“The Columbine shooters played violent video games; that has to be a factor in their decision to brutally murder their classmates!” Society is quick to point fingers and approach unknown situations with a causal mentality that often results in a false accusation of an innocent bystander. With the advent of the video game era, psychologists have debated their effect on the minds of their youthful audience. Throughout the multitude of studies and the perpetual debate, society still lacks an absolute answer.
With this knowledge, when it comes to video games and their impact on the minds of children, researchers must consult a wide variety of subjects with an open mind about the potential outcomes. I conducted my research by examining my personal experience, analyzing studies refuting both sides of the argument, trying to view the American fascination with violence through an outside perspective, and reviewing the thought processes that lead the members of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in order to gain a full perspective of the issue.
What correlation exists, if any, between violent video games and the violent tendencies that children exhibit after exposure to said media? Throughout my research, I have discovered that a trend does exist, but it manifests after the child has encountered puberty because of the heightened levels of testosterone that accompany this phase of development, and the trend relies heavily on other factors in a violent disposition. The age factor generally fails to exist in the violent tendencies argument; this is intriguing in that the majority of violent videogames are targeted toward an older audience. In order to truly understand the violent tendencies of mankind, we must first analyze these tendencies without the factors that violent media bring to the table.
In order to truly note the violent tendencies that accompany games, we must first analyze the rating scale set forth in an attempt to filter the content received by the correct demographic. Since 1994, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has defined the appropriate age demographic for material existent in video games. Not only does the ESRB set the age limit for videogames, which ranges from EC (early childhood) to AO (adults only), but it does so with clear-cut explanations regarding their decision to enforce the established rating.
The explanation is often based on references, violence, language, and gore with caveats regarding the severity of each aspect from mild to extreme, and childish to adult (Becker-Olsen and Norberg 83). Karen Becker-Olsen and Patricia Norberg, marketing and advertising professors at The College of New Jersey and Quinnipiac Universities respectively, in an attempt to further understand the ESRB rating scale and ascertain its alignment among members of society, conducted a study in which members from four separate age groups, middle school, high school, college, and parents, in which each group would view an advertisement for four games (each game was the current best-seller under their respective ratings) and provide their own input for its rating.
The study then compared the groups’ ratings to the actual rating of the respective games. The groups’ ratings rarely aligned with the ESRB rating and nearly every time the groups rated each game lower than the suggested scale. The primary exception to this trend was the parent group in that games were generally rated more severely that suggested. Astonishingly, the middle school group awarded the games the most relaxed ratings (Becker-Olsen and Norberg 87-88).
When analyzing these results, three questions come to mind: are children nowadays overly desensitized towards violence; are advertisements portraying accurate examples of the media in order to target the appropriate demographic, and what effect does this misappropriated attention have on today’s youth?
Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, authors of multiple published articles regarding video game violence and its impact on American society, refute that violent videogames do not have causal relationship to violence in youth, but that the competitive nature of certain games relates to aggressive behavior for a short time after gameplay.
Throughout their numerous studies and tests, Adachi and Willoughby note inconsistencies that exist in previous studies in three primary forms: “First, to date, no study has matched a violent and nonviolent video game on competitiveness, difficulty, and pace of action simultaneously, and thus, the violent content has not been isolated. Consequently, it is unclear whether the violent content alone is responsible for elevated levels of aggression.
Second, previous experimental studies have tended to use a measure of aggression that may also measure competitiveness, leading to questions about whether violent video games are related to aggression or competitiveness. Third, the effect of video game competition on aggressive behavior has not been examined” (Adachi and Willoughby 259).
These three factors support the argument that violence is not a factor in the violent tendencies in America’s young boys and girls in that there is little to no concrete evidence proving a direct correlation between video games and violent inclinations. Instead, Adachi and Willoughby attribute competitive games with a primary relationship between aggressive tendencies and exposure. As an absolute fan of sports games in which the core characteristic is centered on competition, I can wholly support this argument.
In the past, I have been far more likely to have an outburst when playing one of the FIFA or Madden games versus Call of Duty. When paired with Anderson and Bushman’s 2002 General Aggression Model (GAM), previous studies of this relationship are nearly proven to be obsolete.
In 2002, Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman sought to better understand the causes of violent actions and their increasing prevalence in American society. With the recent shooting at Columbine High School and the attacks on September 11, 2001, they perceived the increase in violent activities, but failed to understand the root causes of these actions.
Anderson and Bushman set out to discover, not if a trend exists between violent media and its translation to the real world, but how this trend is occurring and why it is doing so. In order to do so, they performed a series of studies, which led to their development of the General Aggression Model. The GAM notes that there are multiple factors that promote violent tendencies in people: “The model depicts a cyclical relationship between an individual and the environment, in which person variables such as trait hostility, as well as situation variables such as exposure to real-world or media violence (e.g., violent video games), interact to influence an individual’s present internal state.
Within an individual’s internal state are cognition (aggressive scripts or hostile thoughts), affect (anger and frustration), and arousal (elevated heart rate or blood pressure). Cognition, affect, and arousal are the hypothesized mechanisms that interact to [omit] influence an individual’s aggressive behavior” (Anderson and Bushman 1680).
Although the GAM uses video games as its primary example for a cause of violent tendencies, it can be applied to nearly any aspect of life in order to analyze a situation in which aggressive behavior took place. For example, should the GAM analyze the factors leading up to the actions of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, it would result in similar findings in the end.
Perhaps critics’ favorite example in opposition of video game violence is the Columbine Shooting. On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stormed their high school with premeditated lethal intent and murdered twelve of their classmates and one of their teachers. Once the media got hold of the story, video games were immediately blamed for priming the young men and their violent actions, but here is what the news failed to report: both Klebold and Harris were victims of bullying for the better part of a decade prior to the incident.
Brooks Brown, Klebold’s close friend since second grade, notes how both he and Klebold were singled out for being “different” and that they were both beat up often and ridiculed for their lack of athleticism and diminutive statures.
What pushed Klebold over the edge while Brown evaded the breaking point? Did Brown not play video games? No. Brown notes that he and Klebold shared a love for computers and video games and that that they often played together. The buffer that held Brown on the nonviolent side was a mentor. Brooks Brown found a teacher that ended up saving his life without his knowledge until after the horrific massacre.
His senior philosophy teacher, Mr. Critser, showed an interest in Brown that no faculty member ever sought to do, even after his constant pleadings for assistance (qtd in. Cook 181-182). This lengthy anecdote is a prime example for the existence for ulterior factors that contribute to a predisposition for violence and the possibility to eliminate the chance for a violent outbreak.
How is age a factor in the predestination for violent tendencies? As children grow older, not only do their cognitive functions develop as they expand their exposure to outside influences with an increasing understanding of the processes taking place around them, but they also experience chemical changes throughout childhood, into puberty, and into the future. The primary chemical change in boys is the drastic changes in testosterone levels.
Testosterone is noted to cause physical changes as well as cognitive changes for both genders, although males experience much higher levels of testosterone throughout puberty and into adulthood. One of the cognitive effects of testosterone is the increase in naturally aggressive tendencies and thought processes.
Christopher Ferguson and his fellow authors of an article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence unwittingly support this claim through their study of a group with the average age of 12.5 years old. In their study, this group of faculty members from the Department of Psychology and Communication at Texas A&M University collected a group of 333 children and analyzed their academic and social behavior in relation to their exposure to violent media, namely violent video games, and concluded that no major short- or long-term effects of playing violent video games exist (Ferguson et. al. 112-115). Ferguson’s team shows how the amount of testosterone in an individual’s body can affect his demeanor and performance without a direct reference to testosterone levels.
With the physical progression that accompanies puberty and the elevated levels of testosterone present in a matured body, common sense dictates that more aggressive tendencies should manifest, but is this truly the case? Jih-Hsuan Lin, a member of the Department of Communication and Technology at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, sought answers to this question.
In Lin’s study of 169 college age males in which they played two separate video games, one violent and one nonviolent, she analyzed each participant for aggressive traits after each game. Her research concludes that a short time of aggressive behavior coupled with physiological identifiers of aggression (activation of the sympathetic nervous system, high blood pressure, and underlying tension) existed upon completion of violent gameplay.
The duration of the aggressive behavior depends on the continued exposure to the violent scenarios in the game (Lin 688-691). The primary factor that differs between Ferguson and Lin’s studies is age and the physical maturity of their test subjects; this leads me to believe that the changes in physical maturity must have some causality in the current argument.
As a 23 year-old male, I have plenty of first-hand experience with violent video games. I received my first game console in 1999 at the age of eight years old. I played my Nintendo 64 incessantly, along with the seemingly violent video games of the time: Banjo Kazooie, Super Smash Brothers, Goldeneye, and The Legend of Zelda. Throughout my exposure to these games, my demeanor rarely became violent following my gameplay, and when I did exhibit violent tendencies, they were in the form of pretend games like “Cops and Robbers.”
Now, fifteen years later, I still play my fair share of videogames, both violent and nonviolent, and I have noticed two things: I am extremely competitive with regard to sports games, and I have absolutely no inclination to go out and re-enact the actions that take part in the plot of my favorite games.
I can confidently state that the majority of mankind near my age that play video games can relate to my experiences and thought processes when playing games, because if they did not, an astronomically higher number of news-worthy violent events would occur on a daily basis.
When analyzing the factors that lead to violent tendencies and actions, keep in mind that a veritable cocktail of contributing factors must exist in order for violence to occur. It is highly possible that someone that plays violent video games may take part in a violent act, but it is ignorant and foolhardy to assume that violent games are the sole factor in determining a violent predisposition.
Among the main factors for video games to contribute to violence are age and the levels of testosterone that are present through an individual’s progression through physical maturity. Next time anyone sees fit to jump to conclusions about the causes of violence, I suggest they analyze the situation according to the General Aggressiveness Model according to all factors. Now go out and get your game on!