Helen Alford

Over the years, there has been much controversy over whether video games are linked to aggression and violence in the younger population. Usually, the games discussed are first-person shooters or action-adventure games where the player has the option to use weapons. This type of game has often been cited as a potential influence in the behaviour of young offenders committing violent crimes, such as school shootings in the USA.

Might there be any truth to this kind of speculation?

A quick Google search for ‘video games and aggression’ will bring up as many articles in favour of a link as those against it. Two articles appear next to each other, published less than three weeks apart, titled “Study Reveals Players Don’t Become More Aggressive Playing Violent Video Games” and “Study Finds Violent Video Games Increase Aggression”. There appears to be a great deal of research for each side of the debate, but no consensus.

The fact is the research is murky at best. Scientists have been looking into violent video games for over 20 years but there are still no conclusive results – as Google shows us.

In 2015 the American Psychological Society (APA) published the results of a study investigating the proposed link. The study looked at over 100 pieces of research dating from 2005-2013 and ultimately concluded that video games do contribute to aggressive behaviour. However, they were quick to note that “It is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behaviour. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor”.

Video Game Controller Video Controller
Image Credit: Max Pixel

While the report made headline news in many newspapers, articles questioning its methodology and findings immediately popped up too. Over 200 academics signed a letter critiquing the research and labelling it as ‘controversial’. Some of these researchers agreed that the report highlighted important areas for further research, but ultimately didn’t tally with a near-global reduction in youth violence. On the other hand, video games really could be a factor in isolated cases of extreme violence.

Dr Vic Strasburger is a retired professor of paediatrics at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine. He has dealt with several ‘school-shooter’ youths and theorized that playing violent video games is one of four factors that drive these individuals to commit horrifying acts. The other factors were abuse/bullying, social isolation and mental illness. As with the APA report, he makes it clear that video games are just one factor contributing to such behaviour, and it is not a simple correlational relationship.

The Oxford Internet Institute has explored the topic from a different angle. They investigated whether the mechanism of a game contributed to feelings of frustration, rather than the actual content of the game itself. Interestingly, they found that if players were unable to understand controls or gameplay, they felt aggressive. Dr Andrew Przybylski said that “This need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material”.

Interestingly, a few months after the APA report was released, researchers from Columbia University published a study looking at the positive aspects of playing video games. In many cases, children who play video games often are more likely to do well at school and experience better social integration. This is certainly a stark contrast to the ‘aggressive loner’ stereotype of gamers we have all come to recognize.

It seems that video games can actually have a plethora of positive effects. These include improved motor skills, improved vision and improved decision making skills. The hand-eye coordination of regular gamers tends to be better than those who rarely play or don’t play at all. There is also research that suggests playing video games enhances of attention span, ability to multitask and our working memory. Plus for many of us, they’re a good way to beat stress.

Ultimately, youth crime is falling while the accessibility of video games is increasing. While there may be a tentative link between playing video games and aggressive behaviour, other factors have a much greater influence. At best it seems that video games have a negligible effect on gamers, and that there are many positives to benefit from. So, ready, player one?

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