Video Games and Violence: Facts and Fear

Video games are back in the news again after a series of tragedies in the United States. It has become a familiar pattern, a young adult commits violence and an immediate response is to lay blame upon video games as the catalyst for the anger behind their abhorrent actions.

In the media, this blaming of video games is framed as a debate. It’s not. Decades of research have conclusively shown that playing video games does not increase aggression or violent behavior in players. The misalignment between the data and the perception can lead to educators needing to justify their use of video games in the classroom against unfounded concerns from administrators and parents about the dangers video games pose. As proponents of video games for learning, our role in these times is to help others separate evidence-based fact from fear and scapegoating.

As Bogost (2019) outlines, early studies on video games and aggression contained vague definitions of violent video games; Pac-Man was considered violent. Some of these early studies relied upon self-reported data collected through surveys without observing the act of gameplay itself. Critically, assumptions entrenched in the researchers positioned video games as a destructive influence. Video games inherited from cartoons and comic books before them the mantle of blame for society’s ills.

Since those early studies, the popularity of video games has ballooned. Yet, as Snyder (2006) documents, the rise of video games corresponded with a marked decrease in youth-related violent crime. Defenders of the misguided belief that video games cause violence will often point to the fact youth who commit violent crimes play video games. Some do. What’s problematic about this claim is 90% of teens (n= 743) play video games (Pew Research Center, 2018). When practically everyone plays some form of digital game, it’s easy to make unfounded correlations.

As video game literacy has increased, researchers have developed a more nuanced understanding of the role video games play in the lives of teens and young adults. Kutner and Olson’s (2008) Grand Theft Childhood investigated the role video games play in the lives of kids. Where Kutner and Olson innovated in their research was to ask kids about their gameplay habits devoid of assumptions toward those habits. Focus groups with kids and parents found video games are a highly social activity—not the domain of socially isolated misanthropes. More revealing was that boys in the focus group played violent video games as a way to cope with anger and stress. Video games are not a catalyst for anger and stress, but a pressure release valve for them.

Studies purportedly linking video games to violence have been questioned on mismatched results and hampered by the inability of fellow researchers to duplicate the results. Prominent video game researcher Brad Bushman has been a frequent speaker and consultant on the violent effects of video games. Three of his papers have now been retracted, with one of the retractions resulting in the Ohio State University revoking the PhD of one of his coauthors. When it comes to connecting video games to violent acts, the data have been absent at best and manipulated at worst.

This lack of reliable data on one side contrasts sharply with studies and reports documenting no connection between games and violence. As Christopher J. Ferguson, a Stetson University psychologist, tells Bogost (2019) “there’s not a relationship between violent video games and violence in society. There’s not evidence of a correlation, let alone a causation” (para. 14).

Ferguson’s claim is bolstered by conclusions reached by the American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology (note that Ferguson is the chair of the committee) and the 2018 Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, which concluded video games are a distraction from other societal and behavioral factors that lead to violent behavior.

In one of the more recent studies, Przybylski and Weinstein (2019) surveyed adolescents (n = 1,004) and their caretakers to test the hypothesis that video game play is positively related to aggressive behavior as defined by the caretakers. The research found evidence of angry feelings stemming from competition or feelings of incompetence while playing, but found no statistically significant indication of aggression. Sometimes, kids get angry and frustrated playing video games, but not violent.

Video games do not cause violent or antisocial behavior. As educators, it’s important to set aside fear or worry and look squarely at the facts. It’s our responsibility to do our part to cut through the noise of people looking for something to blame in order to avoid the tough questions and hard choices. Video games shouldn’t have to suffer with that burden—the data show they don’t deserve it.

Until next month, be good to each other.

References and Research

American Psychological Association. (2017). News media, public education and public policy committee. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/violent-video-games.aspx

Bogost, I. (2019, August 5). Video-game violence is now a partisan Issue. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/08/video-game-violence-became-partisan-issue/595456/

Federal Commission on School Safety. (2018). Final report of the federal commission on school safety (Report No. 123). Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/documents/school-safety/school-safety-report.pdf

Kutner, L., & Olson, C. (2008). Grand theft childhood: The surprising truth about violent video games and what parents can do. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

McCook, A. (2018, August 31). Prominent video game-violence researcher loses another paper to retraction [web log]. Retrieved from https://retractionwatch.com/2018/08/31/prominent-video-game-violence-researcher-loses-another-paper-to-retraction/

Oransky, I. (2017, August 25). Updated: Ohio State revokes PhD of co-author of now-retracted paper on shooter video games [web log]. Retrieved from https://retractionwatch.com/2017/08/25/co-author-now-retracted-paper-shooter-video-games-may-phd-revoked/

Pew Research Center. (2018, May 31). Teens, social media, & technology. Washington, DC: AUthor. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2018/05/PI_2018.05.31_TeensTech_FINAL.pdf.

Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2019). Violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behaviour: Evidence from a registered report. Royal Society Open Science, 6(2). Retrieved from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.171474

Snyder, H. N. (2006, December). Juvenile arrests 2004. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn
Jeff Kuhn serves a split appointment at OHIO University, working for the Office of Instructional Innovation and in the Games Research and Immersive Design (Grid) Lab. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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One Response to
Video Games and Violence: Facts and Fear

  1. Saurabh Anand says:

    ‪I think it’s high time people should understand the meaning of intentional use of technology.‬ In dis modern 🌎 where 👶🏻 get exposed 2 & R comfortable wid tchnlgy even b4 they strt formal edu. Such plfrms might aid in acceleratng knowledge facilitation & build on existing lang skills. ‪Technological avenues mo‬tivate & retain potential learners’ interests.‪ Of course, there could be side effects but they’re still lesser in quantity.‬

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