Do Violent Video Games Cause Violence? A Psychologist Answers
Do video games kill people? Do violent video games create violent children? A psychologist responds to the latest accusations that our society’s recent violent acts are caused by gaming devices.
A few days after the Parkland shooting, President Trump said, “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” These ideas were nothing new. After the horrific Sandy Hook shooting, NRA head Wayne LaPierre said, “Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media, and Obama’s budget kill people.”
No doubt he believed what he said, but is this true? Do video games kill people? Do violent video games create violent children?
Before I answer these questions, let’s examine another controversy that affected the lives of many children and teens. It was around 15 years ago when the country debated the impact of antidepressant medication on teen suicide. The decisions made had more negative consequences than anyone would have guessed.
The Antidepressant Controversy
Right around the turn of the century, there was an open debate about whether antidepressants—specifically a class called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRI’s—led to an increase in suicide in kids.
Stories had made it to the press of teenagers who had given no evidence of suicidal thinking suddenly attempted or completed suicide while taking these medicines. Suicide was then (and now) the third leading cause of death among children and teens, so the stakes were incredibly high, the issue of utmost importance. Pressure mounted on the FDA to examine the concerns and make a ruling.
Before the FDA decided whether or not to put a “black box warning” on these antidepressants, they held hearings attended by several parents who had lost a child to suicide and blamed the medicine. They held up pictures of their deceased children; they cried and spoke powerfully about the loss of their son or daughter.
Just prior to the formal warning in 2004, The Washington Post ran a piece on Congress’ displeasure with the FDA for holding back information that showed the medicines increased suicidal thinking and behavior in children and teens. However, the article concluded with this quote:
(FDA) officials repeatedly said they were worried that the controversy would needlessly frighten parents and families away from useful drugs. Many clinicians believe the drugs are effective against depression.
Bowing to pressure, they issued the black box warning anyway.
No one could fault the parents for their advocacy, but their emotional testimony, coupled with congressional pressure, likely helped convince the FDA to attach the black box warning to the medicine. This effectively ran off many medical providers who did not want the risk of prescribing off-label.
Their fears were realized.
What resulted was a 30% decrease in prescriptions of the SSRI antidepressants (Zoloft, Lexapro, etc.) for teens and—here’s the hard reality—a 22% increase in teen suicide attempts during that same period.
Though I have no doubt the FDA and Congress and the grieving parents believed they were doing the right thing by making antidepressants harder to prescribe to teenagers, it is not likely a coincidence it resulted in the opposite of what they intended.
My point is facts must guide us more than emotions in making these big decisions. This is true of the rekindled video game debate. Before we make video games the whipping boy for school shootings, we should see what the research says. To neglect the research is likely to have major public health implications because if you target the wrong causes, you are likely to miss the right ones.
Mixing Up the Issues
There are parents around the country who have seen their child consumed by video games.
Their kid—usually a son—has gotten addicted to gaming, unable to break from their round of Fortnight to come to family dinner, sneaking controllers that have been confiscated, staying up way past midnight on school nights playing Overwatch. As a therapist, I hear these stories every week.
Though it is still debated, I am in the camp of those who believe video gaming can be addictive. I have seen kids and young adults whose lives have been derailed and diminished by their inability to regulate their gaming. I have known young men who have verbally or even physically assaulted their parents for attempting to restrict their gaming. I have had guys weep in my office because their gaming is wrecking their relationships.
But those kinds of concerns—the problems with overuse and addictive behavior—differ from whether violent video games produce violent behavior. To answer that question, we need to look at the research.
Do Violent Video Games Cause Violent Behavior?
Video games have been studied for decades now. We’ve had studies on both the benefits and the potentially harmful effects of gaming. Like most research, there are sometimes contradictory findings, but a general consensus has emerged that helps us answer the question of whether playing violent video games leads to violent behavior in children and teens.
A research study by Stetson University’s psychology professor, Christopher Ferguson, compared video game violence consumption rates with the rates of youth violence over two decades. Ferguson concluded, “Video game consumption is associated with a decline in youth violence rates.”
In other words, as violent video game consumption increased, youth violence decreased.
Indeed, the rate of per capita youth violence has dropped steadily for more than twenty years, while the rates of video game consumption—including violent video game consumption—has increased, as the chart demonstrates:
Compelling as it is, this correlation by itself doesn’t necessarily prove that playing violent video games isn’t connected to real-life violent behavior. After all, there are only a relative handful of school shooters. Maybe they are adversely affected by these games while the vast majority of the teenage population are not. It seems unlikely, but it’s possible. Do we have other research that suggests that even when people play these games, we find no increase in violent behavior?
“To neglect the research is likely to have major public health implications because if you target the wrong causes, you are likely to miss the right ones.”
Trump proposes we study the issue further, but the U.S. government has studied the topic vigorously and has concluded that gaming isn’t a major contributor to violent behavior in youth. Reports from the U.S. Surgeon General, the Federal Trade Commission, The Federal Communications Commission, and the U.S. Supreme Court carefully reviewed the research and found no causal link between violent video game use and violent behavior.
When the issues came before the Supreme Court, they struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to kids in a 7-2 decision. Conservative Justice, Antonin Scalia, wrote for the majority, “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.”
There are some studies, particularly out of the University of Iowa, that have made claims about the role of these games in increasing real-life violence. However, sometimes the findings are complicated and the methodologies questionable. A 2013 review by the American Psychological Association found a short-term connection between aggressive play and violent video game use. This sounds fairly convincing until you realize aggressive play is not the same as violent behavior where someone gets physically harmed or threatened with a weapon.
This review was roundly criticized by psychologists, criminal justice experts, and media experts.
Over 200 of them wrote an open letter criticizing the methodology of the review and disputing its conclusions. The signatories included such prominent psychologists as Steven Pinker, James C. Kaufman, Jeffrey Arnett, Randy Borum, and David Canter.
From a research standpoint, there is a difference between violence and aggression. Aggression is that rough behavior I described. Violence is where someone gets badly hurt, meaning there is some tissue damage (a bloody nose, a broken rib, and so on) or where there is a threat of bodily harm with a weapon. This is where the reporting often gets muddy.
Some writers will often misunderstand studies that find a link between gaming and short-term aggressive play as being the same as a link between gaming and long-term violence risk. In the research, kids might play a mildly violent game, then be observed on the playground immediately afterward. Their play was rougher; they might tackle each other or be more “rough-and-tumble.”
Some studies have found these short-term increases in violent behavior—possibly more due to being jacked up by the game than by the violent content—but this aggressive play lasts only for an hour or so. There have been no studies that have found a link between these games and long-term violent behavior in real life.
A Washington Post analysis of the countries that represented the 10 largest video game markets around the world found no relationship between video game use and gun-related deaths. The level of violent crime in these other markets is far lower than in the U.S. It is reasonable to conclude that if violent video games were a major cause of violence, we would see this across cultures where these games are sold and consumed.
A 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service found only 12% of the 41 school shooters they studied had an interest in violent video games. Compare that finding to another study that found 85% of 15-18-year-old boys played the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto, and presumably other violent video games. So if 85% of boys play violent video games and don’t shoot up their schools or do other major acts of violence, but of those who do shoot up the schools, only 12% have an interest in these games, what conclusion would you reasonably make?
A fascinating 2016 study found that crime rates actually went down during the week of major video game releases. Again, if exposure to these games is so toxic and likely to increase violence, we would expect the exact opposite.
A 2010 study found that violent video games might cause an increase in aggressiveness, but only in people who had certain personality characteristics like high neuroticism (a vulnerability to experience more negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, and anger) or low agreeableness (a predisposition to be more combative, uncooperative, or cold) or low conscientiousness (a trait associated with being disorganized or inefficient). People prone to being angry and frustrated by life will get angrier and frustrated by video games. There’s nothing in the study that says video game playing makes people more likely to commit acts of violence.
After Sandy Hook, there was the discussion about whether teenagers on the autism spectrum might be especially vulnerable to the effects of violent video games, yet a 2015 study found no evidence for the argument. Kids with Asperger’s and Autism didn’t become more aggressive following their gameplay.
When you carefully examine all the evidence, there is an indication that violent video games might make kids more likely to play rougher immediately following the gameplay, but there is no evidence that playing these games makes kids more likely to be violent in the long term. There is actually evidence to the contrary.
Video games might prove to be important therapeutic tools in helping people with a wide range of psychological concerns get better.
Though we can’t say one causes the other, we do know that as sales of games have gone up, the rates of youth violence have gone down. We also know that school shooters seem to have less interest in these games on average than most of their peers.
In addition to this research, there are also many studies that have found positive benefits of video games, especially when they are played in moderation.
Positive Benefits to Gaming?
Some studies show clear benefits to gaming, such as better visual processing skills, better focus during distractions, better hand-eye coordination, greater creative thinking, more involvement in real sports (among those who play sports-related video games), and greater problem-solving skills.
One study found that kids who played less than an hour of video gaming a day had higher life satisfaction, more prosocial behavior, and lower rates of anxiety and depression, whereas kids who played more than three hours a day had greater problems in these areas. So the issue may be less about the content of the gaming and more about moderate use.
In the mental health world, there are promising developments in the use of Virtual Reality games to help people conquer PTSD, manage anxiety, and heal addictions. Here in Nashville, I’ve seen some of the work coming out of Vanderbilt on the therapeutic benefits of VR and it’s astounding. Video games might prove to be important therapeutic tools in helping people with a wide range of psychological concerns get better.
The Bottom Line
The punchline is short and sweet: there’s no evidence violent video games lead to real-world violent behavior. There is even a possibility that video gaming actually reduces rates of violence. There is plenty of evidence of other positive benefits of video games, as well. While all that is true, there’s reason to set limits on gaming time. Kids who game more than 3 hours a day tend to have lower life satisfaction, less prosocial behavior, and more anxiety and depression.
A common sense approach to gaming is to set good limits on daily game time (two hours or less).
Like the antidepressant controversy that resulted in a bad outcome, restricting violent video games will fail to solve our school violence problem and distract us from the more central issues. The issue with the role of video gaming in violent behavior has been settled.
It’s time to focus on real solutions to stop school shootings.