Ever since video games became a popular pastime for youths, people have sought to understand how they affect those who play. Researchers, parents, and policymakers are particularly interested to know how violent video games affect teens, if at all. Some believe that violent games glorify and encourage violence. Others believe that these games are healthy outlets for violence. Still other people deny both claims, and suggest that these games have no effect whatsoever. Although there is no consensus, the research has revealed that violent video games certainly do something.
In 1972, the US Surgeon General declared that there was sufficient evidence to show that violent TV shows led to greater violence in real life. If this could be true about TV shows, some argue, it must also be true about video games. Proponents of this theory suggest that because the Columbine shooters played several violent video games, their shooting spree was the result of their gaming. All of this evidence being merely circumstantial, it is important to look at the empirical studies before forming an opinion.
A 2008 study showed that boys who watched other boys play violent video games did not have the same measures of aggressiveness that the boys who actually played the games had. This suggests that there is something about physically and mentally investing oneself in the violence that might lead to heightened personal aggression. Furthermore, a 2006 study by the Indiana University School of Medicine suggests that the violent nature of games affects the players most. In their study, some subjects played a car racing game, while others played a violent game. The brain scans of those who played violent games showed increased activity in emotion and decreased activity in self-control.
Those who oppose these conclusions have problems with the studies themselves, as well as what they consider to be logical leaps. For example, immediate brain activity does not necessarily mean that the brain will be changed in the long term. They also argue that just as comic books were the alleged cause of teen violence in the 1950s, this campaign against video games is nothing more than scapegoating.
Some people believe that violent video games are cathartic, meaning that they are a healthy outlet for pre-existing anger. According to this theory, violent games serve to decrease and let go of built-up anger. However, a 2010 study rejected this idea, showing that violent games actually increased violent thoughts and lessened empathy.
Two newly released studies shed some light on this debate. David Ewoldsen, one of the studies’ co-authors, pointed out that previous studies focused on solo players. In his study, researchers noticed a difference between cooperative and competitive playing. They found that players who cooperate with each other in playing violent video games do not show signs of increased aggression. Thus, violent video games alone may not be the culprit. Negative effects of violent video games may be attributed to playing alone rather than allowing gaming to be a healthy social activity.
Although the jury is still out on the specifics, the underlying theme seems to be that violent video games are at least part of the problem. One of the last brain parts to finish wiring is the prefrontal cortex, which is essential for understanding consequences and thinking ahead. Thus, parents should exercise discretion while allowing their children to play violent video games. While cause and effect remain unproven, parents should be attentive and remain open to all possibilities.