Do Video Games Hone Players' Killer Instincts? Not So Much

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Killing pixels doesn't lead to killing people

Last year California passed legislation banning the sale of "offensively violent" video games to minors. As my colleague Jacob Sullum pointed out in his column, The Terminator vs. the Constitution, the new law does considerable violence to the First Amendment. Amusingly, Sullum cites the State of California filing that defends the new law while simultaneously claiming that the state

…cannot reasonably be expected to supply "empirical proof of how expressive material impacts such nebulous concepts as one's ethics or morals."

As Sullum notes California

…could avoid this problem if it stopped using such nebulous concepts to justify censorship.

So in what direction does "empirical proof" point when it comes to the impact of video games on the morals of players? There's lots to consider. A new study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking by researchers in Singapore looked at the effect of playing three weeks of Grand Theft Auto IV on kids. As the researchers note:

Although >100 studies have been conducted to examine the impact of violent video games on aggression, no clear consensus has been reached, particularly in terms of their long-term impact on violent behavior and aggressive cognitions.

Killing pixels doesn't lead to killing people

Indeed. So what did they find when Singaporean kids took on the role of fresh Liberty City immigrant Niko Bellic fighting his way through a criminal underworld filled with assorted shysters, thieves and sociopaths? The study's abstract reports:

One hundred thirty-five participants were assigned either to the treatment condition where they played a violent video game in a controlled laboratory setting for a total of 12 hours or to the control group where they did not play a game. Participants in the treatment group played Grand Theft Auto IV over a period of 3 weeks and were compared with a control group on the posttest measures of trait aggression, attitudes toward violence, and empathy. The findings do not support the assertion that playing a violent video game for a period of 3 weeks increases aggression or reduces empathy, but they suggest a small increase in proviolence attitudes.

But remember that there are studies that find that violent video games do promote violence in real life. For example, a new study [link to downloadable file] published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology had some participants play a violent video game and others a non-violent game. Afterwards, the players were told that they were participating in a reaction time test with an [fictitious] opponent. To test reaction times, the players would blast the opponent with a loud noise whose level and duration they could pick. The abstract reports:

Participants low in previous exposure to video game violence who played a violent (relative to a nonviolent) game showed a reduction in the P3 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP) to violent images (indicating physiological desensitization), and this brain response mediated the effect of video game content on subsequent aggressive behavior.

In other words, violent game players were initially more likely to blast reaction time opponents with louder noises. It turns out though that eventually tit-for-tat takes over and reaction time participants start to modulate their responses to the levels of noise that the opponent is blasting them with.

Another study in the journal Psychological Science by two European researchers bluntly declares in their abstract that they found:

Past research has provided abundant evidence that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior. So far, these effects have been explained mainly as the result of priming existing knowledge structures. The research reported here examined the role of denying humanness to other people in accounting for the effect that playing a violent video game has on aggressive behavior. In two experiments, we found that playing violent video games increased dehumanization, which in turn evoked aggressive behavior. Thus, it appears that video-game-induced aggressive behavior is triggered when victimizers perceive the victim to be less human.

Really? Interestingly, yet another study in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy suggests that playing violent video games may have another beneficial effect on the propensity toward real world violence:

Psychological studies find that video game play is associated with markers for violent and antisocial attitudes. It is plausible that these markers indicate either whetted or sated preferences for antisocial behavior. I investigate whether a proxy for video gaming is associated with the prevalence of various crimes and find evidence that gaming is associated with significant declines in crime and death rates. These results are robust to various alternative specifications. Other youth-related leisure activities - sports and movie viewing - generate smaller or no effects. These results cast doubt on the desirability of proposed restrictions on video game marketing.

Whetted or sated? I am going with sated. As I pointed out in my column, Video Violence = Real Violence?, more than five years ago, the rise of video gaming has more or less coincided with plummeting crime rates. Video game sales have quadrupled since 1996 while violent crime rates have fallen by nearly 60 percent. Yes, I know it's just a correlation, but it's a pretty damned suggestive correlation. So perhaps California's busybody legislators ought to ponder the effect that censoring violent video games might have on the state's crime statistics.

I end by noting that the reported rape rate has fallen by 86 percent since 1991. Consideration of the possible effect of the proliferation of internet porn on rape statistics will have to wait for another time.