Do violent video games really cause violent behavior?
Video games have come under much scrutiny, but like all new media, researchers, news outlets and concern individuals have taken it upon themselves to find a relation between senseless mass murders and violent video games.
It was back in 1965 where psychologist Albert Bandura developed the social learning theory to understand how children were socialized by violent television programs. The children watched an adult beating a Bobo doll and were left alone to replicate the same aggressive behavior on the doll [Sullivan]. However, social learning theory is not without its criticism. The crux of it is that social learning theory does not take into account intent.
“Tedeschi & Felson (1994) define an intent to do harm as a behavior in which an actor expects the target will be harmed and values that harm” [Felson]. As such, it is unlikely that the children who were part of Bandura’s social learning experiment were truly aggressive or violent as they did not have any intention of harming the Bobo doll, but merely mimicking the adult’s behavior.
Incidents such as the shootings at Columbine High, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook have all at one point been blamed on the violence that pervades the video game and movie industries. Organizations such as Fox News and the National Rifle Association (NRA) have been quick to point the blame on the violence that the mediums depict [Frayhua, NewsPoliticsToday]. These organizations would identify various effects such as identification, triggering, desensitization and disinhibition.
Take Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. According to the various news reports and expert analysis, he identified with the characters in various violent video games which triggered him to commit such an act. Yet because he was frequently exposed to violence in his everyday life through video games and movies, he was desensitized to such violence and had his inhibitions impaired which ultimately caused him to commit the killings [NewsPoliticsToday].
Video game journalists cannot entirely deny that the violence has no relation to such senseless killings. In fact, most would agree that violent video games do, to a certain extent, trigger or cause aggressive behavior. Players do not merely watch it, they interact with it. Furthermore, players are rewarded in violent games for their behavior. To say that the blame is entirely on video games is baseless.
There are laboratory experiments which try to examine short term effects of violent media and their effects [Felson]. However, the research is unable to conclusively show if it is necessary to provoke the subjects before they are presented with violent media to obtain an effect. As a result, researchers cannot determine if exposure to violent media causes or is only a catalyst of aggression [Felson].
There are also other concerns regarding such laboratory experiments, chief of which is that the subjects are in a controlled environment and is not representative of situations in real life. Subjects could feel conformed to react in a way that the researcher expects them to out of respect for their job [Felson]. Therefore, these findings should always be taken with a grain of salt.
According to some researchers, the modern mass media outlets, such as Fox News or CNN, have a maligned effect on society which causes “political apathy, alienation, cynicism and a loss of social capital” [Newton]. This effect is known as media malaise. Due to an increase in market competition, a desire to garner higher ratings and to increase readership, it has force media outlets to focus primarily on hard news story such as the Sandy Hook shooting. If there is little controversy, these media outlets will emphasize on what is already there like the relation between Lanza and violent video games [Newton].
On top of that, audiences’ attention spans are getting increasingly short with the various forms of news feeds at their fingertips. As such, modern mass media is covering news in an increasingly brief and superficial way which often sensationalizes the story [Newton]. What the media is doing is similar to George Gerbner’s cultivation theory which posits that individuals who frequently watch television develop a conception of reality that is similar to that of television reality [Sullivan].
The news coverage about mass murders such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, while tragic, only serve to cause media panics and boost the mass media ratings. On top of that, it also incites fear and ignorance in the people about the particular form of medium it is reporting about, disregarding any positive effects the medium has on society.
The fact of the matter is that there are multiple causes for such senseless killings. Such aggression is caused by a multitude of reasons such as violent video games, poverty, family environment, gun availability and drug abuse [Markey]. On its own, violent video games are not capable of causing such aggression and only by putting the various reasons together, such violent behavior is more predictable [Jaccarino].
In conclusion, the effects of video games on its audience are still largely an unknown. While there is a link between video games and violent, aggressive behavior, it is unscientific to say that video games cause such behavior. It could similarly be argued that a consumption of water predicts violent behavior as these school shooters likely drank water before carrying out their rampage. Correlation does not imply causation.
Felson, R. B. (1996). Mass Media Effects on Violent Behavior. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 103-128..
Frayhua (2012, December 17). Fox News Says Violent Video Games Were The Cause of The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. Retrieved January 12, 2014
Jaccarino, M. (2013, September 12). ‘Training simulation:’ Mass killers often share obsession with violent video games. Retrieved January 18, 2014
Newton, K. (1999, October). Mass Media Effects: Mobilization or Media Malaise?. British Journal of Political Science, 29(4), 577-599..
NewsPoliticsToday (2012, December 21). NRA Blames Video Games and Movies for Sandy Hook School Shooting. Retrieved January 18, 2014
NewsPoliticsToday (2013, January 13). Peter Johnson Jr Joins The White House In Ganging Up On Violent Video Games. Retrieved January 18, 2014
Markey, P. (2013, April 29). In Defense of Violent Video Games. Retrieved January 18, 2014
Sullivan, J. L. (2013). Media Audiences: Effects, Users, Institutions and Power (1st ed.). California, United States of America: SAGE Publications, Inc..