For a long time in my career studying psychology I repeatedly ran into this claim from people, politicians, and even other psychologists that the science was settled; that a causal relationship exists whereby violent video-games lead to violent people. I would have been perfectly happy to accept this supposedly settled science if I had ever found a compelling answer to a nagging fact that I happened to already know—that the violent crime rate of the United States had been plummeting since these violent video-games came into existence and became popular.
In 1992 the first “M” rated game came onto the market, Mortal Kombat. An “M” rating of course meant that the video game was intended for mature audiences only. It was the equivalent to an R-rated movie. The two-dimensional fighting game featured gratuitous blood, decapitations, and other such violent acts that you, the player, could direct the character to engage in.
Since 1992, video-games have become much more violent and much more realistic. Series like God of War, Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, Killing Floor, and many others regularly push the limits of graphic realism and gore. Even Mortal Kombat itself has many gruesome sequels spanning into modern day. And yet, according the United States Bureau of Justice, the violent victimization rate plummeted from 79.8 victims per 1,000 people in 1993 to 20.6 in 2017 (Morgan & Truman, 2018). The homicide rate has gone from 9.5 per 100,000 people in 1993 to 5.3 in 2017, and even lower since.
Thus, the only reasonable conclusions could be one of the following:
1. That violent media does cause more violence, but at such a small margin that it is drowned out by all of the other much more important factors that also affect violence.
2. That violent media has no effect on real-world violence.
3. That violent media reduces real-world violence.
Despite these hardly disputable lines of reasoning, politicians from both sides of the isle including liberals like Hillary Clinton have demanded reform and overbearing restrictions on video-games. It has become a full-blown moral panic whereby a society develops “overblown fears of an innocuous scapegoat or ‘folk devil,’ which is then blamed for a real (or often imagined) social problem” in the words of researchers Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson (2017).
More recently, Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Dan Patrick have blamed violent video-games on the shooting in Dayton Ohio (Bella, 2019). So what does the modern research on video-games and violent media say today?
Evidence and Scientific Consensus
In case you had not guessed already, the science was not settled on this topic. At least, not if the claim in question was that violent media lead to meaningful real-world increases in violence. I remember reading in my social psychology textbook years ago the claim that violent media—including violent video-games—has been shown to increase violence in the long and short term using multiple study paradigms (Baron, Branscombe, & Dyrne, 2008).
Among the many problems with the old studies cited by my textbook were that they fell far short of ruling out the alternative hypothesis that people who commit violence in the real world are simply more drawn to violent video-games. Researchers seem to have just assumed video-games must have been the antecedent.
It is true that there is a decent amount of scientific evidence supporting somewhat mundane real cognitive changes temporarily after consumption of violent video-games (Anderson et al., 2010). However, as Ferguson (2007) indicated during their meta-analysis of the data, the reported negative effects are minute, and likely at least in part a result of publication bias. That makes sense given the statistics regarding violent crime that I mentioned.
The most distinctly measurable negative effects from violent video-game exposure tend to be, again, mundane and short-lived. Examples are people being more likely to expose others to loud unpleasant noises, report feeling more hostile on a questionnaire, and hypothetically saying they might give hot sauce to people who do not like spicy foods (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Barlett, Branch, Rodeheffer, & Harris, 2009; P. M. Markey & Scherer, 2009).
In a robust recent study, Markey, Markey, and French (2015) tested the hypothesis that such minor and temporary cognitive increases in aggression translate to real-world violence. They analyzed violent crime, video game sales, internet keyword searches for violent-video game guides, and the release dates of popular violent video games. The results were unambiguous in that violent video-games had no effect on real-world violent crime or acts.
Like the many moral panics before it—rock and roll leading to being a hoodlum in the 1950s, heavy metal and Satanism in the 1980s, Pokemon and Dungeons & Dragons being related to Satanism in the 1990s—violent video-games seem to be drastically less dangerous than the folk beliefs of politicians and puritanical parents would have us believe. Opponents of video-games took small kernels of truth to weave an absurd story of a causal relationship between it and real-world violence.
It is understandable that people shaken to their core by massacres and mass shootings wanted something they could fix to solve the problem. However, just creating a scapegoat to attack is not going to solve the real problems.
- Anderson, C. A., & Dill, K. E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 772–790. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.112
- Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., … Saleem, M. (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. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018251
- Barlett, C., Branch, O., Rodeheffer, C., & Harris, R. (2009). How long do the short-term violent video game effects last? Aggressive Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.20301
- Baron, R. A., Branscombe, N. R., & Dyrne, D. (2008). Agression. In Social Psychology (12th ed., pp. 347–373). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
- Bella, T. (2019). Politicians suggest video games are to blame for the El Paso shooting. It’s an old claim that’s not backed by researche. Retrieved August 21, 2019, from The Washington Post website: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/05/kevin-mccarthy-dan-patrick-video-games-el-paso-shooting/
- Ferguson, C. J. (2007). The good, the bad and the ugly: A meta-analytic review of positive and negative rffects of violent video games. Psychiatric Quarterly, 78(4), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11126-007-9056-9
- Markey, P., & Ferguson, C. (2017). Teaching us to fear: The violent video game moral panic and the politics of game research. American Journal of Play, 10(1), 99–115.
- Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N., & French, J. E. (2015). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(4), 277–295. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000030
- Markey, P. M., & Scherer, K. (2009). An examination of psychoticism and motion capture controls as moderators of the effects of violent video games. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(2), 407–411. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2008.10.001
- Morgan, R., & Truman, J. (2018). Criminal victimization, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv17.pdf
- Reported murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate in the United States from 1990 to 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved from Statista website: https://www.statista.com/statistics/191223/reported-murder-and-nonnegligent-manslaughter-rate-in-the-us-since-1990/