The violent video game controversy

Imagine the following scenario: Your character in the game Grand Theft Auto visits a prostitute and is ironically rewarded with “health points”, however, you lose “money” due to paying for the service. Thus, to recuperate your “money”, you kill the prostitute and take your money back. Does enacting this type of behaviour through a game carry any real life significance?

It has been suggested that video games heighten aggression, decrease levels of empathy, discourage prosocial behaviour, and glorify violence. Rather than just watching characters on a screen, players interact with the game physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Many thousands of opponents (and other characters) are killed in various graphic ways and the player is rewarded (assuming that they “win”). Thus, behaviour is rehearsed, becomes desensitised, and accepted.

However, years of research on the link between violent video games and individual violence has resulted in heated debate and mixed findings. One of the difficulties with long-term research in this area, is that individuals are exposed to a great number of potential factors that alone, or in combination, can contribute to individuals engaging in violence. Naturally, when significant violent acts occur, especially when firearms are involved – like school shootings in the USA – everyone assumes a link to violent video games. However, research has shown that a very small proportion of school shooters were attracted to these games and rather had other pre-existing difficulties. So what is the long-term risk involved to users?

It is worth noting that while most children under the age of 17 play video games, the largest market is that of adults. Supporters of video games have argued that while the number of people playing games has increased significantly, the rate of violent crime in many western countries is actually decreasing. Further, the vast majority of these youth and adult players have not demonstrated violence. In fact, many positive effects have been reported, such as better hand-eye coordination, resistance to distraction, peripheral vision sensitivity, development of social capabilities, and games even being an outlet for stress and anger. To add to this, video games can be a legitimate source of fun. Some argue that on-line gaming is akin to play-fighting and part of normal development in which competition is healthy. Therefore, we have to look at violent video game effects on a case-by-case basis.

Someone that is predisposed to aggression may be more strongly influenced by what they experience. Playing violent games may bring out violence in individuals already prone to violence (due to factors such as genetics, poverty, culture, family violence, etc). Concerns relate to those who are (i) prone to anger, highly emotional, easily upset, and depressed; (ii) cold and indifferent to others; and (iii) those that frequently break rules and don’t appear to think before they act.

Parents can take a number of steps in an attempt to limit the possible negative effects of video games, namely: Check the rating labels about game content. Consider the possibility that children have accessed games for more mature audiences through older peers. Play or watch some of the games with children to be in touch with what actually happens and how the child reacts. Ensure that games are played in view of adults, rather than in bedrooms. Set limits on game time. Encourage physical activities like sport and physically playing with peers.

Video games will remain. They are neither inherently good nor bad. The focus needs to be on lessening the potential harm to a vulnerable group of individuals.

Craig Prince is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the assessment of people facing criminal or civil proceedings. You can learn more about him and his work at


Comments are closed.