Last updated on: 7/9/2018 | Author:

As many as 97% of US kids age 12-17 play video games, contributing to the $21.53 billion domestic video game industry. More than half of the 50 top-selling video games contain violence.

Violent video games have been blamed for school shootings, increases in bullying, and violence towards women. Critics argue that these games desensitize players to violence, reward players for simulating violence, and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.

Video game advocates contend that a majority of the research on the topic is deeply flawed and that no causal relationship has been found between video games and social violence. They argue that violent video games may provide a safe outlet for aggressive and angry feelings and may reduce crime. Read more background…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Playing violent video games causes more aggression, bullying, and fighting.

[60][61][80] 60% of middle school boys and 40% of middle school girls who played at least one Mature-rated (M-rated) game hit or beat up someone, compared with 39% of boys and 14% of girls who did not play M-rated games. [2] A 2014 peer-reviewed study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that habitual violent video game playing had a causal link with increased, long-term, aggressive behavior. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that children who play M-rated games are more likely to bully and cyberbully their peers, get into physical fights, be hostile, argue with teachers, and show aggression towards their peers throughout the school year. [73][76][2][67][31]

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Pro 2

There is broad consensus among medical associations, pediatricians, parents, and researchers that violent video games increase aggressive behavior.

[74] A 2014 study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that 90% of pediatricians and 67% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that violent video games can increase aggressive behavior among children. [75]. More than 98% of pediatricians in the United States say that too much exposure to violent media heightens childhood aggression. [62] In addition, 66% of researchers agreed or strongly agreed. Since only 17% of researchers disagreed or strongly disagreed, and 17% were undecided, the study concluded “That means that among researchers who have an opinion, eight out of 10 agree that violent games increase aggression.” [75] A joint statement by six leading national medical associations, including the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association, stated: “Well over 1,000 studies – including reports from the Surgeon General’s office, the National Institute of Mental Health, and numerous studies conducted by leading figures within our medical and public health organizations – our own members – point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.” [33]

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Pro 3

Simulating violence such as shooting guns and hand-to-hand combat in video games can cause real-life violent behavior.

Video games often require players to simulate violent actions, such as stabbing, shooting, or dismembering someone with an ax, sword, chainsaw, or other weapons. Game controllers are so sophisticated and the games are so realistic that simulating the violent acts enhances the learning of those violent behaviors. [23] A 2015 peer-reviewed study found “compelling evidence that the use of realistic controllers can have a significant effect on the level of cognitive aggression.” [118] Two teenagers in Tennessee who shot at passing cars and killed one driver told police they got the idea from playing Grand Theft Auto III. [49] Bruce Bartholow, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, spoke about the effects of simulating violence: “More than any other media, these [violent] video games encourage active participation in violence. From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behavior is violence.” [53]

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Pro 4

Many perpetrators of mass shootings played violent video games.

The teenage shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre of 13 students played violent combat games. [43] Many mass shootings have been carried out by avid video game players: James Holmes in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting (2012); Jared Lee Loughner in the Arizona shooting that injured Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six others (2011); and Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway (2011) and admitted to using the game Modern Warfare 2 for training. [53] An FBI school shooter threat assessment stated that a student who makes threats of violence should be considered more credible if he or she also spends “inordinate amounts of time playing video games with violent themes.” [25]

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Pro 5

Violent video games desensitize players to real-life violence.

Desensitization to violence was defined in a Journal of Experimental Social Psychology peer-reviewed study as “a reduction in emotion-related physiological reactivity to real violence.” The study found that just 20 minutes of playing a violent video game “can cause people to become less physiologically aroused by real violence” People desensitized to violence are more likely to commit a violent act. [51][112][111] By age 18, American children will have seen 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence depicted in violent video games, movies, and television. [110] A Sep. 2011 peer-reviewed study found a causal link between violent video game exposure and an increase in aggression as a result of a reduction in the brain’s response to depictions of real-life violence. [52] Studies have found reduced emotional and physiological responses to violence in both the long and short term. [55][58] In a 2005 peer-reviewed study, violent video game exposure was linked to reduced P300 amplitudes in the brain, which is associated with desensitization to violence and increases in aggressive behavior. [24]

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Pro 6

By inhabiting violent characters in video games, children are more likely to imitate the behaviors of those characters and have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.

Violent video games require active participation and identification with violent characters, which reinforces violent behavior. [59] Young children are more likely to confuse fantasy violence with real world violence, and without a framework for ethical decision making, they may mimic the actions they see in violent video games.[4] Child Development and Early Childhood Education expert Jane Katch, MST, stated in an interview with Education Week, “I found that young children often have difficulty separating fantasy from reality when they are playing and can temporarily believe they are the character they are pretending to be.” US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent in Brown v. ESA that “the closer a child’s behavior comes, not to watching, but to acting out horrific violence, the greater the potential psychological harm.” [124]

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Pro 7

Exposure to violent video games is linked to lower empathy and decreased kindness.

Empathy, the ability to understand and enter into another’s feelings is believed to inhibit aggressive behavior. In a study of 150 fourth and fifth graders by Jeanne Funk, PhD, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Toledo, violent video games were the only type of media associated with lower empathy. [32] A study published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin found that exposure to violent video games led to a lack of empathy and prosocial behavior (positive actions that benefit others). [66][65] Eight independent tests measuring the impact of violent video games on prosocial behavior found a significant negative effect, leading to the conclusion that “exposure to violent video games is negatively correlated with helping in the real world.” [61] Several studies have found that children with high exposure to violent media display lower moral reasoning skills than their peers without that exposure. [32][69] A meta-analysis of 130 international studies with over 130,000 participants concluded that violent video games “increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behaviors, and decrease empathic feelings and prosocial behaviors.” [123]

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Pro 8

Video games that portray violence against women lead to more harmful attitudes and sexually violent actions towards women.

A 2012 peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that video games that sexually objectify women and feature violence against women led to a statistically significant increase in rape-supportive attitudes, which are attitudes that are hostile towards rape victims. [68] A 1998 peer-reviewed study found that 21% of games sampled involved violence against women, while 28% portrayed them as sex objects. [23] Exposure to sexual violence in video games is linked to increases in violence towards women and false attitudes about rape, such as that women incite men to rape or that women secretly desire rape. [30] Carole Lieberman, MD, a media psychiatrist, stated, “The more video games a person plays that have violent sexual content, the more likely one is to become desensitized to violent sexual acts and commit them.” [64] In Dec. 2014, Target Australia stopped selling Grand Theft Auto V in response to customer complaints about the game’s depiction of women, which includes the option to kill a prostitute to get your money back. [70]

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Pro 9

The American Psychological Association (APA) lists violent video games as a risk factor for aggressive behavior.

In its Aug. 2015 resolution on violent video games, the APA wrote: “WHEREAS many factors are known to be risk factors for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition and aggressive affect, and reduced prosocial behavior, empathy and moral engagement, and violent video game use is one such risk factor.” [119] Dr. Craig Anderson, PhD, Director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, wrote: “Playing a violent video game isn’t going to take a healthy kid who has few other risk factors and turn him into a school shooter, but it is a risk factor that does drive the odds for aggression up significantly.” [120]

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Pro 10

Violent video games reinforce fighting as a means of dealing with conflict by rewarding the use of violent action with increased life force, more weapons, moving on to higher levels, and more.

[59] Studies suggest that when violence is rewarded in video games, players exhibit increased aggressive behavior compared to players of video games where violence is punished.[23] The reward structure is one distinguishing factor between violent video games and other violent media such as movies and television shows, which do not reward viewers nor allow them to actively participate in violence. [59] An analysis of 81 video games rated for teens ages 13 and up found that 73 games (90%) rewarded injuring other characters, and 56 games (69%) rewarded killing. [71] People who played a video game that rewarded violence showed higher levels of aggressive behavior and aggressive cognition as compared with people who played a version of the same game that was competitive but either did not contain violence or punished violence. [72]

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Pro 11

The US military uses violent video games to train soldiers to kill.

The US Marine Corps licensed Doom II in 1996 to create Marine Doom in order to train soldiers. In 2002, the US Army released first-person shooter game America’s Army to recruit soldiers and prepare recruits for the battlefield. [6] While the military may benefit from training soldiers to kill using video games, kids who are exposed to these games lack the discipline and structure of the armed forces and may become more susceptible to being violent. [79] Dave Grossman, retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and former West Point psychology professor, stated: “[T]hrough interactive point-and-shoot video games, modern nations are indiscriminately introducing to their children the same weapons technology that major armies and law enforcement agencies around the world use to ‘turn off’ the midbrain ‘safety catch'” that prevents most people from killing. [77]

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Con 1

Sales of violent video games have significantly increased while violent juvenile crime rates have significantly decreased.

Total US sales of video game hardware and software increased 204% from 1994 to 2014, reaching $13.1 billion in 2014, while violent crimes decreased 37% and murders by juveniles acting alone fell 76% in that same period. [133][134][135][136][82][83] The juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate in 2012 was 38% below 1980 levels and 63% below 1994, the peak year. [83] The number of high school students who had been in at least one physical fight decreased from 43% in 1991 to 25% in 2013, and student reports of criminal victimization at school dropped by more than half from 1995 to 2011. [107][106] An Aug. 2014 peer-reviewed study found that: “Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime… Monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults.” [84]

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Con 2

Studies claiming a causal link between video game violence and real life violence are flawed.

[34] Many studies failed to control for factors that contribute to children becoming violent, such as family history and mental health, plus most studies do not follow children over long periods of time. [95][10] Video game experiments often have people playing a game for as little as ten minutes, which is not representative of how games are played in real life. In many laboratory studies, especially those involving children, researchers must use artificial measures of violence and aggression that do not translate to real-world violence and aggression, such as whether someone would force another person eat hot sauce or listen to unpleasant noises. [84][94] According to Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, a psychology professor at Stetson University, “matching video game conditions more carefully in experimental studies with how they are played in real life makes VVG’s [violent video games] effects on aggression essentially vanish.” [95][96]

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Con 3

The US Supreme Court ruled that violent video games do not cause youth to act aggressively.

In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011) the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that California could not ban the sale of violent video games to minors. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion that studies purporting to show a connection between violent video games and harmful effects on children “have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.” [81]

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Con 4

Playing violent video games does not cause kids to commit mass shootings.

Over 150 million Americans (and 71% of teens) play video games. There have been 71 mass shootings between 1982 and Aug. 2015, seven of which (9.8%) involved shooters age 18 or younger. [87][91][92] Katherine Newman, PhD, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, wrote: “Millions of young people play video games full of fistfights, blazing guns, and body slams… Yet only a minuscule fraction of the consumers become violent.” [86] A report by the US Secret Service and US Department of Education examined 37 incidents of targeted school violence between 1974 and 2000. Of the 41 attackers studied, 27% had an interest in violent movies, 24% in violent books, and 37% exhibited interest in their own violent writings, while only 12% showed interest in violent video games. The report did not find a relationship between playing violent video games and school shootings. [35] An Apr. 2015 peer-reviewed study published in Psychiatric Quarterly found that playing violent video games had no impact on hostility levels in teenagers. [123]

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Con 5

Violent video games allow players to release their stress and anger (catharsis) in the game, leading to less real world aggression.

A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that children, especially boys, play video games as a means of managing their emotions: “61.9% of boys played to ‘help me relax,’ 47.8% because ‘it helps me forget my problems,’ and 45.4% because ‘it helps me get my anger out.” [37] Researchers point to the cathartic effect of video games as a possible reason for why higher game sales have been associated with lower crime rates. [84] A peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Adolescent Research concluded that “Boys use games to experience fantasies of power and fame, to explore and master what they perceive as exciting and realistic environments (but distinct from real life), to work through angry feelings or relieve stress, and as social tools.”[36] The games serve as a substitute for rough-and-tumble play. [36]

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Con 6

Violent video game players know the difference between virtual violence in the context of a game and appropriate behavior in the real world.

By age seven, children can distinguish fantasy from reality, and can tell the difference between video game violence and real-world violence. [99][100] Video game players understand they are playing a game. Kids see fantasy violence all the time, from Harry Potter and the Minions to Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. Their ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality prevents them from emulating video game violence in real life. [9] Exposure to fantasy is important for kids. Fisher-Price toy company stated: “Pretending is more than play: it’s a major part of a child’s development. Fantasy not only develops creative thinking, it’s also a way for children to deal with situations and problems that concern them.” [108]

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Con 7

Studies have shown that violent video games can have a positive effect on kindness, civic engagement, and “prosocial” behaviors.

Research shows that playing violent video games can induce a feeling of guilt that leads to increased prosocial behavior (positive actions that benefit others) in the real world. [104] Another study published in Computers in Human Behavior discovered that youths exposed to violence in action games displayed more prosocial behavior and civic engagement, “possibly due to the team-oriented multiplayer options in many of these games.” [103] In a 2013 peer-reviewed study published in PLOS ONE, “Three experiments failed to find a detrimental effect of violent video games on prosocial behavior [positive actions taken to benefit others], despite using contemporary and classic games, delayed and immediate test-phases, and short and long exposures.” [102] Researchers have shown that playing video games also results in increased moral sensitivity. [104]

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Con 8

Nearly all young men play video games, so the fact that some people who commit violent acts also played games should not be surprising, nor does it imply a causal relationship.

An estimated four out of five US households with a male child own a video game system. Although boys play an average of nine hours per week, [84] only a small percentage of them display violent behavior. Patrick M. Markey, PhD, Director of the Interpersonal Research Laboratory at Villanova University, stated, “90% of young males play video games. Finding that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game, such as Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, is as pointless as pointing out that the criminal also wore socks.” [84]

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Con 9

Many risk factors are associated with youth violence, but video games are not among them.

The US Surgeon General’s list of risk factors for youth violence included abusive parents, poverty, neglect, neighborhood crime, being male, substance use, and mental health problems, but not video games. [118] A peer-reviewed study even found a “real and significant” effect of hot weather on homicides and aggravated assaults, showing that heat is a risk factor for violence. [124]Smoking is a known risk factor for lung cancer, but there is no good evidence that video game playing is a risk factor for violence. An Aug. 2014 peer-reviewed study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture pointed out that “As more people have been exposed to violent video games, serious and deadly assaults have not increased.” [84] A 2014 peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Communication also found that as video game playing increased, there was less youth violence. [93]

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Con 10

Violent video games provide opportunities for children to explore virtually the consequences of violent actions and to develop their moral compasses.

Violent games allow youth to experiment with moral issues such as war, violence, and death without real world consequences. [38] A researcher at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media wrote about her research: “One unexpected theme that came up multiple times in our focus groups was a feeling among boys that violent games can teach moral lessons… Many war-themed video games allow or require players to take the roles of soldiers from different sides of a conflict, perhaps making players more aware of the costs of war.” [2]

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Con 11

Violent video games may decrease crime because people are busy playing the games instead of committing violent acts.

Some researchers say that violent people often seek out violent video games, and that the time they spend playing the games is taking them off the streets, leading to decreased crime. This is known as the “incapacitation effect.” [84] Steven Levitt, PhD, economics professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of Freakonomics, stated, “It just stands to reason that if you find an activity that keeps potential criminals busy for six waking hours a day, then it probably makes sense that they’re going to be doing less crime.” [89] One study estimated that this effect leads to about ten fewer crimes per day nationwide. [90]

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Con 12

Gun violence is less prevalent in countries with high video game use.

Per capita video game sales were $5.20 in the United States compared to $47 in Japan. In 2005, the United States had 2,279 murders committed by teenagers (27.9 per million residents) compared to 73 in Japan (3.1 per million).[11][12][13] A study of the countries representing the 10 largest video game markets internationally found no correlation between playing video games and gun-related killings. [97] Even though US gun violence is high, the nine other countries with the highest video game usage have some of the lowest violent crime rates (and eight of those countries spend more per capita on video games than the United States). [97]

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Con 13

The competitive nature of a video game is what arouses aggression, not the level of violent content.

A peer-reviewed study in Psychology of Violence determined that the competitive nature of a video game was related to aggressive behavior, regardless of whether the game contained violent content or not. The researchers concluded: “Because past studies have failed to equate the violent and nonviolent video games on competitiveness, difficulty, and pace of action simultaneously, researchers may have attributed too much of the variability in aggression to the violent content.” [125] A follow-up study tracked high school students for four years and came to the same conclusion: the competitive nature of the games led to the increased hostile behavior. [126]

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Con 14

Older generations often unfairly disparage new things that youth like, such as video games.

The “moral panic” that many adults feel about video games is an exaggerated sense of public concern, fear, and anxiety over a perceived threat of social corruption. [113] Other examples of moral panic from history include rock and roll, comic books, radio, television, cell phone use, and social media. [114] An Oct. 2013 study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that people who had no experience playing video games were six times more likely to believe the games contributed to mass shootings. Older Americans were five times more likely than young people to think that the games caused mass shootings. [116] The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooter, for example, was originally and incorrectly reported to be an avid player of violent video games. Investigators later showed that the shooter’s favorite games were Super Mario Brothers, Dance, Dance Revolution, and other non-violent video games. [115]

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Did You Know?
1. 90% of pediatricians and 67% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that violent video games can increase aggressive behavior among children. [75]
2. Total US sales of video game hardware and software increased 204% from 1994 to 2014, reaching $13.1 billion in 2014, while violent crimes decreased 37% and murders by juveniles acting alone fell 76% in that same period. [133][134][135][136][82][83]
3. An estimated four out of five US households with a male child own a video game system and worldwide sales of video games are predicted to reach $102.9 billion in 2017. [84][132]
4. 60% of middle school boys and 40% of middle school girls who played at least one Mature-rated (M-rated) game hit or beat up someone, compared with 39% of boys and 14% of girls who did not play M-rated games. [63]
5. In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that California could not ban the sale of violent video games to minors because studies "do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively." [81]


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