In Defense of Violent Video Games

As sales of violent video games have gone up, real-world violence has decreased

A screenshot from the Halo 4 video game.
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Dr. Patrick Markey is an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University, the director of the Interpersonal Research Laboratory, and a former president of the Society for Interpersonal Theory and Research.

After having time to process the tragic events at Sandy Hook, I knew what was going to happen next. It was the same thing that happened after the attacks in Aurora, Norway and Virginia Tech. I was going to be contacted by a variety of news outlets and invited to join at least one government committee, all in an effort to give my "expert" opinion regarding what had occurred. I am not an expert on gun safety, school shootings or mental health. I am a research psychologist who has studied the negative effects of violent video games. The reason I and others in this research area are sought out is because the perpetrators of these tragedies often played violent video games. This fact is something we frequently reference in the introductions of our own scientific articles when we present our research in the context of school shootings. 

Presenting our research in relation to such tragic events implies that our findings can somehow be used to better predict and prevent school shootings. However, such a dialogue is misleading as no study has examined whether or not violent video games cause real world violence. In fact, most people are surprised to learn exactly how video game research is conducted. The average experimental study in this area involves having one group of people play a violent video game while another group plays a non-violent video game. After a short game play session (usually around 15 minutes) participants' aggressive thoughts or behaviors are assessed. Using such a methodology, researchers have found that individuals who play violent video games are more likely to expose others to loud irritating noises, report feeling more hostile on a questionnaire, give longer prison sentences to hypothetical criminals and even give hot sauce to people who do not like spicy food. Although these various outcomes are related to unfriendly thoughts and behaviors, it is quite a leap to imply that the desire to expose others to loud noises or hot sauce is similar to the violent events which occurred at Sandy Hook.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Researchers have argued that, although these studies do not directly measure real world violence, the results suggest that video games might be one of several risk factors (e.g., poverty, gun availability, family environment, etc.) that contribute to violent behavior. Therefore, the reasoning goes, even if violent video games are only a small contributing risk factor to violence, because so many people are exposed to such media the negative effect of violent video games at the societal level will be immense. Contrary to this dire statement, in the past 15 years, sales of video games have consistently increased whereas homicides, rapes and aggravated assaults during this same time have decreased. It appears that any negative effect of violent video games is dwarfed by the effects of other societal factors.

Taken together, research clearly suggests that exposure to violent video games temporarily increases a person's hostility. A child or adult who plays a video game will be slightly more antagonistic and might even see his or her world as a more hostile place immediately after playing the game. However, research does not show a clear link between playing violent video games and real world violence. Although researchers have often noted the preference of violent video games by many school shooters, given that 97 percent of adolescents play video games such a preference is not overly surprising. It could similarly be argued that bread consumption predicts school shootings, because most school shooters likely consumed a bread product within 24 hours before their violent attacks.

Researchers, like me, have been guilty of perpetuating the connection between violent video games and real world violence either implicitly or explicitly within our own research articles and in our "expert" statements given to news outlets and politicians. As humans we may like being treated as "experts" on important topics like school violence, but as scientists we must be critical of the implications drawn from research – especially, from our own research. Such implications could prove to be dangerous if it causes lawmakers and others to focus on violent video games at the expense of other more serious causes of violence.