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Research Paper

Violence and Video Games: How do they correlate?



Violent video games have built a reputation as a cause for violent activity in the last 15 years. From the Columbine shooting to the Newtown shooting, every time a violent headline grabs the national media’s attention, violent media and video games in particular take a large portion of blame. Political leaders and members of the media blame violent games for spurring the suspect to commit acts of violence against other human beings.

In the scientific world, the last two decades have been full of attempts to quantify just how much of an effect violent video games have on violent behavior. The issue with this is that video game companies or anti-violence groups – that are determined to prove video games cause these violent outbursts – have funded many of these studies.

This paper will outline the major arguments on both sides, as well as what many researchers who straddle the invisible line have found while examining research papers. It is expected that when adjusted for publication bias and methodological faults, the vast majority of research papers will not just discount violent video games’ role as a producer of more violent people, but findings will actually lean towards video games helping to reduce violent behavior in most people.

In order to be involved in the debate regarding violent video games and their correlation to violent behavior one does not have to be a video game player. Because this issue has taken the forefront on the national scene in the past decade, many people who are not involved in the video game industry and don’t play video games have blamed video games for violent tragedies. Research into this topic has been conducted for the past two decades as researchers try to get a handle on how violent video games effect people’s behaviors, especially young men.

The rise in popularity of video games and the emergence of school shootings as a more regular event have spurred more researchers to dedicate time to the challenge of attributing or discrediting video games to these violent outbursts. However, many researchers in the field are concerned that these studies are poorly done and are producing inaccurate results. In 2008, Ferguson and Kilburn compiled a list of 25 articles published from 1998-2008 and examined their methods and results. They adjusted the results to account for uncontrolled variables such as personality, genes and sex. They also looked at some of the methods other researchers used and the ways in which those researchers measured their results. They found that almost half of the articles examined did not use a standardized scale to measure aggression, and in some cases simply relied on the word of individuals to measure their subject’s tendencies for violence and aggressive behavior.

Another paper that Ferguson was a part of examined the effect of violent media and video games on three groups of young men: Mexican-Americans, English and Croatian. The study examined not just aggression but also depression in these young men after they were exposed to violent media and violent video games. It is important that every control is accounted for in these studies. Studying specific groups of young people controls for a lot of variables other researchers do not. The control of outside variables makes the results much more consistent and easier to analyze. This also makes the data more reliable and it will stand up to peer review.

The consensus between researchers who are not being funded by either side of the argument is that the research findings that seriously prove video games do or do not cause violent behavior are skewed for a few reasons. The first is a lack of control for third variables. Many researchers have not controlled for variables such as gender, personality and genetics. This has been such a hot button topic among the research community, that there have been research articles devoted to analyzing data from other research articles. These articles then make an attempt to hash through that data and control for poor research methods, methodological problems and publication bias. Publication bias is one of the biggest issues, as the research that is being funded by a side with a stake in this argument tends to produce skewed results. The public then sees these results as the funders attempt to give their side an edge in the argument and sway public opinion.

Once adjusted to fix these issues, researchers found that violent video games’ effects on violent behavior is so small it’s hard to consider it a factor at all. The small influence they could find, however, tipped in favor of violent video games alleviating violent behavior.

There are three theories involved with violent media’s relation with the violent tendencies. The first is called the “aggression theory.” The premise behind the aggression theory is based on psychological theory called the “General Aggression Model” (GAM). GAM theorizes that violent video games increase aggression. The idea is that gamers develop mental scripts based on their video game experiences, which essentially program them to be more aggressive. Instead of relying on typical social cues, they begin to act like they are in a video. Since they play violent video games, these cues dictate that they take aggressive action instead of more socially acceptable actions. GAM suggests that more exposure to violent video games over time continues to increase violent tendencies, but the researchers state that most experiments done involving GAM are done over a short period of time.

The second theory is called the “incapacitation theory.” This is based on the simple principle of time use that people who play video games and spend time indoors simply don’t have as much time to commit to other things. This theory dictates that while there is a short run decrease in violence and aggression as the individual spends time indoors, there is room for a long run increase those behaviors as they lose interest in or complete the violent game that took up their time. One of the consequences of this theory is that while it takes away from time that could be used for aggressive acts, it also takes away from time those individuals could be spending in school or studying. Thus, this concept works both ways, both preventing violent acts in some capacity for a short period of time, but also decreasing the gamer’s productivity and possibly their aggressive tendencies.

The final theory is not one accepted in the scientific community, but one that gamers believe to be true. It is called the “catharsis theory” and states that violent video games act as a release for the gamer, thus limiting the violent acts they will commit in the real world. Many gamers have claimed this is the effect violent video games have on them. There is little scientific support for this theory although Denzler, Foster and Liberman state that aggression in video games can reduce further aggression when it fulfills a goal. The researchers are quick to say these results do not justify violent media, as this is more focused on the actual fulfillment of the goal and not the violence. Another possible accreditation for this theory is that internet gaming has been found to be associated with dopamine release which serves to sate the player. There have also been studies that have found video games can act as a form of self-medication for children with ADHD.

These three theories illustrate just how complicated results on this topic have been and how torn the research community is. Many reputable researchers have conveyed their lack of faith in the way research in this field has been conducted and that many of the results found thus far are not reliable because of the lack of consistency in research methods.

One of the ideas discussed in the New Media class, particularly in regards to Jane McGonigal and Reality is Broken, is that video games are popular because they offer a better version of reality. The idea is that reality is sluggish and video games offer a fast paced alternative that includes much more instant gratification through completing tasks. McGonigal discusses how executives in many companies take video game breaks that last as long as an hour to play and make them feel more productive. Denzler, Foster and Liberman expand on this point in their research paper How Goal Fulfillment Decreases Aggression.

The ideas in this paper align almost exactly with McGonigal’s concepts of why video games are useful and how they can help better society. Denzler, Foster and Liberman find that people remember tasks where they did not complete the goal much more vividly then when they had completed the goal. They attribute this finding to the fact that once a goal is completed you no longer need to think about it, but if you fail to reach your goal, it is still something you wish to accomplish and thus still holds your attention. Denzler, Foster and Liberman are sure to point out the differences in their findings and the idea behind the catharsis theory. The main difference is the achievement of the goal in their study has nothing to do with any violence that might or might not be involved. Their findings support that regardless of the kind of goal a person is striving toward, the successful achievement of that goal limits their aggression. They even find that completing a goal that may have started as a goal of aggression (they give the examples of restoring justice, equity or self esteem) through non-violent means reduces aggression.

The importance of controlling for outside variables has already been discussed, but not all researchers have failed at addressing these outside variables. Christopher J. Fergusona, John Colwell, Boris Mlacˇic´, Goran Milas and Igor Mikloušic´ do just that in their paper Personality and media influences on violence and depression in a cross-national sample of young adults: Data from Mexican–Americans, English and Croatians. By controlling for the nationality of the subjects, the researchers controlled for factors like society and the environment around the subjects, which make it easier to prove the data to be reliable.

They found that the correlations between media violence acts were very small, but theorized that these correlations could be understood through personality variables in the subjects. Because the correlation relies so heavily on individual traits such as agreeableness and aggressiveness, they state that a linear relationship between media violence and violent acts is unlikely. These findings are consistent with most unbiased findings on this topic. When Ferguson and Kilburn analyzed findings from 1998-2008 and adjusted results to control for outside variables, their findings were similar. They even go as far as saying: “why the belief of media violence effects persists despite the inherent weaknesses of the research is somewhat of an open question.”

Although research has proven that media violence does not affect the violent behavior of individuals as strongly as might be assumed, on an individual basis there are factors that could cause media violence to make an individual more violent.

Despite the media and politicians blaming violent behavior on exposure to violent media and video games, the scientific world has found little evidence of this. Through the examination and adjustment of past research results, where researchers adjusted for publication bias and methodological errors, they found little to no correlation between violent video games and violent behavior. Researchers that looked at violent crimes in correlation to the release of violent games actually found that there was a decrease in violent crimes. This can be accredited to the incapacitation theory, which states that when those that usually commit violent crimes spend their time doing other things, there is less time to commit acts of aggression. And finally, a separate group of researchers found that a integral aspect of video games, goal achievement, causes a decrease in aggressive behavior. All of these research papers make it clear that there is no direct correlation between violent video games and violent and aggressive acts. One of these papers even theorizes that because the biggest contributor to violent behavior is personality traits, which most research papers neglect to study, it continues to perpetuate the thought process that violent video games cause violent behavior.


  1. Carey, Benedict. “Shooting in the Dark.” The New York Times 11 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Print.


  1. Cunningham, Scott, Engelstätter, Benjamin and Ward, Michael R., Understanding the Effects of Violent Video Games on Violent Crime (April 7, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1804959 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1804959


  1. Denzler, Marcus, Jens Förster, and Nira Liberman. “How Goal-fulfillment Decreases Aggression.” Www.socolab.com. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 6 Sept. 2008. Web. 28 June 2013.


  1. Ferguson, Christopher J., and John Kilburn. “The Public Health Risks of Media Violence: A Meta-Analytic Review.” The Journal of Pediatrics 154.5 (2009): 759-63. Print.


  1. Ferguson, Christopher J., John Colwell, Boris Mlacˇic, Goran Milas, and Igor Mikloušic. “Personality and Media Influences on Violence and Depression in a Cross-national Sample of Young Adults: Data from Mexican–Americans, English and Croatians.” Computers in Human Behaivor (2011): n. pag. Print.


  1. Vitelli, Romeo. “Can Video Games Cause Violence?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 June 2013. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201304/can-video-games-cause-violence&gt;.





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