By: Helice Stratton (Bugle Team)

Asking people whether violent video games pass this violence onto their players generates some pretty heated answers. The general feelings of a lot people can be summed up by this viral advert for Electronic Arts’ Dead Space 2:

Lately opinions like this have become rather popular across news media and as an active gamer this tends to annoy me because I rarely see any scientific evidence to back up said opinions.

I began gaming in my early teens and I’ve never noticed any adverse effects—I’ve yet to feel inclined to punch, shoot or chain-saw anyone. But an opinion backed up by a sample size of one isn’t hard evidence; the only way to argue this case is to turn to existing literature. When I did, I was initially unpleasantly surprised: the majority of research argues that violent games desensitise players to real life violence, leading to more aggressive thoughts and actions; there are even nods to addiction and lower grades (Anderson and Dill 2000).

Much of the research is based on the General Aggression Model (GAM) which states that aggressive behaviour stems from what we learn observing the real and fictional worlds around us—if we see more violence we will learn to react to situations violently. Theoretically the learning process begins with desensitisation—that is, a decrease in the instinctive emotional reaction to violence due to frequent exposure to it. After years gaming I can confirm I have had just that. Studies such as the one carried out by Anderson, Bushman and Carnagey (2006) who looked at physiological reactions to images of real life violence showed that violent gamers do indeed seem to have a significantly lower reaction.

In their study however the next step—desensitisation leading to the perception of violence as normal and hence more perpetration of it and less help and sympathy for its victims—was purely theoretical. A similar study by Bartholow, Bushman and Sestir (2006) attempted to go further and make the link between their own desensitisation data and increased aggression. Whether or not they did however is a matter of debate.

They used a method first implemented by Anderson and Dill (2000) in which, after playing twenty minutes of either a violent or a non-violent game, participants take part in a reaction time test, in which they are told they are up against another participant. The loser of each round—the slowest to react to a prompt on a screen—is subjected to a burst of sound via headphones, the volume and duration of which is chosen by the winner. In actuality, participants are competing against a computer which allows them to win a predetermined amount of times. When the participant does not win, the volume and length of the sound burst they receive is randomly generated by the computer.

This methodology has been used in many studies, always to support the hypothesis that those who have played a violent game display higher aggression by assigning longer, louder sound blasts on winning, as well as perceiving aggression in their opponent where there clearly is none (Bartholow, Bushman and Sestir 2006; Bartholow, Davis and Sestir, 2005). But as Ferguson (2007) points out, aside from being a purely short term effect taken just after playing, assigning a louder sound blast to an opponent isn’t exactly the same as stealing cars and committing murder. Though the violent and non-violent games in the study are usually stated to be equal in content, non-violent games used are often opponent-less puzzle games such as Myst whereas violent ones are more in the vein of Doom in which the player is being constantly attacked by opponents, hence it isn’t surprising that players would be more competitive, more likely to perceive aggression and more likely to mirror this aggression a short time after playing the violent game.

It also bears mention that, in almost all of the papers looked at, the participants are students with no real criminal background, hence the sample isn’t as telling as, say, a group of offenders. The participants are also usually entirely male—unsurprising because gaming is mostly perceived as male-oriented, but as a female I can’t help but feel unrepresented.

In the end, though I am more knowledgeable, I remain unconvinced. For what it’s worth I believe that violence in video games is positive rather than negative: it shows that as a society we no longer see committing violent acts against living things for entertainment as acceptable as we did in the past, and so instead we construct victimless simulations. All the same, I urge my readers to remain open minded and to take the opinions of both sides with a grain of salt.



Anderson, C., Bushman, B. and Carnagey, N. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitisation to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 489-496

Anderson, C. and Dill, K. (2000). Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviour in the Laboratory and in Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 78, no. 4, pp. 772-790

 Bartholow, B., Bushman, B. and Sestir, M. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitisation to violence: Behavioural and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 532-539

Bartholow, B., Davis, E. and Sestir, M. (2005). Correlates and Consequences of Exposure to Video Game Violence: Hostile Personality, Empathy and Aggressive Behaviour. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 11, pp. 1573-1586

Ferguson, C. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 470-482