Debating Video Game Violence


Since my time began with JAC, I have attempted to cover big topics in criminal justice – painting with broad strokes and covering large quantities of ideological ground. Most of these topics have been couched in criminal justice reform, opinions on on-going policy, or issues pertinent to JAC’s topical focus of re-entry and the post-incarceration phase. For the next couple weeks, I’d like to depart from this tradition and cover some new material; material that is both provocative and highly contested in the public sphere. I’m going to be exploring criminal justice topics, casting a wide net on the functions and mechanisms that drive institutional response to crime. I also want to examine the explanatory factors of criminal behavior, debunking or upholding commonly presented arguments. In total, I want to drive the discussion in a more youthful and inviting manner. I’m not going to give my opinion on any specific topic and will try to avoid the inclusion of any personal position. The goal here is to present the arguments and determine the quality of scientific literature supporting either side. All of this and done through a completely objective and neutral lens. With that said, this week I’m gonna talk about video game violence. Yes, the violence you’ve all heard since the early 1990s as the cause for a spike in violent mass shootings and a general source of discontent among averagely behaved teens across Middle America. The debate rages on in the public square, recently reemerged by President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings at a high school in Florida. With decades of research now before us and ripe for review, now seem like a perfect time to determine the validity of claims made connecting exposure to violent video games as the source for unfettered violence.


The mass production and sale of video games, particularly on personal home devices, is a relatively new media venture. It was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School where 15 people died (a number that includes the shooters), that many in the public started to call for answers and was quickly tempted by the lore of an easy explanation for the rise in youth violence. It was the precipitous growth in media violence – critics claimed – which was responsible for driving apathetic and disaffected teens to a murderous rage. It didn’t take long before empiricists came behind to support these speculations with experimental research. The earliest studies on violence connected both short- and long-term exposure to video games to increases to aggressive behavior[1], aggressive thoughts[2], and decreases in pro-social attitude[3]. The theory these parties claimed served as a foundation was known as a General Aggression Model and in context worked liked this: exposure to video games produces changes in several cognitive and affective processes – including desensitization – that results in relatively stable increases in aggressive personality. Here the idea was that being desensitized also meant a person could lose their ability to empathize with another person’s pain or suffering and that they would generate the opinion that violence was a normal component of life. In one such study, Carnagey, Bushman, and Anderson (2007) experimented with 257 college students. In each case, students were asked to log the number of hours they played a video game – whether violent or non-violent. After a period of exposure, students were shown videos of real world violence and asked to indicate their opinion on a variety of dimensions including whether the content was: thrilling, exciting, fun, or addicting. Their results echoed many before them in suggesting that cognitive and affective changes in attitude translated into more severe and persistent levels of aggression and lower willingness to help others. Studies supporting a drop-in empathy were numerous and bolstered policy calls to restrict game titles to audiences and drive censorship of game content.


As a greater number of studies came to find a link between video game violence and real-world aggression, critics found glaring methodological and validity issues however – some of which were consequential to reported findings. Chris Ferguson at Texas A&M (2007) was among the first to question the validity of science used in many of these studies and was deeply concerned with the meteoric rise in empirical work connecting the two conditions as causal. He claimed that many negatively valued publications – those disconnecting video game play with aggression – were not getting published and as such skewed the preponderance of available literature[4]. It was also noted that measures were not standardized or reliable, thus produced larger effect sizes.

Why Does This Matter?

Well, this and other critical examinations called into question the very scientific merit of decades of previous research. It now became unclear whether there is in fact a connection between violence observed on the screen and increased propensity for aggression in the real world. The disputed and mixed nature of the research became so problematic that when the Supreme Court ruled on video game content in the Brown v. EMA (2011) case, a 7-2 court noted that there was no clear link between video games and harmful effect. A new class of scholarly work since then has followed a similar sentiment. In a 2011 study by Ferguson, Miguel, Garza, and Jerabeck of 165 youth, zero notable effects over a three-year period were found between violent video game exposure and aggression[5]. Instead, pre-existing variable like depression, exposure to family violence, and peers were far more powerful in predicting future aggression or violence. The hysteria surrounding violence in video games has seemed to settle since then, as evidence from both victimology and arrest statistics suggest 40-year lows in youth violence despite continual growth in the video game industry. Scholars critical of the link argue that youth violence and violent games were connected only through a moral panic, one that was exaggerated through media itself. The general anxiety over violent teens taking over the streets because of an addiction to violent imagery in games is from that perspective no different from the concerns raised during the War on Drugs in the 1970s or Satanic ritual abuse scandals of the 1980s.


As this topic finds itself back to the surface, whether re-introduced by policy makers or scholars, the evidence is unclear and the debate rages forward. If the most recent literature is to be of any indicator, however, it seems that violence in adolescent populations is far more nuanced than a single correlate. Behavior is more likely to be a confluence of many different factors that cannot be easily reduced to the binary. It would do well for policy makers calling for greater restrictions and more punitive measures to combat violence to consult the more recent behavioral literature before putting anything into concrete.

[1] Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A metanalytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.

[2] Calvert, S. L., & Tan, S. L. (1994). Impact of virtual reality on young adults’ physiological arousal and aggressive thoughts: Interaction

versus observation. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15, 125-139.

[3] Carnagey, N. L., Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2006). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 489-496

[4] Ferguson, C. J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12(4), 470-482.

[5] Ferguson C.J., San Miguel C., Garza A., Jerabeck J.M. (2012) A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: A 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 141-146.

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