Warm and fuzzy, they are not. Even their names evoke dread: Dead Rising, Resident Evil 5, Mortal Kombat, Thrill Kill. Mature-rated video games may captivate players with their stunning, lifelike graphics and sophisticated depictions of place and story, but they also provide less attractive features such as violent, gory scenes and wanton killing.
Violent video games have been considered as possible spurs to school shootings, bullying behaviors, and violence toward women. Critics say these games desensitize players to violence. Advocates, by contrast, argue that no causal relationships have been found between video games and violence.
Do violent video games cause players, especially adolescents and young children, to exhibit aggressive behavior? Or do the benefits ascribed to these games, including sharpened coordination and cognitive skills, outweigh any harm? As research on the subject continues, the answer seems to be “yes” to both.
“There’s no reason to think that video games can’t teach both violence and cognitive skills, ” says David Bickham, PhD, an HMS instructor in pediatrics and a staff scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. “We know that they can do both, but much more research is needed to answer definitively.”
Controversy escalates as violence increases
As a genre, video games date back to the late 1940s, when missile defense systems were “played” on early cathode-ray–tube monitors. The first documented computer game, Noughts and Crosses, did not become commercially available until 1952. More than two decades would pass before controversy over the violence of such games began. The release in 1976 of Death Race, a game in which players try to hit zombie pedestrians with cars, is now considered a catalyst to that debate. Four years later, game violence reached a new intensity with the release of Mortal Kombat, which featured digitized images of real actors as characters bent on ripping out their opponents’ hearts. The more recent, and popular, Grand Theft Auto series has incited a new round of discussion of the possible link between violence and video games. In this game series, participants play big-city criminals who kill people, pick up prostitutes, steal cars, and join gangs.
As research into links between video-game violence and behavior ramps up, so too do the revenues of the video game industry. According to the Electronic Software Association, in 2009 the U.S. industry took in $19.6 billion. While mature-rated games accounted for only 17 percent of those sales, six of the ten best sellers had violent themes, according to CNBC.
Cause and effect
What do past studies tell us about how the brain processes video-game violence? A 2006 study by scientists at Indiana University found that certain areas of teens’ brains become active while violent video games are viewed and that regions that govern self-control remain less engaged. A 2010 review of 130 video game studies, conducted by researchers at Iowa State University, suggested that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts and decreases empathy.
Despite such findings, we still don’t have a lot of information about cause and effect, says Cheryl Olson, ScD, an HMS assistant clinical professor in psychiatry and co-author of the 2008 book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do, which centers on middle-school children. “Violent video games are not causing mass violence in society,” Olson says, “which suggests that these games may have little effect on violent crimes. On the other hand, playing mature-rated games statistically predicts a greater risk for bullying and fighting.”
Individual risk for violent behavior, therefore, may be a separate concern. Researchers have found that children go through a variety of physical and mental changes when they play video games with violent content. In testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2006, Bickham described these effects: “They begin to think aggressively and to solve problems with violence. In this heightened and primed state, children are more likely to perceive other people’s behaviors as aggressive, and they are more likely to respond aggressively.”
Over time, he continued, exposure to this violent media can lead children to “adopt aggressive skills, beliefs, and attitudes; desensitize them to violence; and take aggressive approaches to interactions with other people. Using violent media as a child predicts aggressive behavior in adulthood.”
That doesn’t mean that playing violent video games would be the sole catalyst for such behavior. Biology and environmental factors each play a role too.
“We each have a lifetime of experience to draw on, ” says Bickham. “The brain reaches for a solution and some of these solutions originate in different spheres of neurological influence. That’s why some kids who play violent video games become violent, while others don’t.”
Bickham says children act on their beliefs and attitudes about violence based on the strength of competing beliefs, such as those from family and classmates, and the environment in which they live.
One issue that has not yet been thoroughly assessed, says Olson, is whether children understand the difference between real violence and fantasy. Children do report that TV news bothers them more than violent movies or video games; they know video games are “fake,” while news is real. Children do not, however, understand satire until about age 12, she says, adding that satire underlies the Grand Theft Auto games. Nor do children realize that the casual racism in many such games can be intended to suggest that racism is hurtful.
While much more attention has been paid to how violent video games hurt rather than help, both Olson and Bickham say that these and other video games can have real-life benefits, including improving planning and problem-solving skills. Studies show that video-game playing can also help develop visual skills, spatial reasoning, higher-level thinking, and strategizing. Other research suggests that playing video games may have mental health benefits, including easing the symptoms of depression. This area, however, has not been studied extensively.
While Olson and Bickham have slightly different takes on the controversy, both agree that much needs to be sorted out through research and that parental involvement in this type of child’s play is key. Parents need to be engaged in decisions on which video games to purchase. Olson notes that the Electronic Software Rating Board (www.esrb.org) has expanded its descriptions of games to include plot summaries and specific details on objectionable content. And Bickham, who suggests www.commonsensemedia.org as a prepurchase resource for information about games, says parents also need to watch for patterns in their children’s behavior that can hint at problems. Playing mostly mature-rated games for more than 15 hours per week, for example, has been shown to be a risk factor for aggression.
“All media, including video games, should be on the parental radar,” Bickham says. “It’s when we don’t pay attention that kids get in trouble.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of On The Brain.
HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL CONTACT:
Ann Marie Menting
For the curious nonscientist, On The Brain deciphers how the human brain works by highlighting the leading-edge research of neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School and its affiliated teaching hospitals. The thrice-annual newsletter, produced through the Office of Communications and External Relations, is sponsored by the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute.