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Violent media and aggression

How the research into violent media is carried out, and what conclusions are being drawn.

By Christian Barnes-Young

There is a tendency among gamers, and some parents, to dismiss scientific research that indicates a link between exposure to violent media and aggression. Some gamers provide anecdotal evidence to refute the research: "I've been gaming all my life, and I'm not aggressive." Others state that researchers are biased against the gaming industry: "Who paid for that study?" Some just consider the entire topic stupid and move on. When the subject gets media coverage, the two sides of the argument are typically represented for a few minutes of point-counterpoint, and parents are left even more confused. Maybe that's why retail employees have accounts of parents who buy Mature-rated material for their children with the explanation "It's just a video game."

The scientific community has been researching the impact of violent media, including video games, on aggression for decades.

The scientific community has been researching the impact of violent media (including video games) on aggression for decades. During this time, researchers have become more confident that a relationship does exist between violent media and aggressive behavior and that the strength of this relationship has increased since the research was begun (and gaming has become more popular). Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson at the University of Iowa wrote in 2001, "Since 1975, the scientific confidence and statistical magnitude of this link have been clearly positive and have consistently increased over time." The relationship is fairly simple and goes like this: With exposure to violent media, individuals are more likely to think, feel, and behave aggressively. Now the size of the impact that violent media has on aggression has traditionally been described as weak; however, video games are reported to have the strongest relationship with aggression among the various forms of media due to the active involvement of the player. In other words, because video game players actively control game content, as opposed to passively watching it, the experience has a greater impact on the player.

Parents may be asking how exactly are these studies completed that find this relationship between playing violent video games and aggression. One method employed is to gain a measure of exposure to violent media (e.g., time playing violent video games) and a measure of aggression (e.g., self-report of aggressive thoughts). The researcher then computes a statistic known as a correlation to determine if there is a relationship between the measures that would not be expected to occur by chance. This type of research can indicate if a significant relationship is present and the strength, or magnitude, of the relationship; however, correlations cannot determine that one variable created the change in the other variable. A more robust method of study involves experiments, which are completed in laboratory settings where participants are randomly assigned to either a group that plays violent games or a group that plays nonviolent games. Following a period of gaming, the researchers attempt to measure aggression in some way. Some studies assessed the frequency of aggressive thoughts. Other studies looked at emotional characteristics, like irritability and anger, while other researchers actually provided the opportunity to behave aggressively. For example, researchers at the University of Amsterdam in 2007 told participants that they could blast the loser of a game with noise loud enough to inflict permanent hearing loss (no one was actually blasted). As predicted, participants who had recently played a violent video game inflicted more loud noises on their "partners," even though they were not provoked and were aware they may be causing hearing loss. The benefit of the experimental method is that it allows the researcher to infer a causal relationship: Because participants are similar aside from the group they are assigned to (playing a violent or nonviolent game), any difference on the measure of aggression should be due to whether they played a violent or nonviolent game.

How, exactly, are violence and gaming related? Scientific studies have found that exposure to violent media can result in short-term increases in aggressive thoughts, feelings of irritability or anger, and aggressive behavior. Long-term effects of exposure to violent media include an increased prevalence of delinquency. The long-term effects should not be interpreted as a causal relationship — no experiments have exposed participants to violent media for years to see what happens. Another way of interpreting the long-term effects is to say that individuals identified as delinquent have a greater likelihood of having had long-term exposure to violent media than those kids who are not considered delinquents. It is unclear if violent media results in delinquency or if delinquents are drawn toward violent media.

Christian Barnes-Young is an avid gamer and clinical consultant for the Continuum of Care, a South Carolina state agency that serves children with severe emotional disturbance.

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Comments from readers

"This is a good report, its nice to see one that supports evidence for both sides of the arguement. I personally believe that the worst cases of increased aggression (or lack of driving care for example) stem from games that are the most realistic. Playing Gran Turismo for hours is far more likely to make a person feel as though they can drive that way in a real car because it is a highly accurate representation of real life and so it becomes difficult for players to seperate fantasy from reality. I do not beleive that playing violent videogames increases aggression in the long term, no study ever made has shown any kind of increase in long-term behaviour from violent media. All the studies that exposed participants to violent media and then tested them in someway showed an increased short-term aggression, this was usually gone by the next day and gone completly by the next week. But the question still remains as to what prolonged exposure to violent media has on us, we are a! ll exposed to violence in some way, shape or form everyday, not just through TV and Videogames."