Does playing violent video games cause aggression?

Most young people in the developed world play video games. Many play violent video games. Since the inception of gaming as a recreational activity there have been concerns about possible negative effects. Studies polling members of the general public as well as scientists suggest that views concerning the effects of gaming on young people vary widely, depending on demographics and personal experiences with games. While some researchers have found that gaming has social and cognitive benefits, others have gone as far as to argue that it contributes to mass-shooting events. The question then is -- does playing violent video games lead to aggression?

The impact of video games on individuals and society is a topic that has been debated by scholars and professionals for many years. There is still no consensus, however, on whether playing violent video causes aggression. In such cases, policy-makers are typically cautious where scientific knowledge about something new is lacking. In accordance with this logic, groups such as the American Psychological Association have warned people to limit how much time they spend playing video games. The Australian and Swedish governments, however, have concluded there is no evidence that youth aggression is caused by gaming.

The most widely accepted theory to explain the link between violent video game engagement and aggression is called the general aggression model (GAM). The general aggression model proposes that repeated exposure to violent media increases the accessibility of aggressive thoughts, which in turn increases the probability of an individual exhibiting aggressive cognitive schema and behavior. The available evidence using the general aggression model to study the effect of playing violent video games on aggression has provided mixed support. More recently, researchers have criticised the use of the general aggression model, suggesting that there are multiple factors key to understanding the relationship between playing violent video games and aggression that are overlooked when adopting such an approach. For example, that people with aggressive tendencies are attracted to violent video games, and that games may elicit aggression in experimental settings not because they prime those schema but rather frustrate players' need for competence.

The question of whether adolescent engagement with violent video games drives aggressive behaviour in young people is a critically important one. Broadly speaking, the best available evidence does not support the position that playing violent video games is related to aggressive behaviour. The evidence also suggests that the amount of time a teenager spends playing violent video games does not predict whether or not he will engage in aggressive behaviour. However, it is important to note that some mechanics and situations in gaming cause players to feel angry. Some examples include feeling incompetent, trash talking or competing with other players during gameplay. These are still important and under researched topics that have direct implications on antisocial online behaviours such as bullying, trolling and griefing. However, there is limited evidence to suggest these behaviours transcend into off-line settings. 

Despite the evidence, it will likely remain an unsettled question for parents, pundits and policy-makers whether violent video games drive aggressive behavior. For us, video games are just the latest medium to come under media scrutiny. History tells us that cinema and even books have been subjected to similar concerns. This is not to say that the immersive nature of video games may not affect people differently, but to provide a wider context that these are not new concerns. Whilst the focus in the media has been on the perceived relationship between playing violent video games and violent behaviour, less focus has been on the positives. The social benefits are now well established and psychological benefits are emerging. However, most of these relationships are mediated by, to some extent, individual differences in the players. We argue that the effect of video games on a person's well-being is dependent on multiple factors, including the type or style of game being played, the motivation behind its use, and moderation in gameplay.


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