Does violence in video games actually cause behavioral issues in children?

Luke Williams, Deputy Editor, Commentary

One of the most contentious debates in the video game industry is whether or not violence in video games directly causes aggression and violence in children. While many parents use this argument to control their children’s screen time, and many politicians use this argument to pin blame on the video industry, the claim that in-game violence causes real-world violence may not be entirely true.

The argument that violent video games negatively affect the behavior of children consists of two parts: that exposure to violence via video games increases one’s likelihood to commit violent crime and that in-game violence results in less extreme but measurable aggression and irritability.

For starters, let’s discuss the first alleged effect of in-game violence: that playing violent video games predisposes a person to commit violent crime. Proponents of this argument claim violent video games condition children to act violently in real life because they are rewarded for scoring kills and using lethal force against enemies while playing the game. This argument is further augmented by the fact that many mass shooters admit to playing first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty and being fascinated by the weapons and mechanics of the games.

At first glance, this argument seems convincing and logical, especially to someone who has little experience playing violent video games. However, seasoned gamers tend to disagree with this sentiment purely out of personal experience. 

An anonymous Minnetonka gamer, ‘23, said, “I think the claim that first-person shooters cause kids to seriously harm people is total nonsense. I mean, just because I have fun shooting people in a video game doesn’t mean that I would have fun shooting people in real life. Clicking heads on a computer screen is not remotely comparable to physically harming another human being. If anyone becomes motivated to replicate the violent actions they see in a game in real life, it’s probably because they need serious mental help and not because they’re playing a violent video game.” 

Beyond this, numerous studies have shown that playing violent video games does not increase one’s probability of committing violent crimes.

 In his paper titled “Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric vs. Data”, Patrick M. Markey, Ph.D, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Villanova University said, “Contrary to the claims that violent video games are linked to aggressive assaults and homicides, no evidence was found to suggest that this medium was a major (or minor) contributing cause of violence in the United States. Homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games. If video games are really the equivalent of flight simulators training people to kill, it is difficult to explain why homicide rates would go down after millions of these ‘murder simulators’ have been sold. Finding that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game, such as Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, is as pointless as pointing out that the criminal also wore socks. The rhetoric about violent video games does not match the data.”

While playing violent video games may not lead to large-scale incidents of violence, it’s still probable that in-game violence leads to less destructive anger, aggression, and irritability. After all, losing and making mistakes are common occurrences in many video games, and nobody enjoys losing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sports match, a piano contest, an academic assignment, or a round in a video game; making mistakes and losing tend to get people riled up regardless of the situation. 

As a result, it’s natural to get frustrated while highly competitive video games such as Counter-Strike, Overwatch, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where there are a ton of opportunities to make blunders, lose, and become aggressive. However, since all three of these examples—alongside most other highly competitive games—also happen to be violent first-person shooter-style video games, it’s easy to mistakenly assume that the cause of real-life frustration is in-game violence, as opposed to in-game competitiveness. 

When asked about why they get aggressive and irritable while playing video games, an anonymous Minnetonka gamer, ‘23, said, “Personally, I don’t think that the violence in the video games I play is what gets me worked up. As someone who rages pretty hard while gaming, I find myself getting angry when I die, or when I miss my shots, or when my teammates make a stupid decision. I think that if the violence itself is what’s making me irritable, I wouldn’t be throwing my controller across the room while playing Mario Kart, because Mario Kart isn’t a violent game. But I do throw my controller across the room when I play Mario Kart, since the reason I get mad is because I’m losing. So I think that getting aggressive and raging while playing video games has less to do with actual in-game violence and more to do with the number of opportunities you have to screw up, lose, or otherwise make mistakes.”

So, what does this all mean? Does violence in video games actually equate to violent tendencies and behavioral issues in children? Well, yes and no. Playing violent video games will most definitely not incentivize you or anyone else to go out and commit serious crimes, and, beyond that, in-game violence in and of itself is not the reason why children become incredibly frustrated, throw their controller across the room, or scream at their parents when they’re asked to get off the computer. It’s how competitive a game is and how emotionally invested you get in it that dictates how one reacts. That’s why people still get enraged by child-friendly games like Minecraft, Flappy Golf, or Mario Kart–having one’s house blown up by monsters, missing a gold medal by mere pixels, or getting hit by a blue shell at the finish line of a race stings just as much as getting sniped by a bush camper in Call of Duty. The reason why people tend to get more aggressive, lash out more violently and experience more behavioral issues while playing M-rated games is because M-rated games tend to be more competitive; popular titles such as Counter-Strike, Rainbow 6 Siege, and Valorant are all violent games, sure, but they are also extremely intense team-based games where any and all mistakes are punished immediately.

However, it’s important to realize that even though violent tendencies aren’t caused by in-game violence, frustration and aggression are still genuine side effects of playing video games. In the end, it doesn’t matter a whole lot whether a person smashes their controller because of in-game violence or in-game competitive losses; ultimately, they’re smashing your controller either way. Even though in-game violence in and of itself isn’t all that harmful, my advice when it comes to regulating gaming time remains pretty much the same. If a person is extremely competitive or tends to get emotionally attached to in-game events, make sure to take ample breaks while gaming. If they ever start to feel themselves getting frustrated or angry, just get off for a few minutes and resume playing once they’ve calmed down a little bit. In the end, just be mindful that video games can be a potent source of frustration and irritability, but that if one ever finds themselves or someone else getting mad while playing, it’s probably because they’re losing, not because they’re playing a violent video game.