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Opinion: The Aggressive Instinct -- How We React To Games
Opinion: The Aggressive Instinct -- How We React To Games Exclusive
August 31, 2010 | By Connor Cleary

August 31, 2010 | By Connor Cleary
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Connor Cleary examines the evergreen topic of violence in video games -- citing recent science and critical writing to look at potential benefits and problems alike.]

You are a man alone in the wilderness with only your carefully-tended fire for company. Your clothes are made of fur and hide, and you have become separated from the rest of your hunting party. It looks like you have to spend the night alone— A twig snaps in the woods behind you. You turn around, baring your teeth, and tense up for a fight.

In this particular scenario, the aggressive tendencies of masculine nature are priceless assets. If that happens to be a predator sneaking up behind you, you’re ready to defend yourself; on the other hand, if it happens to be prey, you may have just found dinner.

However, in modern civilized culture those very tendencies that used to save our lives have become—for the most part—social liabilities. No matter how much we might want to, we are not allowed to beat our chests and throw feces at a crappy boss.

In video games we have a safe and healthy outlet for this aggression. We can transfer everything into the game and just vent—a kind of interactive catharsis.

This is perhaps why you’ll often find the most mild-mannered geeks suddenly bright eyed and giddy at the sight of an exploding skull a la Fallout 3, or laughing maniacally while playing GTA and enacting schemes worthy of moustache-twirling villains. It is the purging of everything negative that we suppress in our daily lives.

I believe that we now know that we can’t entirely dismiss the influence of our hunter-gatherer past on our current behaviors. Millions of years of evolution cannot be undone by several centuries of civilization and culture. Our “lower” brain is still dominated by emotion and instinct, and it is only by the grace of our pre-frontal cortex that we are able to suppress the negative emotions that naturally occur through the course of our daily lives.

Deep down, our instincts are remarkably similar to those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. So, it would be only a slight over-generalization to say that males are—by nature—more aggressive than females, and that females have—by nature—more of a gathering instinct than males.

Beyond these in-born tendencies, we also have to consider cultural concepts of what little boys and girls should and shouldn’t do. When boys roughhouse, it is generally considered normal and all but encouraged, meanwhile girls are usually discouraged from such “unladylike behavior.” This is not to say that there aren’t scores of female gamers who enjoy popping off a few thousand rounds a day in some FPS, but there is a reason that these games tend to be dominated by a male audience.

So how do those of us on the testosterone-weighted side of the scale deal with our socially unacceptable instincts toward aggression when we are suddenly all-grown-up and roughhousing isn’t cute anymore? Well, some of us are into sports, and some of us play violent video games—I’m pretty sure we all love explosions and action movies, though. angrybaby.jpg

Think about it -- what do males do when we win? We raise our clenched fists in victory and grit our teeth, often we shout or growl—cue the Tim Allen sound bite—and if there happens to be other men around we usually exchange celebratory high fives or something equally primitive. This is what the fulfillment of instinct looks like—and it looks the same for the athlete who just won the big game, and the geek who just won the big boss-battle.

Our non-gaming loved ones tend to be more than a little disturbed by our hyper-violent games. But this is primarily because there is a fundamental difference in the way we see these violent situations in games. In this hilarious article from GameSpy, author Michael Drucker makes a brilliant comparison: “In the same way you don't actually disappear from the universe when you're hit by a dodge ball, you know that you're not actually killing enemy soldiers in Call Of Duty.” Parents aren’t disturbed when little Timmy violently tackles another player in football, but cringe when he blows up alien monsters.

But, according to this article from the New York Times there may actually be legitimate sociological benefits to having video games as a healthy outlet. A labor economist named Lawrence Katz has put forth a tentative theory that video games may be contributing to a steady drop in crime rates. This is in spite of high unemployment numbers and the financial difficulties of our economic recession—factors which have historically produced a rise in crime.

So instead of contributing to an increase in violent behavior, as so many vocal game-haters would have you believe, it appears that video games might just do the exact opposite. By allowing us to fulfill our most deep-seated destructive and negative tendencies in a virtual world, we purge ourselves of these urges and are therefore less likely to lose control in real life.

To speak further on the old “blame video games for every act of violence” shtick, a special issue of the Review of General Psychology examined various studies regarding video games and sheds some interesting light on the topic. One study confirmed something many of us have always said: people who are going to become hostile or physically violent after playing video games or watching violent movies are people who had serious behavioral issues to begin with.

According to researcher Patrick Markey, PhD, "Those who are negatively affected have pre-existing dispositions, which make them susceptible to such violent media." These “pre-existing dispositions” are generally stated as: high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness. In other words, exactly the kind of people you already knew shouldn’t be playing violent games.

On a more positive note, we have Christopher Ferguson, PhD, researcher and guest editor of the special issue, who remarks on the potential benefits of video games for kids. Ferguson writes, "Recent research has shown that as video games have become more popular, children in the United States and Europe are having fewer behavior problems, are less violent and score better on standardized tests. Violent video games have not created the generation of problem youth so often feared."darksiders_war.jpg

So there you have it, straight from the desk of Dr. Ferguson, PhD: video games are clearly not some abominable evil that is poisoning the youth and—from the desk of Mr. Katz—they might actually be good for society.

We all have sources of frustration in our lives, and whatever those sources may be, we are lucky to have a healthy way to vent. We can slaughter demons instead of breaking dishes, demolish buildings on mars instead of putting holes in our own walls, or go on a virtual vehicular rampage instead of giving in to real-life road rage—even if that jerk totally did cut us off.

[Author's Disclaimer: It is nearly impossible to discuss general concepts on topics like gender roles without some kind of generalization -- definitely the case in this article. Nonetheless, I've tried to bring some interesting concepts to the table - feel free to comment on them below.]

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Nicholas Lovell
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Thanks for this article. I charted the rise of computer games revenues in the US versus violent crime rates. The results are a big challenge for those who believe that games engender violence.

The whole debate about the portrayal of violence in the media remains a problem. But there is now sufficient evidence that games can't be easily blamed for a rise in violent crime - not least because violent crime is in decline.

Gamin Geek
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Love the Ah-nuld pic. That is all!

David Delanty
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Gregory Kinneman
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The 3rd link you have says that teenagers who were not "highly neurotic, less agreeable and less conscientious" have either no or a small increase in aggression after playing violent games. None of them are mentioned as being LESS aggressive, though your article seems to imply that they are. Thus, the conclusion that article reaches is that violent games aren't necessarily going to hurt a normal child, but they're certainly not going to help in terms of their aggressiveness.

You also fail to address that many studies HAVE shown ties between playing violent games and real-world aggression without the participants suffering from behavioral issues. In fact, because the study used teenagers who most-likely have played games throughout their lives, it's possible these "highly neurotic, less agreeable and less conscientious" individuals became that way in-part due to games.

I don't feel that the ills of society (@Nicholas: or their decrease over time) should be blamed on games, but to deny the overwhelming evidence that games can and do increase aggressive behavior in children/adolescents is simply to be naive and dishonest.

Naturally the solution isn't to stop or censor games, but if we don't make the risks clear to people, how are we better than the cigarette companies? We should be encouraging more independent, unbiased studies! The more focused we can be on the problems and potential benefits of playing games, the more effectively we'll be able to keep our children safe and healthy.

Eric Geer
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Individuals that become aggressive over playing violent video games are the same individuals that become aggressive over playing violent games...fill in the, wrestling, rugby, boxing, board games, hobby games..etc or even watch violent action, drama, comedy, horror movies. It all has to do with the person and not the medium. The individuals are the ones that are the problem---the medium that "promotes" the violent act is merely a target for blame. People just choose to target video games because its the new comer to the entertainment industry. I've been playing games since I was like 5. I'm generally as docile as a hindu cow---and if not, I'm probably extremely drunk.

Will Jennings
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Wow. I'm embarrassed that this was printed. I don't understand what the inflammatory sexist baloney of the first half of the article (not just the pseudo-scientific hunter-gather garbage, but the first-person plural that assumes everyone reading this is male) has to do with media effects research, or what it's doing on an industry news site, except as a gimmick to drive page views.

Eric Geer
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I'm pretty sure you missed the first word in the article...actually in the title.


I think the opinion tells some truth while missing some facts...but no need to get your panties in a bunch over this one. I thought it was an interesting for sexist baloney...Hardcore gaming has been a majority male hobby only really until recently..where it is still a majority male i don't understand why you are so "embarrassed"--do feminist columns get responses as such when they don't cater to come off it...

PS...its all OPINION.

Seth Strong
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Actually feminists do get those kinds of comments. You can see all sorts of issues feminists get in response to their average post here .

I agree with Will but I'll phrase it differently. The gender roles included in the article take away from the article's point. The article is for aggressive gamers. We don't need to assume what the gender makeup of that group is. Even if males dominate that group, why are you alienating the females of that group?

If that were fixed, this article would simply be a good article.

Edward Whitehead
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He wasn't alienating the women from that group he explicitly said there are women in it they're just less common due to our evolutionary dispositions. It was slightly irrelevant to the article but it was by no means sexist.

Josh Green
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Jonathan Jennings
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I am a gamer, I love gaming but even I admit that somtimes I even feel our games go too far. I was watching grownups with my mom and sister and I saw a boy playing a game where he strangled and sawed up innocent people on a cruise...or course my initial reaction was " that's pretty bad" until my sister pointed out gears of war and all it's sawing man-sized aliens into gruesome halves goodness. of course I immediately tried to argue against her but even I admit sometimes I wince when I see the violence within that game series. no that it's necessary , nor do I think it psychologically transfigures me into a murderer but I do feel like we overlook just how violent our games are

.... of course if mommy and daddy also realized that M is placed on the cover for a reason we could avoid a host of problems...but apparently that's asking too much for the main influencing and controlling ( or uncontrolling) forces within a child's life . If games were to affect anyone negatively i would assume the ultra-violent MATURE -RATED ones could and would potentially have a worse affect on kids than they would adults.

Sebastion Williams
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Well written and referenced discourse, for those who actually read, thought about, digested and commented instead of vomiting on their keyboards. Anyone who pays attention to the development of species or social behaviors would understand the need for defined roles.

As a therapist, I have treated more children disturbed by violence in movies and music than in video games. And, certainly, there are a great deal of video games that should be limited to adult players. But, when I deal with parents and their children's video gaming habits, I tell them to monitor what they are playing in and outside of their home, note their behaiors before and after game sessions, ask them why they like certain games or characters, limit their game time and make certain they know that gaming is a priviledge and not a right.

Kids need outlets and troubled kids need them most. If they have opportunities for virtual violence that permits them to regain some sense of control and let off some steam, then we should let them - with adequate supervision, structure and support.

Josh Foreman
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I guess I agree with this opinion piece for the most part. I certainly don't see why anyone would get offended about biological and psychosocial facts... but whatever. I don't think that violent gaming is completely benign or beneficial, though. They are simply shocking to those who are not familiar with the language of the video game culture.

luke kronos
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This is an interesting article…. I mean, it sets up the problem, its good not to only discuss about games themself instead of discuss what videogames produces too. And I think is good to at least think about it.

I have lots of things I could say about this, but, I´ll just say: instead of point videogames as getting child violent, why don’t focus on their parents ? I mean, I think the real problem is in their family, not the PC or the console. For those who accuse the videogames, they’re just watching the top of the iceberg….