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January 4, 2011

Violent Games

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As the content of video games becomes more and more violent, researchers are debating whether that virtual violence can lead kids to the real thing. This ScienCentral News video has more.

"Psychopath" games

At this year's Electronic Entertainment Exposition in Los Angeles, one video game maker announced the release of a game called "Interview with a Made Man", where the gamer's task is to rise up the ranks of the Mafia through bookmaking, racketeering, loan sharking, hijacking, assassinations, and more. It's just one example of a new breed of many ultraviolent games on the market. One of the games most cited for its violent content— and one of the industry's best sellers over the past several years— is the "Grand Theft Auto" series.

"In this game, you play the part of a psychopath, basically," says Douglas Gentile, a psychologist at Iowa State University. "You run around the street, you can run down pedestrians with the car, you can do carjackings, you can do drive-by shootings, you can run down to the red-light district, pick up a prostitute, have sex with her in your car, and then kill her to get your money back. Most parents are unaware that this most popular game in the country has such very adult themes in it."

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But is there a connection between violent video games and teenage violence? Gentile, who is also research director for the National Institute on Media and the Family, surveyed 600 teens and the kinds of video games they play, along with measures of aggressive behavior. "We found that for children who are playing a lot of violent video games, they see the world as a more hostile place, they get into more arguments with teachers, they get into more physical fights, and they also get worse grades in school," he says.

But skeptics say this doesn't prove the games are causing this behavior. "What you have is a correlation," says Jonathan Freedman, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who wrote a book criticizing many of the studies linking violent media to violent behavior. "And the issue of interest to everybody is, 'Does playing violent video games cause kids to be aggressive?' And there's nothing in this study that answers that question."

He also points out that if there is a link, you'd expect to see evidence of it in the police blotter. "But instead of an increase in violent crime, we've seen a very sharp decrease from 1992 to the present," Freedman says. "That doesn't prove anything, but certainly all those people who believe that all this media violence is dangerous would've expected an increase."

Like other skeptics, Freedman argues that the teens drawn to violent video games are probably already aggressive teens. But Gentile says he controlled for that in his study by measuring each teenager's innate level of hostility. "We gave [the participants] a standard personality hostility inventory, and what we found that was so surprising, was…if you're on the very low end, you're a non-hostile kid, and you play a lot of violent video games, that increases your risk of fights about ten times. So, these violent video games seem to have an effect [not only] on the kids that are already at risk for aggressive and anti-social behavior, but also on the kids who are not already at risk."

Gentile found that among kids who scored low on the measure of hostility and did not play violent games, four percent reported getting into fights in the past year. But for kids low in hostility who do play violent games, 38 percent were involved in fights.

Freedman argues that while the measure for "trait hostility" is a good one, it can't account for all the variants in aggressiveness. "There is no such measure of any personality trait, much less aggression, which is one of the hardest to measure," Freedman says. He explains Gentile's results this way: "Among those kids who are low in trait hostility, some of them play violent video games, and those are the more aggressive kids in that group. They are more likely to get into fights, and they are more likely to play violent video games, and I would guess that they are more likely to watch violent television and to play violent sports, and to do all sorts of other things that are violent."

Freedman says that a study monitoring kids over several years would provide better proof of a causal link between violent video games and teen violence, but that no one has done a study like that yet.

Meanwhile, the Entertainment Software Rating Board does provide ratings for video games. Concerned parents might want to be cautions about letting their kids purchase or rent games rated "M" (for "mature") or "AO" (for "adults only"), and keep in mind that stores are not required by law to follow any age limits for "M"-rated games.

Gentile's research appeared in the February, 2004 issue of the Journal of Adolescence and was funded by the National Institute on Media and the Family. Freedman's book, Media Violence and its Effect on Aggression was published in 2002 by the University of Toronto Press.

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