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Dear Parents: In Defense of Violent Video Games

Before you start, I know, I know. Of course a guy writing for a video game website is going to tell you violent video games aren’t bad and they won’t add to violent tendencies. I also know that you’re going to quote me the findings of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2005, which established a direct correlation, and thereby probable causation, between violent video games and aggressive tendencies. One, they revised it in 2015 with updated findings, and reaffirmed those 2015 findings this year. Two, my father thought the same thing, so I was raised believing it as well. Let’s talk about it.

First off, I want to directly address that this is not calling for you to buy your 10-year-old the latest Resident Evil game. Your parenting skills are your parenting skills, I’m just here to expand on some facts and quash misinformation like a journalist should.

I also want to make one thing absolutely clear: violent video games do not lead to violent behavior. If you take anything away from this article, let it be that.

When the APA released their 2005 study, there seemed to be a link between violent video games and aggression, edging towards violence. As society changed in the early 2000s with the dot com boom, the rise of new technologies, and the availability of media for consumption, people were very quick to react to new things presented to them. As graphics improved for gaming consoles, the titles released depicted more gruesome details. Where the Super Nintendo would only have 8-bit sprites and shooting a gun would do nothing more than show some pixelated blood, advanced graphics on consoles like the Gamecube and Xbox could show someone being truly killed. Since then, graphics have only gotten more advanced, and those gruesome details are easier to find.

People were quick to point out that since those games showed as much detail as they did, it would be much easier for children to mimic those actions, learn violent behavior, and eventually become violent teenagers or adults. In 2005, when the original study was published, video games of this caliber were still somewhat new, and much of the information we have since discovered wouldn’t be found until years later.

There were also problems with the study itself, later outlined in the APA’s 2015 revision. For example, there were several mitigating factors that affected the data, most importantly, that the research had “not sufficiently examined the potential moderator effects of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or culture.” This is a very large gap in the data, as ignoring these outside factors can lead to vastly different results and conclusions that are either not statistically significant or completely uncorrelated.

Let’s take a look at an example of how outside factors affect data.

This is a bar chart published on statista. Through a quick look at this chart, one could come to the conclusion that since the US spends the most on video games and has the most gun deaths, video games must cause more gun deaths. However the conclusion ignores other factors such as US gun laws (or lack thereof,) national access to firearms, and national attitude toward gun culture. In this instance, while the data may look like one thing initially, looking slightly deeper can change the conclusion.

Many of the studies conducted in the 2005 case were also observational, and such studies do not prove cause and effect relationships, they only prove the theories surrounding them.

This isn’t to say that all the findings and data were flawed. The studies were still peer reviewed, many conducted over a number of years, and even when considering factors aside, there were still some fully conclusive results. The updated release in 2015 did confirm one major point:

It is true that there is a causal and almost direct link between violent video games and aggressive behavior. However, according to the APA’s reaffirmation published in 2020, “There is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.”

The key difference here is between “aggressive” and “violent,” and what a difference it is.  According to a report from Harvard Medical School, “Much of the research on violent video game use relies on measures to assess aggression that don’t correlate with real-world violence.”

Why does this matter? As stated, aggressive behavior is not necessarily a catalyst for violence. While yes, playing violent video games and even competitive games in general can lead to heightened aggressive behaviors such as pushing, shoving, or screaming, the buck stops there. Just because your child may yell more does not mean they’ll go out and commit violent crimes.

It is also true that activities that are competitive in nature also lead to heightened aggression such as sports or gambling. People don’t like to lose— it’s a fact of life— so when your child is placed in a situation where they can not only lose at something, but losing at something containing violence, it makes sense that aggressive behavior may be an outcome.

Again, this does not mean children who play violent video games turn into violent people. In fact, APA President Sandra L. Shullman, PhD stated, “Attributing violence to video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors, such as a history of violence, which we know from the research is a major predictor of future violence.”

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has a list of ratings they give to games that tell consumers who the recommended audience is.

So, what should you do now?

Well, in the Harvard article linked to this one, there is a section near the bottom titled “What Parents can do.” It outlines a few simple solutions on how to monitor the content children consume and sets out some guidelines on how to judge whether a game is appropriate for your child or not. It’s genuinely up to the parent, as one reason a game might be rated M is for language, and I guarantee that they probably hear worse in middle school.

What you choose to do in your household is your business, but I hope this information will shed some light on violent video games and will help keep you informed.

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