Do video games cause violence?

There's a lot of video games out there. Some can actually help us improve our abilities. In fact, there’s so much more to gaming than just violence. Even if there is a link, there are more factors to consider. This isn’t a simple question..!

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Game on! – Press Start to Begin

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Violent video games and real-life violence - is there a link?

Can seeing violence in a video game make someone violent in real life? What causes anger and aggression? And why do we get so frustrated with some games – but not others? Dr Andy Przybylski has the answers.


Video games

If you’re a fan of video games, you’ll have seen the scary headlines. Maybe there’s even an adult in your life who’s worried that playing a violent video game will turn you into a criminal yourself.

Now you can reassure them that there’s no need to panic. Aggression and violence are not a direct result of playing a violent video game- phew!

That’s according to expert Dr Andy Przybylski, an experimental psychologist based at the Oxford Internet Institute, who looks at the effects that gaming can have on people. “We know a lot about where aggression comes from - it’s largely related to drug and alcohol use, a lot of it is crime-related, and a lot of it is instrumental, people want things so they’re willing to use violence” he says. “It comes from people who are otherwise not good at dealing with their feelings. They don’t let it out and then it just explodes, it’s a self-regulatory problem.”

What’s the story? 

So why do so many people think violent video games cause aggression – and where did that idea actually come from? Przybylski explains that one of the historical traditions of psychological research suggested that humans just needed to see a type of behaviour in order to copy it. He says the idea was that seeing something happen made it easier for a person to think about it, talk about it, and eventually do it. He says it would be like thinking of people as snowballs, rolling down a hill and collecting whatever they roll over. 

Przybylski suggests that it could be the structure of a game that causes frustration, which develops into anger afterwards – and points out that puzzle games can be just as frustrating as games that are seen as ‘violent’.

Two famous studies from the 1960s reflect this ‘social learning tradition’ viewpoint. One is the Bobo doll experiment, in which children watched an adult interact with an inflatable doll. When they saw the adult behave aggressively and violently towards it, they often copied this behaviour. Likewise, in the second study, the Stanford prison experiment, participants were assigned the role of ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’ in a fake prison scenario. As the days went on,  the ‘guards’ became increasingly cruel to the pretend inmates – which some think proves that people are happy to do as they’re told, regardless of whether or not it’s mean or violent.

What new research tells us

Recent research indicates that there’s something a little more interesting going on – and that games don’t necessarily have to be explicitly violent like Grand Theft Auto for players to feel angry or aggressive. 

Instead, Przybylski suggests that it could be the structure of a game that causes frustration, which develops into anger afterwards – and points out that puzzle games can be just as frustrating as games that are seen as ‘violent’. That’s the approach he took in a recent piece of work that he did, asking participants to play violent and non-violent games, some with practice beforehand and some without. Some of the games they played even had the stories and tasks tweaked, to make it more unfair and potentially more frustrating.

Playing Candy Crush on a smart phone

So what makes gamers tick? 

“Maybe when a game frustrates you, or gets in your way, it prevents you from achieving your goals, and maybe that’s where the anger is coming from,” he says. “Maybe Grand Theft Auto V is just really hard to play because there’s a lot of buttons, a lot of context, a lot of story, so then if you jump in for 20 minutes it’s way more annoying for you than playing Tetris.”

He doesn’t think many of the current  studies looking at video games and violence are really measuring ‘the Bobo doll effect’, just frustration. He also points out that asking people to assess how angry or frustrated they feel is not the same as seeing exactly how violent or aggressive they are in real life –  he feels that’s a real problem.“[For example, the studies] don’t ever test aggression, they don’t test violence - hitting another human being or being mean to your partner,” he says.

He makes one last important point – people who already enjoy violence may be drawn to more violent video games. “We’ve done some work that shows if someone is already aggressive a video game can make them more violent,” he says.

Then he adds: “But maybe in the lab what people are really measuring is something more complicated and that we really need to look at more carefully.”

Przybylski is clear that as a general rule, playing violent video games won’t make an ordinarily calm person violent. But can that violent content make a person’s behaviour worse if they already act like that sometimes? The evidence suggests that in some cases it can do – but you can look at the evidence and decide for yourself.

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6 Times video games hit the headlines

  1. ‘Game Console Could be used in Missiles’- The Telegraph (2000)
    1. With the release of PlayStation 2 in 2000 the ‘console war’ took on a new meaning. Due to the consoles use of advanced technologies there were fears that PlayStation 2 could be modified and used to launch and guide missiles! So concerned by this the Japanese government initially decided to restrict the consoles exportation in case it got into the wrong hands. More recently the military have even used gaming controllers to help control drones. It seems war really is getting more like a videogame!  
  2. ‘Are video games the key to world peace?’- CBC News (2017)
    1. A lot of videogames currently out there are about war, conflict and violence. They’re about virtually defeating an enemy in any way possible. What if videogames could be used to get players to think differently about global problems such as war, health, and global warming? By asking the players to play through and solve world issues, it’s been suggested that games have the potential to educate and promote a fairer and better society. Video games offer a unique and relatively safe space where players can try out new ways of thinking and acting in the world.
  3. ‘How Tetris therapy could help patients’- BBC News (2017)
    1. It’s not often that videogames are suggested to improve your health. Yet researchers at the University of Oxford have shown that the game Tetris (you know the one with the moving, colourful blocks?!) can help our mental and emotional well-being. The study showed that Tetris can be used to help prevent the troubling memories that some people develop after a traumatic event (you can read the full article in our additional resources). Another study at Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, Australia suggested that short bursts of playing Tetris can help manage food cravings. It’s thought that playing the game can distract the brain from imagining that delicious chocolate bar or cake you might have in your cupboard! While videogames are often argued to have bad effects on our well-being, research is beginning to show a different side.       
  4. ‘Diego Maradona Sues Over a Video Game’- BBC News (2017)
    1. What do the former Argentinean footballer Diego Maradona; the Hollywood actress Lindsey Lohan; and the US rock band No Doubt have in common? Well they’ve all been unhappy in how they have been supposedly represented in video games. Diego Maradona recently suggested he would sue the popular football videogame ProEvo for including him in the videogame without his permission. Lindsay Lohan tried to sue Grand Theft Auto 5 for an in-game character which she suggested was based on her. She lost the case in 2016. The band No Doubt settled a lawsuit with the creators of Guitar Hero in 2012. The game allowed players to play as the band but also meant that they also performed other artist’s songs which they didn’t agree to. These cases show how videogames are being taken seriously when it comes to the impact they have in shaping our opinions and beliefs about people. 
  5. ‘Playing video games is good for your brain’- The Conversation (2014)
    1. Playing videogames is all a bit of mindless fun isn’t it? As your parents or teachers might say you don’t learn anything from videogames. Not according to this article. In fact videogames are suggested to help boost your learning skills and brain power. Experiments at Nottingham Trent University have revealed that playing videogames can help decision-making, hand-eye-coordination and memory. There is still a lot to be done to understand the benefits of gaming on our brains but it does show the potential that gaming can have on learning. 
  6. 'Pokemon Go' players are finding real animals while searching for digital ones’ (2016)
    1. In the summer of 2016, the game Pokémon Go was huge. Out of nowhere it quickly became the most talked about and most successful augmented reality game ever (where computer generated visuals are used on top of real-life environments). The game filled newspapers with weird and wonderful headlines about the game. It was celebrated by some for encouraging people to get out of the house and to socialise with other players face-to-face. But negative headlines blamed the game for car accidents, armed robberies and for encouraging trespassing (going on to other peoples’ land without permission). Researchers at the University of Oxford have also suggested the positive effects that Pokémon Go can have for the conservation of the nature. Players have learnt more about environment around them, spotted and documented rare sightings of species, and even helped out injured animals! This really takes the famous phrase ‘gotta catch em’ all’ to the next level!

Can video games actually train your brain to perform better at certain tasks?

Can video games actually train your brain to perform better at certain tasks?

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Your brain on video games

How do fast-paced video games affect the brain? Step into the lab with Professor Daphne Bavelier (University of Geneva) to hear about how video games, even action-packed shooter games, can help us learn, focus and multi-task.



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But what messages do war games give us about real-life fighting?

Military video games are enjoyed by millions of people but they can have a powerful influence over how we understand and perceive real-life violence in wars. What are the risks of turning war and conflict in to pleasurable entertainment? Dr Daniel Bos (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) explores this question in more detail encouraging us to go beyond the argument that ‘it’s just a game’…


Army soldier

The Military-Entertainment-Complex

There has been a long, close relationship between videogames and the military. The videogame industry often hires military advisors to help produce games while military institutes often use videogames to recruit and train potential new soldiers. The U.S. Army has produced and designed their own game called America’s Army. First released in 2002, the game allows players to fight terrorists while learning about correct U.S. Army procedure. As a player you must complete Basic Combat Training where you learn about official Army weapons, go through military tactics and strategies, and even do some medical training. You must follow the Army’s official rules. If you break them you could find yourself doing time in a virtual military prison! 
The game has become a powerful and cost-effective tool for encouraging men and women to join the U.S. military. It is free to download on the internet and has an age rating of 13+ meaning it can be played by young people from around the world. Also, the game has been used to train new recruits. So, what are the positives and negatives of using videogames to recruit and train soldiers? What are the effects of making war seem fun to young people? To think carefully about this we might want to consider how military-themed video games show war and violence. 

Representing and Playing War 

Military-themed videogames are important because they can offer a particular picture of war and conflict. Think about death in military videogames… it’s usually clean and bloodless. Enemies simply drop to the ground and eventually disappear. Out of sight, out of mind! When you are killed the only consequence is that you might have to start from the previous checkpoint. This doesn’t reflect the true realities and horrors that can happen on the battlefield, instead war can seem clean, and even acceptable. 

Where and who are you fighting in these videogames? The stories in military videogames often present a simple division of the world into the  ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. Usually the ‘good guys’ are the American or the British military, the ‘bad guys’ are from Russia, China and the Middle East. Often the whole of the Middle East comes to be represented as threatening, dangerous, and full of terrorists.  These stereotypes portray a very simplistic view of the world, that is about ‘us’ versus ‘them’.  This means that games can affect our imagination of the world and the part military violence plays within it. 

Should military videogames be more socially responsible in how they represent the realities war? What would a socially responsible game look like? Is this even possible?

War has legal codes. There are international organisations that set the rules of war. These can focus on protecting soldiers and non-soldiers, banning particular weapons, and avoiding unnecessary destruction. The Red Cross - a voluntary network that protects people in conflict - has argued that war videogames often fail to reflect the international laws of war. Games don’t often give many options to allow players to make decisions about the rules of war. . It’s just about shooting without thought. This is helped by the fact that you hardly see any civilians (non-soldiers) on the virtual battlefield. The battlefield simply becomes an open shooting range. Players are usually forced to kill enemies rather than take them prisoners. This presents an understanding of what is acceptable in war and conflict which doesn’t reflect the realities of international law. Should military videogames be more socially responsible in how they represent the realities war? What would a socially responsible game look like? Is this even possible?

Anti-War Games 

Military-themed videogames are all about shooting and killing, right? More recently game developers have begun to question this and produce videogames from different perspectives. This War of Mine released in 2014 was inspired by the 1992 -1996 Siege of Sarajevo that took place during the Bosnian War. Rather than from the perspective of a military soldier, you play as civilians (non-soldiers) caught-up in a fictional conflict. The game is about survival. As a player you must scavenge for food and materials that will help you survive the war zone. The game is about educating people about the realities of war and is an important reminder that not everyone in war is a soldier. 

Another game called September 12th suggests the pointlessness of the ‘War on Terror’. The player controls a missile launcher and has to get rid of the terrorists that live a Middle-Eastern village. However, the bombs you fire in this game not only kill terrorists but also kill near-by civilians. The civilians you unintentionally killed are then mourned by other civilians who then turn into terrorists. There is no way to win the game! The overall moral of the game is that violence produces more violence.  These games present alternative perspectives which force you to both play and think differently about military violence.

So what do you think? Are military games all just a bit of fun? Or should we be concerned about how understandings of war and conflict are presented in military videogames? Can videogames make war more acceptable in society? And how might games be used to make us think critically about the role of military violence in society? Over to you…!

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Watch out for unconscious bias!

Unconscious bias happens we can see what we want to see even if it might not be entirely true. Sometimes our brains make incredibly quick judgements of people and situations without us knowing. These tend to be based on our background, surroundings and personal experiences. This video shows how we should be careful when looking at the evidence on video games and violence.