The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Q2: Will playing violent video games make my child more aggressive?

Many studies claim that playing violent video games causes violent and aggressive behaviour in young people. When reading reports on this topic it’s important to keep in mind that just because two things occur together it doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other. Let’s say that you live in an area with high levels of crime. You’ve also noticed high levels of police presence. We could say that there’s a high correlation between police presence and crime but common sense tells you that the police don’t cause the crime, they’re more likely to be there as a response to it. [1] That seems fairly straightforward, but confusing correlation and causality can happen easily in very complex situations.

An Vrombaut CM Yearbook 13webIn terms of the debate over violent video games, it has yet to be proven that the games cause young people to be violent. Perhaps they play violent video games as a result of high levels of aggression, rather than becoming aggressive because they are playing the games. It would be necessary to test this out over a fairly long period of time but there are so many other things going on in the lives of young people that it gets very difficult to disentangle all the factors that may either contribute to or protect from possible harmful effects. In the real world, rather than in lab experiments, most events have many causes.

Statisticians have procedures that can be used to check results but, for the rest of us, arguments about causal relationships are difficult to follow. Sometimes the headlines are the result of misinterpretation or the results getting over-simplified. One review claimed that the link between media violence and real-life aggression is almost as strong as the impact of smoking on lung cancer [2] but It may also be the case that there is a ‘publication bias’: this means that publishers of academic journals favour articles that claim negative effects over those showing no effect as they are more newsworthy. [3]

A US study published in 2010 looked at over 136 of these studies, covering over 130,000 participants, in an attempt to summarise the current research and come to some conclusions. It found that the clear majority of scientific research indicated that exposure to violent video games was significantly related to higher levels of aggressive behaviour and feelings of anger, as well as possibly desensitizing players to violence. It was also suggested that children may be more susceptible than young adults to the effects of these games. [4]

Content and context are important here. There have been questions raised over the research techniques used, the method of measuring ‘aggression’, and even the definition of ‘violence’ in these studies. [5] What do we mean when we talk about a violent video game? In the UK, PEGI (Pan European Game Information) has responsibility for rating video and computer games and providing an indication of content in eight categories (eg sex, violence, bad language or discrimination). The minimum recommended age for playing games is categorised as 3, 7, 12, 16 and 18. Their statistics for 2012 show that a third of all games were rated in the 3 category and more than three-quarters are rated 12 and under, with less than 10% rated as 18. However, while the icon for violence is not used at all for games rated as 3, nearly a third of games rated as 7 are considered to have some violent content, although this is described as ‘cartoonish’. [6] Games that indicate violence but rated as 12 could include realistic looking violence towards fantasy characters (eg dragons) or non-realistic looking violence (eg characters disappear in a puff of smoke) to realistic human or animal characters. Levels of violence are considerably higher in games rated as 16 and 18 and can include realistic looking injury.

Whether played online, on consoles, or on handheld devices, video games with violent content have been connected with producing a number of emotions and reactions from the young people playing them. Despite the common argument that video games are detached from the real world, one study has shown that players may have feelings of guilt related to virtual violence, particularly if the violence is not justified within the game. The study suggests that violent video games may provoke ‘moral responses’ and create feelings of wrongdoing in those that play them. [7]

Other studies indicate that playing video games described as pro-social, in other words emphasising co-operation and actions benefiting others, can increase empathy and sensitivity in players. An article providing results from three studies in Singapore, Japan and America found that young people responded to playing pro-social games by behaving in a more helpful manner towards others. [8]

Some games require aggressive gameplay but with a positive aim, such as saving an heroic character. Some of these complexities are highlighted in a study [9] that suggests that players whose aim was to protect their friend showed less aggressive behaviour compared to those who did not have this pro-social or helpful intention. There are limitations to this study as there are for many in this field but the authors conclude by suggesting that designers could focus on providing the entertainment and excitement that gamers want, but within a positive context.

Studies showing the potential positive effects of games can be open to the same criticisms as those suggesting negative effects. Apart from the problems of deciding the real causes of changes in behaviour, there are other issues connected with the design of these studies, such as how the participants are selected, the duration of the study and asking loaded questions. Overall, it has not been proven that playing violent video games will cause a child or young person to commit an act of violence in the real world but it’s possible that the content of a game can affect children’s tendency to behave in a particular manner, whether that’s anti-social or pro-social, depending upon the amount of exposure to the game in question. Aggression in children is likely to be caused by a wide variety of factors, and while playing violent video games may be one of them, it should not be considered in isolation. [10]

So the jury’s still out on this. Parents who are concerned about the potential effects of violence can choose to make active use of the guidance provided by PEGI. As Tanya Byron commented in the review she carried out for the government in 2008: “Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home. These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence.” [11] There are lots of studies that suggest there may be some kind of a link but it’s difficult to compare them – they’re all looking at different things and defining violence or aggression in different ways.

Illustration by Anne Vrombaut 

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[1] This example and others are in ‘Bad science hurts us all: a call to end ‘man bites dog’-style publication’. Laura & John Arnold Foundation blog dated 15th November 2013 at www.arnoldfoundation.org/news/bad-science-hurts-us-all-call-end-%E2%80%9Cman-bites-dog%E2%80%9D-style-publication
[2] Strasburger, V., Jordan, A. and Donnerstein, E. (2010). Health effects of media on children and adolescents. Pediatrics 125 (4) 756-767.
[3] Ferguson, C. & Kilburn, J. (2010). Much Ado About Nothing: The misestimation and overinterpretation of violent video game effects in eastern and western nations: Comment on Anderson et al. Psychological Bulletin 136(2): 174-178.
[4] Anderson, C. et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 136(2): 151-173.
[5] Buckingham, D. (2007). The Impact of the media on children and young people with a particular focus on computer games and the internet, pp.27-34. Prepared for the Byron Review on Safer children in a digital world.
[6] PEGI (Pan European Game Information) (2012). Annual report.
[7] Hartmann, T., Toz, E. & Brandon, M. (2010). Just a game? Unjustified virtual violence produces guilt in empathetic players. Media Psychology. 13(4): 339-363.
[8] Gentile, D. et al. (2009). The effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behaviors: International evidence from correlational, longitudinal and experimental studies. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin. 35(6): 752-763.
[9] Gitter, S., Ewell, P., Guadagno, R et al. (2013). Virtually justifiable homicide: The effects of prosocial contexts on the link between violent video games, aggression, and prosocial and hostile cognition. Aggressive Behavior 39 (5) 346-354.
[10] Howard-Jones, P. (2011). The impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing: Evidence from the sciences of mind and brain. Oxford: Nominet Trust. 
[11] Byron, T. (2008). Safer children in a digital world: the report of the Byron review. Nottingham, DCSF.

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