities, videology translates these objects into violent, dangerous and destructive ones.

"The game titles written in attractive colorful letters on the sides, front and hood of the video games consoles are quite explicit about this obsessive theme permeating the electronic playground."

Gottschalk rattled off examples such as "Car Riot," "Street Fighters," "Guerilla Attack," "Battle of the Solar System," and "Captain Commando."

The NRA publicized a study co-authored by Brad Bushman, a communication and psychology professor at Ohio State University, who said he found that the negative effects of playing violent video games can accumulate over time.

"Playing video games could be compared to smoking cigarettes," Bushman said in a university press release four days before Sandy Hook. "A single cigarette won't cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression."  

Bushman co-authored another study in April 2012 that concluded a mere 20 minutes of playing a violent shooting video game enabled players to more accurately fire a real gun at a mannequin and more likely to aim for the head.

"For good and bad, video game players are learning lessons that can be applied in the real world," he said.

When Time magazine published an investigation of the 1999 Columbine High School shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, reporters Nancy Gibbs and Timothy Roche  wrote that

Harris called his sawed-off shotgun Arlene, naming the firearm "after a favorite character in the gory Doom video games and books that he likes so much."

Among other passages:

"It's easy now to see the signs: how a video-game joystick turned Harris into a better marksman, like a golfer who watches Tiger Woods videos."

"Klebold and Harris were completely soaked in violence; in movies like Reservoir Dogs; in gory video games that they tailored to their imaginations."

But Max Fisher reported on the Washington Post website three days after Sandy Hook that a 10-nation comparison suggested little or no link between video games and gun murders. The story included a chart showing the United States with by far the highest number of gun-related murders per 100,000 residents.

Yet eight other nations -- Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea and the United Kingdom -- spend more per capita on video games than does the U.S.

Fisher wrote that "countries where video game consumption is highest tend to be some of the safest countries in the world, likely a product of the fact that developed or rich countries, where consumers can afford expensive games, have on average much less violent crime."

As a leading advocate for computer and video game manufacturers, the Entertainment Software Association in Washington, D.C., tries to debunk anyone who suggests a link between those games and violence.

"Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s," the association states on its website. "During the same period of time, video games have steadily increased in popularity and use, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if there were a causal link.

"Many games with violent content sold in the U.S. -- and some with far more violence -- are sold in foreign markets. However, the level of violent crime in these foreign markets is considerably lower than that in the U.S., suggesting that influences such as the background of the individual, the availability of guns and other factors are more relevant to understanding the cause of any particular crime."

Among the research quoted by the association is a 2012 study Peter D. Hart Research Associates performed for the Entertainment Software Rating Board. The study found that 88 percent of parents find the rating system helpful in choosing games for their children, and 70 percent regularly check a game's rating before making a purchase.  

Here are other studies that didn't find much of a link between video games and real world violence:

Researchers, including associate economics professor Michael Ward from the University of Texas at Arlington, reported in 2011 that they found a 1 percent increase in violent games associated with a slight decrease in violent crime. They found "robust evidence that violence in media may even have social benefits by reducing crime."

A 2008 study from associate psychology professor Christopher Ferguson and sociology professor John Kilburn of Texas A&M International University concluded: "Results from the current analysis do not support the conclusion that media violence leads to aggressive behavior." 

A 2007 article by Karen Sternheimer, an associate sociology professor at the University of Southern California, criticized what she termed the "simplistic" connection people make between video game violence and real violence. She wrote: "The intense focus on video games as potential creators of violent killers reflects the hostility that some feel toward popular culture and young people themselves. After adult rampage shootings in the workplace, reporters seldom mention whether the shooters played video games."

Raymond Boyle and Matthew Hibberd, writing for the Stirling Media Research Institute in Scotland in 2005, stated: "There is a body of evidence that playing violent video games increases arousal and the possibility of aggression in some players. However, this evidence is often disputed and cannot be simply read as evidence that game playing translates into violent social behavior. There is also evidence to suggest that game playing can encourage positive learning traits in young people."

Here's another study that found correlations between playing video games and acting violently, but added caveats to its conclusions:

The 2008 book "Grand Theft Childhood" was co-authored by Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner based on research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. They found that children who played mature-rated games (for ages 17 and older) were more likely to get in a fight or cause trouble in school than children who played games with lower age ratings. But they also found that most young teens who play mature-rated games "do not have serious problems."

This study called for more study:

Assistant communication professor John Sherry of Purdue University wrote in 2001 that violent television had a greater impact on aggression than did video games. He wrote that "there is a trend suggesting that longer playing times result in less aggression." But he also stated that "further research is needed to explore the relationships among a variety of variables implicated in the potential violent video game and aggression connection."

But this study found that video games and other violent media had a negative impact on teenagers:

A 2010 study led by Jordan Grafman, senior investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md., concluded: "We propose that exposure to aggressive media results in a blunting of emotional responses, which in turn may prevent the connection of consequences of aggression with an appropriate emotional response, and therefore may increase the likelihood that aggression is seen as acceptable behavior."

Another study also found links between violent media and violent behavior among children:

This 2008 study, published in the journal "Pediatrics," found that exposure of 10- to 15-year-old to media violence was associated with seriously violent behaviors, including shootings, stabbings and aggravated assault. "This association was observed for violence depicted in music, in games, on television, and through the Internet," the authors concluded.

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