Sunday, October 11, 2009

Do Violent Video Games Cause Violence and Aggression?

by Dr. Frank Gaskill & Dr. Dave Verhaagen

Editor's Note: The following is an updated version of one of our most popular posts ever.

In 1955, the U.S. Senate blasted comic books, deploring their depiction of every horrible thing from murder to cannibalism. The lawmakers heard from a prominent psychiatrist who singled out the Superman comic books as especially "injurious to the ethical development of children" because they "arouse phantasies [sic] of sadistic joy" in our youth. Another witness testified that children had been jumping off high places in attempts to fly like their hero. Shame on that Superman. He ruined the lives of so many children!

Half a century later, violent video games are the comic books of our day. Testimony before our state Senate included descriptions of horrific-sounding games. One witness described a game where the player scans in faces of classmates and teachers and then shoots them. He also referenced another game called Postal that gives points for watching innocent people beg for mercy before you kill them. The only problem is that we've never met one kid - or any person of any age, for that matter - who has even heard of these games. They are straw man arguments.

One frequently cited research article criticizing violent video games includes several studies. One of these studies was a "correlational study" from which the authors concluded, "Playing violent video games often may well cause increases in delinquent behaviors, both aggressive and non-aggressive." However, in a remarkable moment of self-contradiction, they later said that making such causative statements with a correlational study is "risky, at best." Why is it risky? Because correlations are just relationships between two variables; you can never say one causes the other. We could say that during the season when ice cream sales increase, shark attacks also increase. But we could not say the more ice cream you sell, the more you cause shark attacks.

Why would a couple of child psychologists come to the defense of violent video games? Because some legislative initiatives and public opinions across the country are based on fallacious assumptions, personal biases, political posturing and weak science. One recent systematic analysis of the research literature found "insufficient, contradictory and methodologically flawed evidence on the association between television viewing and video game playing and aggression in children and young people with behavioral and emotional difficulties. If public health advice is to be evidence-based, good quality research is needed," (Mitrofan, Paul, Spencer, 2009). Another extensive study found "no support for the hypothesis that violent video game playing is associated with higher aggression," (Ferguson, 2007). In fact, that same study found some positive benefits of playing violent video games, particularly improvements in visual-spatial thinking.While there are studies that find people who play violent video games may have a brief increase in violent thoughts and feelings, newer research finds that these thoughts and feelings typically last less than four minutes (Barlett, Branch, Rodeheffer, & Harris, 2009). And remember, having a violent thought is a whole lot different than actually committing violence.

Common sense tells you that you don't let an elementary school kid or an older child with a history of aggressive behavior play Grand Theft Auto. But that same common sense tells you that if 90 percent of households have owned or rented a video game every year - while the juvenile crime rate has been going down for more than a decade - then a little Halo 3 ODST never hurt anybody...

Frank Gaskill is a child psychologist with Southeast Psych who specializes in technology issues and Asperger's Disorder. He has pioneered the E-Parent curriculum to help parents better understand the tech world of their teenagers. He is also co-author of the forthcoming Max Gamer graphic novel.

Dave Verhaagen is a child and adolescent psychologist with Southeast Psych who works mostly with older adolescents and young adults. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Parenting the Millennial Generation and the forthcoming Therapy with Young Men.

Both have Ph.D.'s in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill (Go Tar Heels!).


Barlett, C., Branch, O., Rodeheffer, C., & Harris, R. (2009). How long do the short-term violent video game effects last? Aggressive Behavior. Vol 35(3), May-Jun 2009, 225-236.

Mitrofan, O., Paul, M., & Spencer, N. (2009). Is aggression in children with behavioural and emotional difficulties associated with television viewing and video game playing? A systematic review. Child: Care, Health and Development. Vol 35(1), Jan 2009, 5-15.

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). The good, the bad and the ugly: A meta-analytic review of positive and negative effects of violent video games. Psychiatric Quarterly. Vol 78(4), Dec 2007, 309-316.