Video games and kids

On August 3, 2019, just hours after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas that left 23 dead, a familiar theme reared its head: video games were to blame.

The question of whether video games incite real-world violence among children and teenagers has generated controversy—and headlines—for decades. But despite more than 20 years of investigation, researchers have been unable to prove a causal relationship between playing violent video games and committing acts of violence. What’s more, a longitudinal study of the relationship between video game violence and human aggression found that any effect was “too small to be practically meaningful,” according to a meta-analysis published in Royal Society Open Science in 2020

So why does this myth persist? First, we need to consider the contested battleground surrounding the alleged link between video games and aggressive behavior.

The controversy over video games and violence

Video games have gotten a bad rap since we’ve been playing them. Just five years after Pong ricocheted onto the scene, in 1976, a lo-fi black-and-white game called Deadly Race — in which players score points by colliding with digital “gremlins” while fleeing your car — has earned the ire of newspapers and civic organizations for facilitating virtual violence. As a result of public backlash, the developers pulled it from store shelves.

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In the 1990s, the controversy intensified. Thanks to advances in computer graphics, the Mortal Kombat fighting game boasts gruesome details like spurting blood and the ability to rip an opponent’s heart out through their chest. In 1993 and 1994, he became the focus of a series of congressional hearings in violent video games and their potential impact on children.

Playing the Blame Game

The panic surrounding violence in video games famously rose again in 1999 when the game Doom, which essentially pioneered the first-person shooter genre, was blamed for the Columbine High School massacre. Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University who has studied violence in video games for decades, called the incident a watershed moment.

“It really cemented in the public imagination the idea that violent video games are responsible for school shootings or mass murders,” says Ferguson. “Except for a handful of people, there really felt like there was a public consensus on this — everyone thought that violent video games were causing these types of shootings.”

Read more: Exploring the complex influence of video games on young minds

As a result, in the early 2000s several prominent studies dug into this link – and suggested that violent video games do increase aggressive behavior. Yet, even at the time, not everyone agreed. Ferguson, then a graduate student, says he began to notice a discrepancy between the evidence and what researchers were saying.

“It’s not that you can’t prove that there’s some connection between violent video games and aggression,” says Ferguson, “[but] the data just wasn’t there.”

Studies of violence in video games

For years, research on whether violent video games fuel aggression in players — an area that includes more than 100 studies — has remained mixed. For example, in 2014 a a meta-analysis by scientists at the University of Innsbruck in Austria found that violent video games increased aggression in players. Meanwhile, just a year later, longitudinal study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture suggest that playing violent video games is not a significant predictor of physical aggression.

Ferguson says some researchers link video games to aggressive behavior based on shoddy science. In part, he continues, this is due to the perceived high stakes and emotionally charged nature of concerns about youth culture.

“There’s this idea that ‘we’re saving children’ or ‘children’s lives are at stake,'” he says. “Scientists are human too – we respond to social stimuli just like anyone else. If all the incentives are telling you to say one thing, then why would you say the other? Saying something isn’t a problem is a tough way to get a grant.

The problem of false positives

The problem of false positives is just one of the problems plaguing the field. (In the behavioral sciences, “false positives” can occur when scientists think something is statistically significant when the results are actually the result of chance, sampling errors, or problems with study methodology.) In an article written by Ferguson and published in International Journal of Law and Psychiatry in 2018, he found that research into video game violence is particularly prone to false positives.

However, in recent years more and more studies and meta-analyses — with more rigorous research methodologies — added to the growing body of evidence that any link between video games and aggressive behavior is dubious at best.

“Broadly speaking, this new wave of better studies really calls into question the received wisdom of 10 [to] 15 years ago,” says Ferguson. “This is where we are now.”

Do Violent Games Make You Violent?

In short, there is no hard, irrefutable evidence that playing violent video games leads to real-life violence—or even aggressive behavior—in children and teens.

However, this does not mean that every game is suitable for every player. Far from a uniform, monolithic hobby, video games are an ever-evolving art form that encompasses everything from online shooters like Fortnite (which doubles as its own social media hub) to the first-person exploration game What Remains of Edith Finch, which basically functions as an interactive novel. In 2022, just over 3 billion people have played video games worldwide.

“Every parent has the right to decide what’s right for their family,” says Ferguson. “My message is not to every parent to go and buy Grand Theft Auto V. […] Do what you are comfortable with as a parent. Just keep in mind that this is a moral decision, not an empirical one.”

What’s more, new research is now pointing to a host of mental health benefits that video games can provide. Playing social games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been found to be positively related to well-being, according to research from the University of Oxford published in 2021

So go ahead and get that controller – it’s not hurting anyone in most cases.

Read more: The surprising mental health benefits of video games

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