Fighting talk: How much should we worry about the playing of violent video games?

The following blog is based on an article I had published in the October 4 (2013)  issue of video game magazine MCV Interactive Entertainment Weekly. 

The issue of video game violence has once again arisen following allegations that Aaron Alexis, the man who killed 12 people last month (September 16, 2013) at the Washington Navy Yard, played violent video games for up to 18 hours a day. I was asked to comment by various national newspapers on whether the playing of violent video games had any role in the subsequent killings.

While there’s a growing body of research (particularly in America) that claims there’s a link between the playing of violent video games and subsequent behaviour, the problem with most of it is that it doesn’t follow people over a long period time. In short, most of the research is what we researchers call ‘cross-sectional’ – it only examines players at one particular ‘snapshot’ in time. As a result, I don’t think that there is any scientific research shows a definite link. Furthermore, much of the research has been carried out has been experimental and carried out in non-ecologically valid settings (i.e., in a laboratory setting). In fact, all of the measures used to assess “aggression” are proxy measures that are not related to actual violent actions (because it is unethical to try and induce actual violent acts within a research experiment).

The published survey studies – including my own – are mostly of a correlational nature and none of these demonstrate causality (only that – at best – there may be an associative link). One of the major problems with all of the research is that studies typically fail to take into account all the other types of violence that individuals are exposed to day-to-day (such as the violence they see on the news, the violence they see in films and television, and the violence seen in their own lives and local community). Another problem is that many academic journals only publish studies that show statistically significant findings (meaning that they are more likely to publish a study that suggests a link between playing violent video games and subsequent aggression rather than those that do not).

Personally, I believe people like Alexis were pre-disposed towards violence to start with and there was probably something inherently wrong with him in the first place (particularly as some reports claim that he often heard hallucinatory voices suggesting some kind of psychosis). Therefore, someone like Alexis would choose or seek out the most violent video games to play, and to watch the most violent and bloodthirsty films.

Someone like Alexis may have had an inherent trait towards violence that meant he sought those particular activities out. Video games may have had an influence in informing how he might do something and give him ideas, but they are unlikely to be the root cause of any actual violence. If I played those games all day every day, I really don’t think it would turn me into a homicidal maniac. Alexis may have been exposed to violence when he was younger because research shows what we’re exposed to in our childhoods has a great influence in later life.

I must have watched thousands of violent events (both fictional and real) and I have played the occasional violent video game but it hasn’t changed my behaviour in any way (at least I don’t think it has). Saying that, I’m a father to three screenagers and I don’t let them play violent video games. Just because I don’t personally think the evidence shows there’s a link, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any effect. It’s just science has failed to demonstrate a conclusive cause.

It’s not about putting the blame on the game. At best, playing violent video games is at best a contributory factor to violence. But it shouldn’t be a scapegoat because all individuals have to take responsibility for their actions.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Anderson, C.A., Gentile, D.A., & Dill, K.E. (2012). Prosocial, antisocial and other effects of recreational video games. In D.G. Singer, & J.L. Singer (Eds), Handbook of Children and the Media, Second Edition, (pp. 249-272). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B.J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H.R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151-173.

Bartlett, C. P., Anderson, C.A. & Swing, E.L. (2009). Video game effects confirmed, suspected and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation and Gaming, 40, 377-403.

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

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologists, 68, 57-74.

Ferguson, C. J., San Miguel, S. & Hartley, T. (2009).  Multivariate analysis of youth violence and aggression: The influence of family, peers, depression and media violence. Journal of Paediatrics, 155, 904-908.

Gentile, D. A. & Stone, W. (2005). Violent video game effects in children and adolescents: A review of the literature. Minerva Pediatrics, 57, 337-358.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Video games and aggression: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4, 203-212.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Video game violence and aggression: Comments on ‘Video game playing and its relations with aggressive and prosocial behaviour’ by O. Weigman and E.G.M. van Schie. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 147-149.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression?  CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). The psychological effects of videogames on young people. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 31(1), 119-133.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Violent video games and attitudes towards victims of crime: An empirical study among youth. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, in press.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on October 10, 2013, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Cyberpsychology, Games, Obsession, Online addictions, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Dear Dr Griffiths, what is your take on abuse on internet? I’m a member of a private forum on which abusive and violent behavior erupted. Some members proposed that we should have a stricter moderation rules. Other think that grown up people don’t need protection on the internet as it is not a real life therefore violent and abusive comments post no real threat.
    I understand that it’s nowhere near the subject of the post above my comment but I searched your blog and found nothing on violence on the internet.
    I would be very grateful for your opinion on the raised matter.

    KInd regards.

      • Thank you for your reply. I’ve read your post but it does not answer my question as such. I hope you don’t mind me dwelling on it ;). I have contacted you because I suppose it is an interesting case study and moreover one of the interlocutors cited your comment about ‘relying heavily on technology’ and treating it as ‘electronic friend’ to support an argument that only distressed and emotionally immature people get offended/hurt by trolls. Our forum is female members only, all above 30 yrs of age and all with higher education level. Some of us know each other in a real life too, still we haven’t escaped abusive behaviours. As a psychologist, do you think that online trolling and abusive behaviours ar as harmful as those in a real life situations?

      • Yes, I personally think online abuse can be more psychologically devastating than offline abuse – particularly if abusive comments are archived and can be read by anyone. Hopefully I can put a blog together on this topic in the future so thanks for your comments. Best wishes. Mark

  2. Thank you. I really do appreciate your help. I’m looking forward to your blog about online abuse. Best wishes. Renata

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