Do violent video games make people more callous and less likely to help others? The latest study suggests not— but it likely won’t be the last word.
The blood, gore and antisocial behavior seen in games like Grand Theft Auto understandably make parents nervous. And when faced with horrors like the massacre of elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut or the “Batman” shootings in Aurora, Colorado, it can be hard not to consider a possible connection between kids spending 18 hour days shooting down victim after victim onscreen and real life violence.
But the research investigating the role that virtual violence has on actual behavior hasn’t been so helpful, and with the data so difficult to interpret, expert opinion is also highly polarized. Game advocates note that as gaming has increased, violent crime rates in the U.S. have dropped. One 2011 study that tracked retail game sales and reported crime even found that an 1% increase in sales of violent games was linked with a .03% drop in violent crime.
Dozens of other studies, however, have shown more aggression and less caring behavior following game play. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State who led a 2010 review of the research involving nearly 70,000 participants said, “I think the field is not really divided. It is like global warming. 95% of scientists believe [videogames can cause violence and reduce empathy], and a vocal minority do not.”
Bushman was not associated with the new study, published in PLOS One, which failed to replicate prior research showing that violent games decrease people’s willingness to help others, while games that involve kindness increase that tendency. “This research lends support to the idea that public concern over violent video games might be mismatched,” says lead author Morgan Tear, a PhD student at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Tear’s team asked a group of 64 college students to play one of four different video games for 20 minutes; two of the games, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Black Ops, were violent and two, World of Zoo and Portal 2, were not. After playing, participants filled out questionnaires about their experience with the game, but what the scientists really wanted to know was whether the games influenced the participants’ tendency to help others. It turned out that they did not. When the researchers pretended to spill their pens in their rush to leave the room, both groups of gamers were equally likely to help them pick up their pens.
“This suggests that the effect of violent video games on behavior might be small and that public concern ought to be minimal,” says Tear. So which factors hold more sway? Not surprisingly, things such as whether someone is a friend, a stranger or potential academic advisor is likely to play a bigger role in whether you go out of your way to help than the nature of a game you might have just played. Not taking such contextual factors into account could produce misleading results in investigating the influence of violence in video games. In the study, if the researcher dropped the pens at a point in the experiment when the participants thought the scientist might return, 75% helped him pick up— but if they thought the study was over and they would never see him again, just 31% gave aid.
“The biggest effect was more related to when the pen drop occurred than what games were played,” says Dr. Richard Hall, professor of psychiatry at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, who was not connected with the research, “What that suggests is that in the environment in which these studies are done, there are multiple factors [at play] and little things such as whether the examiner was smiling or not could have a dramatic impact on what is reported.”
Because it’s impossible to minimize such factors entirely in a study setting, it may be too challenging to answer the question of whether violent video games can result in more aggressive behavior or a reduced ability to empathize with others. “I think we really don’t know enough,” says Hall, “What I worry about is that this topic has become very political.”
And that means that the research may also fall victim to some polarizing, non-scientific influences. “The literature is so contested because some of the prominent researchers vehemently disagree with each other,” says Tear, “At the far end are those who contend that the effect of violent video games on society is profound and damaging, while at the other are those who maintain any effects are benign. As better data and better designed experiments are published, I think the picture will become clearer.”
“A lot of the problem with the data is that people get results and then overstate them or misapply them,” Hall says, “For example, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would disagree that too much videogame playing is bad for an individual.” The risks, however, lie in the specifics. “What we’re trying to do with these studies is apply them to the whole population and that may not be a good way to look at it. A lot of people ask: are video games good or bad? As a clinician, the question I ask is, ‘It is good or bad for this child?’”
If a teen plays excessively but is active in extracurricular pursuits, socializes with friends, earns good grades and behaves reasonably at home, there’s little cause for concern, for example. But if gaming starts to substitute for friendships and family time, it might not be as healthy, and parents should look into why the video games are so important for their child. Research shows that “addictive” gaming is strongly linked with some type of distress, whether it originates from family problems, psychiatric conditions or social issues or, most often, a mixture of all of the above. And those problems could make some people vulnerable to the negative effects of the virtual violence in video games.
“The real question [is] whether video games have a uniquely negative effect on those individuals compared to the many other activities and scenarios that they would routinely encounter in their daily lives,” Tear says. “I suspect that video games would be one of many possible things that could affect those particularly vulnerable people but we would need good evidence to conclude that video games are any more harmful than other activities, such as playing basketball or chess.”