Much of the research on violent video games, like a vast proportion of all psychological research, has focused on college students. This shouldn’t be surprising, since most college psychology departments require students to participate in experiments as a part of the Introduction to Psychology course. It’s an easy way for researchers to find human participants, and a great way for students to learn how real research is done. Research results for college students often are equivalent to the population as a whole, and even when they aren’t, college students can establish a baseline to compare to other groups.
But the group people are most concerned about when it comes to the effect of violent games is probably early adolescent boys, much younger than the typical college student. What if younger people respond differently to games? Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much research on this age group, but Steven J. Kirsh has taken an innovate approach to predicting how the impact of violent games differs for younger adolescents. Kirsh has used more general research on aggression in adolescents to formulate several hypotheses on how violent games might fit in to those models.
Kirsh points out that even though some studies that have focused on early adolescents or late adolescents (including college students), none has encompassed the entire age range of adolescence. To show the scale of the problem, Kirsh points to research suggesting that adolescents prefer violent games to non-violent games, and a 1998 study suggesting that 80 percent of the most popular games on the market are violent (I’d be interested to see a more recent study on this, especially if distinctions were made between the different types of violence found in the most popular games).
General research on aggression in adolescents has found that for both boys and girls, aggressive responses increase from ages 11 to 14, then decrease from 14 to 17. Physical aggression, like fighting, peaks between the ages of 13 and 15, as does parent-child and sibling conflict.
Meanwhile, early adolescence is also associated with a higher incidence of negative emotions and depression. Kirsh argues that these trends may be responsible for adolescents interpreting provocative actions of others as aggressive, and increasing the likelihood of aggressive response. The hormones found in disturbing abundance in adolescents have also been associated with increased aggression.
The physical development of the brain during this period is also associated with a predisposition for emotional responses over rational ones. From age 7 to 16, adolescents lose half of their neocortical synapses (connections between brain cells). This “synaptic pruning” may be responsible for increasing the ability of the prefrontal cortex to make rational judgments, and fMRI scans of 10 to 18-year-olds show that younger children respond to emotionally-laden drawings almost entirely with the limbic system (responsible for emotion), whereas older children use both the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex (used for higher thinking).
Kirsh puts all this evidence together to argue that violent games should have a more dramatic affect on aggressive behavior in early adolescence compared to mid and late adolescence. However, Kirsch also acknowledges that there are many other contributors to aggressive behavior, including gender, family, peers, school, and personality. Each of these other contributors may vary differently across adolescence — for example, susceptibility to peer pressure peaks at around age 15, just as physical aggression is beginning to diminish. And while there are significant gender differences in violent and aggressive behavior (boys are much more aggressive than girls), there does not appear to be a gender difference in the impact of video game violence.
Some researchers, such as James Garbarino, suggest that most kids can handle one or two of these risk factors for aggressive behavior, but once several of them are combined, the likelihood of aggressive behavior increases dramatically. Perhaps only when video game violence is studied in the context of many different risk factors — and the other known phenomena related to adolescent development — will its true impact be known.
I’d like to add one more recommendation myself — that researchers also not treat all video games the same. As recent research has suggested, not all video game violence is created equal, and a careful study will also take different types of video game violence into account.
Kirsh, S.J. (2003). The effects of violent video games on adolescents: The overlooked influence of development. Aggression and Violent Behavior 8, 377-389.