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Violent video games make people violent. But so do pictures of snakes.
by Jayce Wagner on 03/08/13 06:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Recently President Barack Obama called for more research into the link between violent video games and gun violence. More research isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t a bad thing at all. Since 1982 there have been 62 mass-shooting events in the United States alone. National tragedies, senseless acts of violence that each resulted in a tragic loss of life. News cycles target gun control, violence in films and music, and inevitably the discussion shifts to interactive media and video games.

For nearly thirty years we’ve been having this discussion, asking the question: do violent movies, music or video games make people violent? Well according to Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, yes. Based on the results of their research they concluded in 2001 that video games and violent media can make people aggressive and violent. Based upon their data and their conclusions, however, it’s safe to say that photos of snakes, crispy bacon, or a particularly rigorous game of chess can also make people aggressive and violent.  

For all the vitriol on both sides of the debate, there’s a shocking lack of attention given to the research and scholarship of the last three decades. It’s a relatively small body of work, but despite its size some researchers – particularly North American researchers – have no problems with making broad, sweeping statements about their findings. Craig Anderson even likens the causal link between violent video games and violent behavior to the link between unprotected sex and HIV infection rates.

In 2004 the United Kingdom’s Home Office conducted a meta-analysis of available and relevant scholarship regarding aggression and violent media, in particular video games. In the largest behavioral research database in the United States they found only thirty-five relevant articles that dealt with aggression and violence in video games, out of one hundred sixty-four thousand. Only twenty-two of those were from peer-reviewed journals and only nine of those sources dealt directly with violent video games.

It took forty years and thousands of studies before scientific communities within the U.S. could confidently claim that cigarettes were harmful, but based on a single study Anderson, Bushman and a handful of other scholars feel comfortable claiming an that there exists an undeniable link between a single factor in an individual’s life and the development of aggressively violent behavior. 

Unfortunately for Anderson and Bushman, the reality is much more nuanced.

The aggression they define in their study is a short-term increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and aggressive or competitive thoughts and actions. A reaction familiar to anyone who’s ever played a competitive sport. It’s also a familiar physiological response for anyone who’s ever seen a photo of a snake or dangerous predator; it’s a typical arousal response enhanced by competitive stimuli and excitement as indicated by any number of empirical studies on human autonomic responses. Music, films, TV, even books can elicit such a response from an average individual.


The Illustrative Power of Anecdotal Evidence,

The BBC series Child of Our Time began in 2000 and set out to document the lives of several different newborns over a twenty-year span. In 2005, a BBC film crew caught up with one of the children born at the beginning of the series. A young boy named Ethan, who was quite fond of violent video games, but who had an otherwise stable and supportive family life was observed before and after playing a round of the single player campaign in Halo.

Afterward, he was excitable, aggressive, argumentative, hyper-active and had difficulty settling down to go to bed. Clearly, the violence and excitement of an M-rated game had a negative effect on young Ethan. The next day at school, he was observed in the schoolyard.

What filmmakers saw was a well-adjusted boy who was very popular, likeable and played incredibly well with others. He exhibited above average prosocial behavior for his age and was described by his teachers as a bright and patient child.

Later, when Ethan played Halo against the inexperienced Professor Robert Wilson – one of the show’s creators – he was reluctant to hurt his new friend. Instead he preferred to show Professor Wilson how to interact with the virtual world and how to play the game.

The discussion should not focus upon violent video games or violent visual media, it should focus on risk factors that might cause media to affect different people in different ways. Clearly, Ethan is not a representative case; he comes from an upper-middle class family, he is physically, socially and mentally healthy as a result of his surroundings and upbringing.

Anecdotal evidence is certainly not an adequate alternative for serious research and scholarship. But in this case, the time BBC filmmakers spent with Ethan and his family suggests that at the very least, the questions we need to be asking are not the questions we have been asking. There is no single cause of violence and likewise no single study that would provide conclusive proof that violence in visual media is harmful to all people, or healthy for all people.


High Risk

Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita is the story about a middle-aged man pursuing a sexual relationship with an under-age girl. It’s a story about modern romantic relations and the dangers of sexual temptation. But with such provocative subject matter, it becomes a very different story in the hands of a sexual predator than it is in the hands of a comparatively “low-risk” individual. Similarly, researchers like Jeanne Funk of the University of Toledo suggest that violent video games may provide a very different experience to children and adults with existing maladaptive disorders and other psychological risk factors. But because the bulk of the scientific research to come out of North America focuses upon experimental and lab-based research, and comes from a very narrow branch of academic psychology, there hasn’t been a substantial effort by the academic community to re-frame the question in order to find answers that are more helpful than simply observing physiological responses.  

Media does not create appetites or behaviors, but it can attract people with certain appetites or behaviors for whom the experience may be a very different thing.

If nothing else, the body of scholarship regarding violent video games and violent visual media suggests overwhelmingly that more research needs to be done. As it stands, most North American scholarship finds their “causal” and correlational links between violent media and real world violence in short-term experimental studies conducted in a lab setting. While European scholarship finds little to indicate any connection between the two and instead places the emphasis on the social and longitudinal aspects of how violent video games fit into the lives of their subjects. 

Guy Cumberbatch of the Video Standards Council, the leading media watchdog group in the UK, goes so far as to say:

“The evident weakness in the individual studies and the general pattern of inconsistent findings would not normally lead us to expect researchers to make any strong claims about video games. However, this is far from the case. As with other research on media violence, some of the strongest claims are made on the most flimsy of evidence.”

Like any serious matter of public health, the discussion and investigation of the effects that violent visual media have on children and adults needs to be carried out with a measured tone, allowing the data to speak for itself. Unfortunately, too many studies to come out of North America reach conclusions that are at best incongruent with the data they present.



If the body of existing research is inadequate to fully answer the question at hand, perhaps then we might find at least some correlational information in crime statistics over the past fifteen years – a period during which violent video games with exceptional levels of detail have come to dominate the holiday release cycles.

The world’s three largest markets for video games are the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the proportion of homicide or violent crime in the world’s three largest markets for video games might show some similar trends. The populations of the US, Japan and UK are very different in both size and composition, but if violence in visual media – in particular, video games – had a tangible effect on the rates of violent crime we could expect to see similar levels of violent crime in all three nations.

Fortunately, this is not the case. Over the past ten years homicide rates in the US, Japan and UK have declined significantly. Additionally, in 2012 the United States had 4.8 homicides per hundred thousand people, while Japan and the UK had .4 and 1.2 respectively. The raw numbers are more shocking but the proportional estimates are a bit more illustrative: the three largest consumers of violent visual media have some of the lowest homicide rates in the world.

Assuming the existence of the causal link suggested by the work of Anderson, Bushman and others of their school of thought, it would be safe to assume that the homicide rates of the largest consumers of violent video games should be proportionally similar, and certainly not a illustrate decade long downward trend in all reports of violent crime.

Still, the knowledge base that we have is woefully inadequate. More research needs to be done, if not with the intention of finding a causal link between violence and violent media then certainly in order to identify which individuals might be more sensitive to violent media. However inadequate our current understanding of violent media in modern society may be, statistics and good, thoughtful, scholarship can point us in the right direction if we give them the attention they deserve.

Edit: Corrected US Homicide rate for 2012. 

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Michael Joseph
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"Media does not create appetites or behaviors, but it can attract people with certain appetites or behaviors for whom the experience may be a very different thing."

I think that if you reconsider your statement here you might agree that it is incorrect. The advertising industry as it exists today is all about creating appetites and desires and in so doing, influencing behavior. Celebrity PR, military recruitment (and I'm not just talking games like America's Army), product marketing, political campaigns have all adopted teachings from the advertising world. And the worlds of advertising and media have gotten so tangled up you can't even tell where one begins and the other stops anymore.

Now perhaps we can say media is subject to the hypnosis clause (or whatever it's called) that says "you can't hypnotize someone into doing something they wouldn't ordinarily do." (Sirhan Sirhan conspiracy theorists would definetly disagree :) ) and so cannot make someone violent who isn't already predisposed to violent behavior. But in my mind, we are ALL to some degree or another, capable of anything if the necessary set of circumstances are present. So I think it's a bit of a cop out to say "it only affects people who are broken."

Media teaches and trains. Humans are great at learning and conditioning. We can learn the right stuff and the wrong stuff.

This is why I really dislike the focus on violence as if it's the most important question to be answered. Let's research medias effect on shaping our culture and our values. These effects can have global consequences.

Toby Grierson
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"But in my mind, we are ALL to some degree or another . . . it's a bit of a cop out"

That's pretty on the nose IMO.

Likewise all the things that advertising "creates" demand for are already demanded. Big Mac can "create" demand for proteins, carbohydrates and lipids because that demand has been bread in for literally billions of years. And we all have it, so of course seeing a nice picture of it has a real effect.

All products play on some demand people already have, be it status, food, love, whatever. And violence.

Come to think of it, I have no idea why you're saying his statement is incorrect. It might be more prudent to say it's true, but inconsequential due to the practical universality of the demands audiences bring to the table.

Brad Borne
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Psychologically, we latch on to information that aligns with our preconceptions, and filter out information that doesn't support or current beliefs.

So, I have a hard time believing that the media can truly train us.

Outside of just making us violent, though, I can definitely think back to a few 'informational' sections of old cartoons that I latched on to (Ninja Turtles taught me about rechargeable batteries, heh).

I am, though, deeply critical that the media could really change someone on an individual level. There's certainly a sense of zeitgeist and opinions that seem to go unquestioned, but I think the 'default opinions' on things influence media just as much as media influences the overall intellectual climate.

I don't believe that that could ever possibly be something that is policed. 'Alright, movies have been glorifying personal sacrifice too much recently, make sure that the next movie hollywood greenlights questions capitalist ideals!' What kind of awful legislation would have to go through to start something like that?

I'm sure a lot of people think the government needs to tell Apple to make their products more appealing, or to advertise against lining up for product launches...

Michael Joseph
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"Likewise all the things that advertising "creates" demand for are already demanded."

You're leading the witnesses.... to wrong conclusions.

Products don't play on demands people have. People have needs, not demands. Demand is an economics term. Nobody has a need for a Big Mac. People don't have need for nicotine filled smoke in their lungs. They don't have need for heroine in their veins. They don't have a need to get drunk every weekend. They dont have need for being 100 lbs overweight. If you're going to argue that you can reduce even these desires back to basic human needs for security or comfort, then you've essentially done a 180 and are now in agreement with me.

How so? Because you haven't really identified a base need, you've only highlighted HOW human psychological fraility (not base needs) would be exploited to CREATE appetites and demands for products that are not needed.

You are quite frankly radically redefining "demand" and "need" if you're going to say that demand and need for beer or cigarettes is the same thing. We can't really have a discussion if you insist on changing the meaning of words.

Michael Joseph
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"So, I have a hard time believing that the media can truly train us."

I'm sorry you feel that way. I feel like, how can you NOT be influenced by your own culture? It permeates you so thoroughly, it becomes you so much that you can arrive here honestly asking "how can it affect me?" Much TV and film have no minority characters of note (if any at all). Does this not train you somehow in subtle ways?

Influenced vs trained... look, ill settle for agreement that you can be influenced. I think from there though the flood gates open. How much influence do they really have? WHy aren't we doing more to study this?

There was recently a study that showed western TV programming is reinforcing racial stereotypes.

researchers are discovering that just a few stereotypical characters of minority races on TV goes a long way in shaping the majority's prejudices against an entire race. In a sense, where foolish characters played by actors of the majority race are viewed as the exceptions, foolish characters played by actors in the minority race are viewed as the norm. Moreover, fools upon fools has a tremendously negative psychological impact on the development of minority children.

incidentally, i think the "everyone" in the link is a being generous. People of mixed heritage for instance tend to be wiser on matters of race. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, I find it very interesting how it suggests that it may not be your fault. It just reminds me of the "privatize the gains, socialize the losses" mentality we see going around lately.

from the article
"While previous psychological studies have shown that racism, sexism and ageism tend to be universal, a new study led by Paul Verhaeghen, professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology, found that works in the American culture, namely literature, movies, TV, radio and the Internet, may contribute to the problem by exhibiting the same stereotypes that society works so hard to snuff out."

p.s. I ran out of eps of "Monk" to watch on Netflix and they recommended "Psych" ... after a few episodes uh.. no thanks. Dule Hill's character "Burton Guster" I found to be a racist caricature of a middle class black man. He's cowardly, loud, can barely control his emotions, subservient, always losing or drawing the short straw and boyish,

Michael Pianta
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Regarding the question of whether of not media can train us, I thought it was well established that people will start to believe anything if its repeated often enough, especially if it's repeated by an authority figure. For a young child I would argue that any adult could constitute such a figure, whereas for a more mature person it would have to be an elite of some kind - a prominent scientist, politician or artist. For this reason a young person is more susceptible to advertising, which I believe is also pretty well established.

Randall Stevens
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@Michael Joseph
So Gus is offensive to you, but Monk's mocking depiction of mental illness totally gets a pass. If you are going to act like you are offended by every little thing, at least have the decency to actually be offended by every little thing. Also if netflix recommends Chappelle show or The Boondocks, don't watch them. They might cause you to have a stroke.

Since you think that we are so subservient to the effects of our surroundings then it must be argued that this very argument you are presenting isn't your own and instead was placed there by some media that you had consumed, an idea which makes all thoughts derivative. Is that how far you want to take this argument? We can just fast forward through the rest of the steps and get to the universe being deterministic and there being no free will and then we can stop discussing everything. I imagine you had planned on stopping somewhere along that line of thinking prior to that, but it is where it's heading.

Arthur De Martino
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"Does this not train you somehow in subtle ways? "

Coming from a country where "race" is more a declaration than flat out DNA because of the miscegenation and from a designer background that watched so called minorities producing media that doesn't inclued them while myself working on media where main characters were members of a minority group. No.
It didn't train me at all. Neither said creators actually. They just decided on a particular character due to analytics, personal desire or what they though it would be fun or interesting. Same reason why I decided to make a game about the Native Brazilian struggle on the foundation of my very city.

In fact, in the perspective of someone who grew up watching/reading all sorts of media all around the world, never on my mind would I feel this as an issue at all.

At the end of the day, we are all human. The story of King Arthur has something to say to all of us, just as the story of Arariboia, no matter who you are or where you came from. At least this is what I see.

When I'm making a game about minorities I do so because it's a interesting story that needs to be told, or in the case of a game a interesting experience that needs to be played and it makes me uncomfortable to know that there are points of view that see the -need- to -represent- people from different ethinicities just because.

Phil Goddard
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Interesting article. I published a similar but much more personal blog post recently:

One word... 'Parents!'

Jayce Wagner
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Exactly, that's what it really comes down to.

Harlan Sumgui
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Reading popular media, gamasutra included, will not give you a good handle on the issue. You have to look towards non-stakeholders trained in rigorous scientific thought. Pandering and simplification, especially the fox news type of simplification wherein peoples prejudices are used to make them feel smart, wreck articles like this. Further, any serious discussion that relies upon anecdotal evidence is near worthless.

Jayce Wagner
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In the interest of brevity I neglected to include a works cited page, but if you'd like I can provide references for any of the assertions you take issue with.

Jason Robo
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I can see how video games can be used in conjunction with other forms of mind control like dehumanization of a sector of the populace whether by ethnicity or ideology, etc...

Semper Why
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You should double-check your statistics. The homicide rate for the USA in 2011 was only 4.8 per 100,000 and 2012 hasn't been released yet. I doubt that we've doubled the homicide rate in a year.

I suspect whomever was feeding you data is including suicides in that number.

Jayce Wagner
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Double checked my source, and you're absolutely right, looks like a typo on my part. Thank you for pointing it out!

Elyse cueto
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Hello! I saw that you commented on someone's post about a works cited page...I am doing a presentation/debate on media violence creating youth aggression and violence (I'm on the NO side of the debate) and would love to see your sources!

Thanks so much.