With every new generation of violent video game, there seems to be a new outcry about the damage it may be doing to young minds. Yet there has been comparatively little research detailing exactly how video game violence actually corresponds to behavior in the real world. While Grand Theft Auto makes the headlines today, in the early 1990s, Wolfenstein 3D was the violent game of choice. That’s when Craig Anderson of the University of Missouri-Columbia and Karen Dill of Lenoir-Rhyne College began the first major study to specifically address the issue of violent video games and aggression (“Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000).
Anderson and Dill were frustrated with previous studies, which had yielded conflicting results about the correlation between video game playing and aggression. While there were several studies which did find a correlation between games and aggression, some did not, and none of them could demonstrate a link specifically between violent games and aggression: the link may have been due to other factors present in video games, such as excitement or competition.
Anderson and Dill’s model of the process of developing aggressive behavior suggested that long-term exposure to violent video games should lead to more aggressive behavior. As players play the games and repeatedly are rewarded for choosing violent behavior rather than non-violent behavior, this should lead to an inclination toward aggressive behavior in real life.
They conducted two studies to test their model. The first was a survey of 227 college students. Students were asked to complete a test measuring the level of aggression in their personality, as well as their actual aggressive behavior, such as whether they had ever hit or threatened to hit someone, or attacked someone with the intent of hurting them. The same students were asked how much time they spent playing video games over the past several years, and which games they preferred. They were also asked to rate the level of violence for each game they listed.
Anderson and Dill found a strong correlation between video game violence (as rated by the study’s respondents) and aggressive behavior, aggressive personality, and even nonagressive delinquency. Even after accounting for time spent playing video games, gender, and aggressive personality, exposure to video game violence still accounted for a significant portion of aggressive delinquent behavior. However, since the study is only a correlation, Anderson and Dill recognized that it alone cannot confirm that violent video games cause delinquent behavior. But such a correlation does indicate the possibility of damaging effects of playing video games, and certainly suggests that further research is worthwhile.
So next Anderson and Dill conducted a simple experiment. They compared the effects of playing a violent video game, Wolfenstein 3D, with a comparable nonviolent game, Myst. In a pilot study, they found users rated Wolfenstein and Myst similarly in all respects (enjoyment, action, difficulty, etc.) except for “excitement.” Here’s a screenshot from Wolfenstein 3D:
Given how graphic video games have become in the intervening years, it’s rather surprising that people were concerned about a game like Wolfenstein 3D. But Anderson and Dill report that in the early 1980s, there were similar worries about Pac-Man chasing and gobbling up all those monsters!
In the actual study, participants were told they were in an experiment about video games and motor skills. They were led to believe that they were competing against another participant playing a different game in an adjoining cubical (after the experiment, participants were debriefed and the true purpose of the study was explained).
They played either Myst or Wolfenstein for 15 minutes, and then were asked to perform a competitive reaction-time test. If a player won, he or she got to choose the “penalty” for the other player. The penalty was a painful noise played through headphones. Players chose before each test how loud the noise would be, and how long it would be played. In reality, the “test” was rigged so that the participant won 13 times and the non-existent “competitor” won 12 times.
Anderson and Dill found that Wolfenstein players subjected their competitors to significantly louder and longer penalties than Myst players. Each time players “lost” a reaction-time test, they were penalized and told exactly how loudly and long their “opponent” had chosen to penalize them. In subsequent rounds, Wolfenstein players retaliated with more severe penalties than Myst players. Both sets of players believed they were inflicting their penalties on real people, doing real harm, but those who played the more violent game inflicted the most damage.
Anderson and Dill argue that this experimental evidence, combined with their survey data, provide compelling evidence of a link between violent video games and aggressive, delinquent behavior. They are careful to point out that their studies do have limitations: the sample population of the studies was exclusively students from a large state university, so other populations may respond differently to video games. They still have not documented that long-term exposure to violent games causes delinquent behavior, only that it is likely to be one cause.
Yet the fact that these games have now been shown to affect real-world aggressive behavior is very much a cause for concern, and certainly reason enough to warrant significant additional research. One thing is certain: my 13-year-old son would be happy to participate!