Do violent videogames cause aggressive behaviour?

A new study suggests the link is more nuanced than people realise

Do videogames make peopleĀ aggressive? It’s a question you’ve likely heard on the news after a violent offender was found to have played Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto games. Of course playing violent games doesn’t guarantee you’ll become aggressive; I played plenty as a child and I’m not violent. What we’re really talking about here isĀ risk. Are you more likely to be aggressive if you played violent games?

Scientists have been trying to answer the question for several decades yetĀ it’s still debatedĀ and the science is conflicting.Ā There are published studies that claim there is no association between playing violent games and aggressiveĀ behaviour, but there are others claiming the opposite. What does this mean? Do they make us violent or not? Are half of theĀ studies bad? Conflicting results like these hintĀ that there’s a complex relationship that’s been overlooked. A new study published this evening argues that the link is more nuanced than the dichotic yes/no argumentsĀ presented in the media.

Researchers at Bath Spa University, Bristol University, and UCL, haveĀ collaborated to analyse data from 2,400 90s children. The purpose of the study was to investigate the relationship between playing videogames at 8-9 years of age and the occurrence of depression and/or conduct disorder at the age of 15. Rather than simply asking if aggressive individuals played violent games, the researchers designed a more nuanced method that takes into account the degree of violence from games. The study also improves on others by studying the same individuals over many years. This gives the researchers an idea of how violent or depressed the children were to begin with, which is essential if we want to clear up the debate.

The results of the study found no significant association between playing violent games at 8-9 and suffering from depression at 15.Ā The study also found no link betweenĀ aggression and being a gamerĀ in general, althoughĀ there was an association between violent shoot-em-ups andĀ developing conduct disorder (including violent behaviour) at 15 but the evidence was very weak. TheyĀ probed this association further by comparing violent shoot-em-ups with less violent multiplayer games. If the games do have an effect, it seems to be caused by the violence itself rather than the competitive aspect, but again this was very weak evidence.

This study helps to make sense of the contradictory results already found in the literature. When different researchers find evidence backingĀ different sides of the argument, it suggests that the situationĀ isĀ more complex than the studies are accounting for.Ā Moving forward, the researchers feel that new studies shouldn’t simply ask if violent games lead to aggressive behaviour. Instead, they should ask exactly what content in these games has an effect. We need to get over the “is it or isn’t it” approach. If we can understandĀ exactly what it is about the games that might increase the risk of developing conduct disorder, it might inform future game design.

It’s a controversial subject. I have a real passion for gaming and I dislike the idea that my favourite hobby could result in something so sinister. Articles on the subject usually get a lot of hate from gamers if they even suggest that gaming could make people violent. If we really want to know what’s going on, we have to ignore our personal opinions and do some good science. With more careful studies like the one published this evening, we’ll finally be able to answer the question.

The take-home message? For now it seems that gaming itself doesn’t make you violent, but there are hints that the level of violence in the games might increase the risk. We’ll know more when future research builds on this study.

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