Video Games and Aggression
From The Psychologist, September 1997, ps 397-401
Many video games include an element of aggression and this is thought by some to have a detrimental effect on the players. Despite continuing controversy, there has been little systematic research, so here Mark Griffiths reviews the research and puts the debate into an empirical context.
One of the main concerns that has constantly been raised against video and computer games is that most of the games feature aggressive elements. This has led some people to state that children become more aggressive after playing such games (e.g. Koop, 1982; Zimbardo, 1982). However, these assertions have been made without the backup of empirical evidence. Despite the continuing controversy for over 15 years, there has been relatively little systematic research. The issue is ever more important because new games like Mortal Kombat are using more explicit representations of extreme and realistic violence.
Theoretically, video games might have the capacity to promote aggressive tendencies (as predicted by social learning theory) or to release aggressive tendencies (as predicted by catharsis theory). Put more simply, social learning theory (e.g. Bandura, 1986) would hypothesise that playing aggressive video games would lead to the stimulation of aggressive behaviour, i.e. children will imitate what they see on screen. In direct contradiction to this, catharsis theory (e.g. Feshbach & Singer, 1971) would hypothesise that playing aggressive video games would have a relaxing effect by channelling latent aggression and therefore have a positive effect on a child's behaviour.
Many video games are violent in nature and feature death and destruction (Dominick, 1984; Loftus & Loftus, 1983). For instance, in a survey reported by Bowman and Rotter (1983), 24 of the 28 video games that were examined involved participants in acts of simulated destruction, killing or violence (i.e. approximately 85 per cent). Little is known about the possible long-term effects of playing violent video games. But great concern has been raised that video game violence may have a greater adverse effect than television violence on children because of the child's active involvement; i.e. television watching is only a passive, one-way communicative medium whereas video game playing is a two-way active communicative medium (Bowman & Rotter, 1983). Greenfield (1984) has further pointed out that children prefer video games over television because there is greater control. Despite ongoing controversy, relatively little empirical research has been published. There are a growing number of studies examining the possible link between video games and children's subsequent behaviour, but these have only examined the short-term effects (see Table 1). The rest of this article attempts to examine the growing body of research that has been carried out in order to put the debate into an empirical context. It is not my intention to review every single study in the area although I hope that all the major ones which highlight the issues involved are included.
A number of studies have examined the differences in children's behaviour after playing an aggressive video game by observing the child's free play. Cooper and Mackie (1986) observed the free play of nine- to 10-year-old children in the toy room after playing and watching aggressive video games. They reported that girls' aggressive activity significantly increased although boys remained unaffected. Silvern and Williamson (1987) found that individual four to six-year old children became more aggressive relative to a baseline condition when they were observed during free play after an aggressive video game. Both Cooper and Mackie (1986) and Silvern and Williamson (1987) noted there were no significant differences in aggression levels between active video game players and passive video game observers. Schutte, Malouff, Post-Gorden and Rodasta (1988) also observed the free play of five- to seven year-old children after playing an aggressive video game and concluded that the child's subsequent behaviour is similar to the character the individual controlled while playing the video game. For instance, those who played a jungle video game played with jungle-like toys during free play, whereas those who played the violent video game became more aggressive. Finally, Irwin and Gross (1995) measured interpersonal aggression and aggression toward inanimate objects in 60 second grade boys (aged seven to eight years). After playing video games with aggressive or nonaggressive themes, they found that those who played the aggressive games exhibited significantly more object aggression during a free play situation and more interpersonal aggression during a frustrating situation.
These studies, all of which were carried out on young children, do seem to suggest that the playing of violent video games has the effect of increasing a child's aggressive behaviour - at least in the short term. It is possible that this particular methodology (i.e. observational analysis of free play) may itself be contributing to the effect.
Table 1 Summary of studies examining the relationship between video games and aggression
Researchers N Ages Findings
Cooper & Mackie (1986) 84 9-10 years Girls increase in aggression; no
increase in boys Increase in aggression
Silvern & Williamson (1987) 28 4-6 years Increase in aggression
Schutte et al (1988) 31 5-7 years Increase in aggression
Irwin & Gross (1995) 60 7-8 years Increase in aggression
Gibb et al (1983) 280 12-34 years No relationship between amount of video
game play and hostility
Dominick (1984) 250 15-16 years Significant correlation between video
game playing and aggressive delinquency.
However, correlation was insignificant
when control variables parlialled out
Kestenbaum & Weinstein 208 11-14 years Aggressive video games have a calming
Mehrabian & Wixen 100 mean age Hostile feelings increased in college
(1986) 18 years students while imagining playing video
Anderson & Ford (1986) 60 undergraduates Higher aggression video games increased
Rushbrook (1986) Not 10-16 years Significant relationship between amount
stated of video game play and violent attitudes
Lin & Lepper (1987) 210 9-11 years Significant relationship between amount
of (arcade) video game play and
Fling et al. (1992) 153 11-17 years Regular players think they are more
aggressive as do their teachers
Griffiths & Hunt 387 12-16 years Self-reported aggression significantly
(1993; 1995) correlated with video game playing
Winkel et al (1987) 56 12-13 years Role playing experiment reported
no increase in aggression
Chambers & Ascione (1987) 160 8-13 years Playing aggressive video games
suppressed prosocial behaviour in an
Lynch (1994) 75 12-17 years Pre-hostile participants showed no
differences in heart rate and blood
pressure playing violent or non-violent
Lightdale & Prentice (1994) 84 undergraduates Males more aggressive than females in
individuated condition but not in
de individuated condition
Anderson et al (1995) 107 undergraduates Increasing temperature increases state
hostility, hostile cognition and
Anderson & Morrow (1995) 60 undergraduates Participants killed more in a
competitive situation rather than a co-
Scott (1995) 117 undergraduates Playing aggressive video games does not
make people more aggressive
Other studies (involving projective tests)
Graybill et al (1985) 116 7-11 years Projective Test (3) - showed fewer
Graybill et al (1987) 126 7-11 years Projective Test(3) - no increase in
Key to questionnaires and tests used.
(1) Eysenck short form Extroversion & Neuroticism Scale (1958); Singer & Antrobus Day Dreaming Scale (1970)
(2) Multiple Affect Adjective Checklist
(3) Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study (1978) and Response Hierarchy Measure
Apart from observing children's free play, the presence of increased aggression has been measured by self-report in a number of studies. Lin and Lepper (1987) found a positive relationship between self-reported video game use in males (4th to 6th grade) and their teachers' ratings of aggressiveness and impulsiveness. Rushbrook (1986) reported a correlation between the amount of video game play and violent attitudes that were more favourable to war in a group of 5th to 11th grade males. In a questionnaire study of teenage boys (10th to llth grade), Dominick (1984) found that video game playing was correlated with aggression. However, when the effects of other factors were taken out, the correlation between video games and aggression became non-significant. Anderson and Ford (1986) measured hostility using the Multiple Affect Adjective Checklist after undergraduates had played either very aggressive or mildly aggressive video games. Their results indicated that the playing of aggressive video games can have short term negative effects on the players' emotional state and that players of the highly aggressive video game showed increased hostility and anxiety. A similar result was found by Mehrabian and Wixen (1986) who reported that hostile feelings increased in college students while imagining playing video games. However, a self report study on 12- to 34-year-olds by Gibb, Bailey, Lambirth and Wilson (1983) found no relationship between the amount of video game play, hostility and self-esteem and a study by Kestenbaum and Weinstein (1985) on 208 teenagers (aged 11 to 14 years) found that video games had a calming effect.
In a study by Fling, Smith, Rodriguez, Thornton, Atkins and Nixon (1992) on 153 sixth to twelfth graders, it was reported that amount of video game play correlated with self-reported levels of aggression (although not self-esteem). The evidence of a relationship between amount of video game play and aggressiveness is consistent with other researchers (e.g. Dominick, 1984; Lin & Lepper, 1987). Further to this it was reported that self-esteem and aggression were positively correlated on teacher ratings but negatively on self-ratings.
Griffiths and Hunt (1993) have also reported that when video game playing adolescents were asked if they thought playing violent video games made m more aggressive, they responded that this was the case. This was highly significantly correlated with their frequency of playing. Both of these studies support the results of Dominick (1984) and Lin and Lepper (1987). However, they also noted that correlational results such as theirs could indicate that more aggressive children are drawn to video games rather than - or in addition to - their aggression being a result of this activity.
The problem with all of this type of research is that correlational evidence is unconvincing not only because any observed positive correlations may be due to backward causation (aggressive individuals having a greater penchant for video games), but for the more plausible reason that the correlations may not be directly causal at all but may result from mediating factors (e.g. low educational attainment, low socioeconomic status etc.) that may themselves be causally related both to video game playing and to aggressive behaviour. This interpretation is well known in the literature on the effects of violent television viewing on aggressive behaviour.
There have been a number of experimental studies looking at the relationship between aggression and video game playing although a number of these studies use video games as an experimental paradigm to investigate other theoretical concerns (e.g. the relationship between aggression and temperature, the influences of social roles on sex differences using a video game).
Winkel, Novak and Hopson (1987) in a study involving young teenagers (eighth grade) found that after playing violent video games there was no increase in aggression towards peers in a pretend 'teacher/learner' role play. In the short term, it was not supported that teenagers may be mimicking the violence in video games. Violent video games may have effects on a child's behaviour other than aggression. For instance, Chambers and Ascione (1987) reported that their sample of third to eighth graders gave less money to a donation box after playing an aggressive game than in comparison to the playing of a prosocial video game.
Only experimental studies can hope to provide persuasive evidence regarding causality. However, the two laboratory studies discussed above did not examine real aggression but rather fantasy aggression, i.e. a pretend 'teacher-learner' role play, and giving money to charity. The latter is somewhat irrelevant, and the increased aggression in the fantasy and role-play measures, far from confirming the hypothesis that games cause aggression, is entirely consistent with the catharsis hypothesis; that is, it might be precisely the fantasy aggression that releases the energy that would otherwise be expressed as aggressive behaviour.
Scott (1995) conducted a study on university students and found no differences in aggressive affect while playing video games on questionnaire scores on the Buss-Durkee Hostility Inventory (Buss & Durkee, 1957) and the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975) across varying levels of video game violence. Related to the studies of aggression is a study by Lynch (1994) who hypothesised that playing video games with violent content would produce greater cardiovascular responses in adolescent males than those playing non-violent games. His study examined heart rate and blood pressure differences between 76 hostile and non hostile participants (aged 12 to 16 years) but found no differences between the two groups.
Lightdale and Prentice (1994) investigated the influence of social roles on sex differences using a video game. By de individuating their respondents they found that there were no differences in male and female aggression when playing a video game but that in the individuated condition, males were more aggressive than females. Such a finding has little to say about the relationship of video games and violence per se. In another experiment that used video games to examine other theoretical concerns, Anderson, Deuser and DeNeve (1995) tested a general model of affective aggression via a study of video game playing. Using 107 undergraduates, they manipulated the room temperature while participants were playing the video games and found that raising the temperature consistently increased hostile affect and hostile cognition in players.
It could also be the case that the competitive nature of a video game may have an effect on aggression. To examine this, Anderson and Morrow (1995) extended and tested Deutsch's (1993) theory of competition effects using video games. The theory predicts that people view competitive situations as inherently more aggressive than co-operative ones. In a study of 60 undergraduates, competition primed participants killed significantly more video game characters than did the co-operation primed. This increased kill ratio occurred in the absence of changes in hostility, friendliness or liking for one's game partner. Since laboratory studies cannot study serious aggressive behaviour for ethical reasons, what is required are naturalistic field experiments. In the television violence literature, these are regarded as uniquely important but unfortunately there are no such studies of video games.
Two studies by Graybill and his associates (Graybill, Kirsch & Esselman, 1985; Graybill, Strawniak, Hunter & O'Leary 1987) have used a mixture of methodologies (self-report, experiment and observation) and have suggested that video games may have short-term beneficial effects for children. Graybill, Kirsch and Esselman (1985) reported that six- to 11-year-old children exhibited fewer defensive fantasies and tended to exhibit more assertive fantasies after playing violent video games, although this was a trend and not significant. Aggression was assessed using a projective test - the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study. The authors concluded that their results tended to show that results were more consistent with catharsis theory and that violent video games discharge aggressive impulses in a socially acceptable way and that playing violent video games may have a short-term beneficial effect for the children playing them.
In a further study, Graybill, Strawniak, Hunter and O'Leary (1987) used a behavioural measure involving apparatus in which children could push buttons to hurt or help another child, in addition to two self-report measures (the Response Hierarchy Measure and the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study again). These were administered after the playing of violent and non-violent video games but no significant differences were recorded. Graybill and his associates also reported that there may be differences between television viewing and video game playing. One obvious difference reported was that although the video game's content may be violent, the graphics are not nearly as realistic as televised violence. However, longer-term effects were not ruled out.
Table 2: Categories of games (adapted from Griffiths, 1993)
1) Sport Simulations: This type is self explanatory. These games simulate sports such as golf, ice hockey, athletics etc. (e.g. World Wide Soccer '97, NHL Powerplay '97 etc.).
2) Racers: This type could be considered a type of 'Sport Simulation' in that it simulates motor sports like Formula 1 racing (e.g. Human Grand Prix, Speedster, Motoracer etc.).
3) Adventures: This type uses fantasy settings in which the player can escape to other worlds and take on new identities (e.g. Atlantis, Star Trek Generations, Overboard etc.).
4) Puzzlers: This type is self explanatory. These games are 'brainteasers' which often require active thinking (e.g. Tetris, Baku Baku Animal etc.).
5) Weird Games: These games are not 'weird' as such except they do not fit into any other category. They would be better termed 'miscellaneous'. (e.g. Sim City 2000, Populous 3 etc.).
6) Platformers: These games involve running and jumping along and onto platforms (e.g. Mario 64, Sonic etc.).
7) Platform blasters: These games are 'Platformers' but also involve blasting everything that comes into sight (Robocop 2, Virtua Cop etc.).
8) Beat 'Em Ups: These games involve physical violence (punching, kicking etc.) (e.g. Street Fighter 3, Tekken 2, Mortal Kombat etc.).
9) Shoot 'Em Ups: These games involve shooting and killing using various weapons (e.g. Blast Corps, Mech Warrior, Turok Dinosaur Hunter etc.).
In a more anecdotal case study account, Gardner (1991) claimed that the use of video games in his psychotherapy sessions provided common ground between himself and his client and provided excellent behavioural observation opportunities. Gardner described four particular case studies where video games were used to support psychotherapy and added that although other techniques were used as an adjunct in therapy (e.g. story telling, drawing, other games etc.) it was the video games that were the most useful factors in the improvement during therapy. He claimed that video games contribute to releasing and controlling aggression although there was little evidence for this except for Gardner's own anecdotal observations.
These growing number of studies examining the effects of video games on aggression have only involved a measure of possible short-term aggressive consequences. The majority of the studies on very young children - as opposed to those in their teens upwards tended to show that children do become more aggressive after either playing or watching a violent video game, but these were all based on the observation of a child's free play. Such evidence suggests that at a theoretical level, there is more empirical evidence supporting social learning theory than catharsis theory - particularly in younger children. However, there is much speculation as to whether the procedures to measure aggression levels are valid and reliable. There is also the question of developmental effects, i.e. do video games have the same effect regardless of age? It could well be the case that violent video games have a more pronounced effect in young children, but less of an effect (if any) once they have reached their teenage years. There is also the social context of playing, i.e. playing in groups or individually, with or against each other, may affect the results. The findings of Anderson and Morrow (1995) suggest that competitiveness increases aggression. There are also problems concerning the definition of 'violent' or ,aggressive' as there are numerous television cartoons such as Tom and berry which may not be regarded as violent within the operational definitions employed in mass media research. Since all video games are animated, the same argument might be used for them also. Research into the effects of long-term exposure to video games on subsequent aggressive behaviour is noticeably lacking and at present remains speculative.
It is evident that video games can have both positive and negative aspects. If care is taken in the design, and if games are put into the right context, they have the potential to be used as training aids in classrooms and therapeutic settings, and to provide skills in psychomotor co-ordination in simulations of real life events, e.g. training recruits for the armed forces. There is, however, a need for a general taxonomy of video games as it could be the case that particular types of games have very positive effects while other types are not so positive. As Table 2 demonstrates, there are many different types of video games, each of which have their own distinctive qualities. Only three of these categories ('beat 'em ups', 'shoot 'em ups' and 'platform blasters') have any kind of aggressive element. If children and adolescents work with this degree of definitional refinement it follows that other interested parties (e.g. educationalists, researchers etc.) should do also.
To conclude briefly, the question of whether video games promote aggressiveness cannot be answered at present because the available literature is relatively sparse and conflicting, and there are many different types of video games which probably have different effects.
Video games tend to refer to those games played in arcades whereas computer games tend to refer to those games played outside the arcade (e.g. home computer game consoles, hand held computer games and games played on a personal computer). In this article, the term 'video game' is used to cover all these different types.
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