Do Video Games Cause Violence?

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Reader’s Question

My question relates to the impact that video games may have on an individual, as opposed to the impact they may have on people in general.

From Googling the subject, it seems that studies show little or no causal link between the playing of violent games and aggressive behavior. But I am curious about whether or not anyone has studied individual cases of extreme violence (as in mass slaughter cases), particularly where the perpetrator is of an age or group where the playing of video games is common. Does the experience of getting a buzz out of wasting multiple persons during video game play have an impact on a person when they are at a low in their lives, seeking a way out, fantasizing about another way to live or to ‘go out on a high?’

It seems to me that perhaps these games are some kind of a trigger (or a planted seed), albeit for a very small number of individuals with flawed characters. I imagine violent movies would have less impact than games, as they are not as interactive, nor such a long-lasting or intense personal experience. I question whether, as games become more realistic and more pervasive, they may also become more influential. Maybe there are more ticking time bombs out there now than in the past; people who, when their mood darkens, may become more dangerous as a result of their playing violent video games.

I do not have any personal experience of this, but I instinctively feel there is something worrying about the number of young people who become immersed in these games, and apparently become more introverted as a consequence.

Do we know the impact? I’m Curious.

Psychologist’s Reply

In light of the recent shooting spree in Aurora, Colorado, in which twelve people were killed and 58 wounded, I would imagine that questions such as these are on the minds of many. I think it is human nature to want to find a reason or cause for this type of event; to be able to point to a way that some person, some law, or some system failed. Why would we want to be able to identify a fault or cause? Because then something could be fixed or changed to prevent innocent people from being hurt or killed in the future.

I wish as much as anyone that there were a solution or way of reliably predicting and preventing this type of event. However, it is impossible to identify one variable among many as a broad or a specific cause of something like this.

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Let’s imagine that a person who engaged in this type of shooting spree had been playing first-person shooter video games all day every day for years. One might be tempted to think that the experience of spending hours as a simulated first person shooter had caused the player to be more likely to act violently in real life. Or, one might wonder if the person who played that much had begun to confuse reality and fantasy. Finally, one might think that the focus on video games could have created a barrier to the player joining and benefitting from alternative social activities. Any of these results of gaming could be true, but none would likely have been the sole cause of a violent act. A person who is vulnerable to the negative effects of playing video games likely has other factors in place that create risk. It could even be that a person who is, as you suggested, a “ticking time bomb” for other reasons is drawn to a game that allows him or her to escape distressing feelings or thoughts. I highlight this as an example of how video games could be the sign that something is wrong, as much as the cause. There is a chicken-and-egg aspect to this conversation. Does the person who is likely to act violently prefer and select video games with violence? Or does the violence in video games make it more likely that a person who is at risk of violence will act it out? The other side that bears mentioning is that what we do not hear about the many people who play video games for hours a day, for years on end, who never think of or wind up hurting others.

One study compared the brain functioning of video gamers and a control group when faced with images of violence, and found that there were differences in how the two groups processed and reacted to the images (Montag, et. al., 2012). The authors suggested that those who frequently play violent video games may be desensitized to violent images, compared to those who do not. A copy of an in-press version of this study is available online. More information is needed to know whether this difference in brain functioning correlates to differences in behavior.

Research is how we in psychology know what we know, and yet findings must always be placed in context. It is often difficult for laboratory research to be generalizable to real life, and case studies and retrospective examinations cannot with certainty identify cause and effect.

As a clinician, I believe that any choice or behavior is the result of multiple causes, both immediate and distant in time. There are no formulas to determine when a person will act out on violent thoughts or impulses. However, it is my opinion that mental health or the lack thereof is an important context for this act and others like it. Video games might be one piece of the puzzle in cases like this, but I typically expect to find mental health variables such as mood lability or disorders, impulse control problems, traumatic events, isolation and relationship problems, stress, substance use, and a lack of coping skills.

When I heard of the recent tragedy that occurred in Colorado, I wondered, as you did, about why. To be sure, there is nothing that could possibly excuse or justify the actions of a shooter who injures and kills people. With that said, I admit that I wondered about how he came to the choices he made. I wondered about his personality, childhood history, psychiatric family history, and recent stressors that might have contributed to the choice to act on his violent thoughts. Sometimes suicide or homicide is the result of an impulse, and other times it is the result of a plan borne out of hopelessness, anger, and despair, or even psychosis. My hope is that mental health treatment will continue to become more available, accessible, and effective for those who feel as if violence toward themselves or others is the only choice.

Montag, C.; Weber, B.; Trautner, P.; Newport, B.; Markett, S.; Walter, N. T.; Felten, A. and Reuter, M. (2012) ‘Does excessive play of violent first-person-shooter-video-games dampen brain activity in response to emotional stimuli?’, Biological Psychology 89(1): 107-111.

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