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Does playing violent video games lead to violent behavior?

Posted 12 Feb 2013 by

Does playing violent video games lead to violent behavior? We see this debate over and over again, especially after any massacre authored by a young male that looks like a deleted scene from some horrible new First Person Shooter, and there’s a nice article from the NY Times that summarizes a lot of recent studies on the issue.

Short answer… probably not. But it’s really hard to separate causation from correlation; do violent people just gravitate to violent games (perhaps gaining a therapeutic release by playing them?), or do the games actually make players more aggressive? In the short term, yes they do:

Lab experiments confirm what any gamer knows in his gut: playing games like “Call of Duty,” “Killzone 3” or “Battlefield 3” stirs the blood. In one recent study, Christopher Barlett, a psychologist at Iowa State University, led a research team that had 47 undergraduates play “Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance” for 15 minutes. Afterward, the team took various measures of arousal, both physical and psychological. It also tested whether the students would behave more aggressively, by having them dole out hot sauce to a fellow student who, they were told, did not like spicy food but had to swallow the sauce.

Sure enough, compared with a group who had played a nonviolent video game, those who had been engaged in “Mortal Kombat” were more aggressive across the board. They gave their fellow students significantly bigger portions of the hot sauce.

Many similar studies have found the same thing: A dose of violent gaming makes people act a little more rudely than they would otherwise, at least for a few minutes after playing. It is far harder to determine whether cumulative exposure leads to real-world hostility over the long term.

Since Blizzard’s games are mostly fantasy/sci-fi type escapes, without the visceral FPS type violence, they never get mentioned in these sort of debates. That’s not to say that players can’t get heated from playing them, though. Losing a match in Starcraft or getting another terrible roll on a legendary drop can certain spur fury, and the results of that “punish him with hot sauce” experiment might be directly applicable to the behavior of some (most?) people on B.net and other online gaming services.

I’m more curious to see research into the real hidden danger of playing Blizzard games… RSI and arthritis. Sadly, many of us are basically part of the test group for this, with results still pending. (I’m fairly sure most of us will attempt to point one quavering, gnarled finger at Diablo when we’re 72 and can’t make a fist with our mouse-clicking hands.)

Another quote from the article, with the conclusions. A section on page two notes that video game sales have more than doubled since 1996, while violent crime by young men has dropped by half, so if there’s some society-wide impact or effect from playing video games, it’s hard to discern.

“We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes,” said Dr. Ward, whose co-authors were A. Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Benjamin Engelstätter of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany.

No one knows for sure what these findings mean. It may be that playing video games for hours every day keeps people off the streets who would otherwise be getting into trouble. It could be that the games provide “an outlet” that satisfies violent urges in some players — a theory that many psychologists dismiss but that many players believe.

Or the two trends may be entirely unrelated.

Jokes aside, do you guys feel that playing video games is stress relief or anger management? Most of us use gaming as an escape, and after a hard day it can be awesome to sit down and game for a while. Whether that gaming creates a whole new round of stress is another question.

I bet some interesting studies could be done on the relative merits of accomplishment in different types of games. For instance, you unambiguously “win” a lot of games, including FPS titles, by finishing the final mission, killing the boss, etc. You can try to do it with a better score, with more ammo left, while taking less damage, etc, but those are more like side goals? Compare that to a game like Diablo, in which “winning” by killing the boss isn’t the final goal for most players. In Diablo 3 we’re trying to improve our characters which mostly means better items, and that’s a perpetual goal that you never actually “win.” Thus there’s less of a sense of ultimate accomplishment and triumph, especially with the Auction House an instantly-accessible reminder of just how much better your gear could always be?


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