Whether Violent Video Games Increase Aggression Spurs Violent Debate

Video games have become a popular pass-time for Australians. A recent study revealed that 90% of our homes have some form of gaming device in them, and that 66% of us play video games (Brand et al., 2019). Given that our youth are some of the most ardent consumers of video games, and that some of the most popular video games are first-person shooters that feature violent content, it understandably causes public concern about whether consuming this violent content may be causing increased aggression in them. In this essay, I will argue that the literature on violent video games and their effect on aggression is mixed and inconclusive. I will do this by outlining two of the competing theories in the literature, social learning theory and drive-reduction theory. An example of support for the predictions of social learning theory is a study by Konjin and colleagues (2007), which found that playing violent video games and identifying with the violent characters in that game increased aggression. An example of support for the predictions of drive-reduction theory is a study by Lee and colleagues (2021), which found that playing violent video games decreased aggression.

Two Competing Theories in the Literature

Social learning theory (APA, 2020b) posits that individuals learn behavior through social interactions and modeling the behavior of others. These behaviors can then be strengthened or weakened through rewards or punishments. This theory applies to violent video games in the way that the violent characters in them might serve as role models where players imitate their aggressive behavior (Konjin et al., 2007). Playing violent video games may also increase aggressive thoughts and increase the chance of aggressive behavior (Lee et al., 2021). This prediction is called the stimulation hypothesis.

Drive-reduction theory (APA, 2020a) posits that behavior is motivated by the goal of returning to homeostasis when it has been disrupted. This disequilibrium is what creates a drive state, and any behavior that reduces these drives will be reinforced. This theory applies to violent video games in the way that they can be used as an outlet to release arousal/aggression, and re-attain psychological equilibrium (Sherry, 2001). This prediction is called the catharsis hypothesis.

Study 1 — Support for Social Learning Theory

IMAGE: The cover art for one of the realistic violent video games used in the Konjin and colleagues (2007) study, Killzone. © Sony Computer Entertainment.

A study by Konjin and colleagues (2007) found support for the predictions of social learning theory. This study sought to address whether aggression is impacted by playing violent video games on lower-educated adolescents. The study investigated whether adolescent boys who play violent video games will be more likely to have increased aggression in those who identify with violent characters than in those who do not. They predicted that participants who played a violent video game would be more likely to behave aggressively than those who played a non-violent video game, and that this effect would be increased for those who identify with violent characters.

The Konjin and colleagues (2007) study used an independent groups experimental design. The independent variables were video game type and wishful identification. Video game type was divided into four categories: nonviolent-fantasy, nonviolent-realistic, violent-fantasy, and violent-realistic. Wishful identification was operationalized using the wishful identification paradigm (Feilitzen & Linné, 1975) and was divided into five categories based on a five-point scale (0 = never, 1 = hardly ever, 2 = sometimes, 3 = regularly, and 4 = often). Using this scale, participants of the Konjin and colleagues (2007) study indicated how strongly they identify with the main character in the video game (e.g., “I wish I were a character such as the one in the game”). The dependent variable was aggression, and this was operationalized using a noise blast level. There were 11 noise blast levels: 0 dB, and 10 others that ranged from 60 dB to 105 dB.

Participants of the Konjin and colleagues (2007) study included 112 male adolescents (M = 14) that were recruited from Dutch middle-schools. They were selected from a pool of students that were deemed to be of low academic ability by standardized testing. Materials included a selection of video games and the platform/screens/peripherals necessary to play them on, along with headphones. There were 12 games in total, with each game category including three different games. All games in the violent-fantasy and violent-realistic categories were first-person shooters except one, which was a third-person shooter.

Participants in the Konjin and colleagues (2007) study were randomly assigned to play one of the 12 games and were tested individually. After playing a game for 20 minutes, they completed 25 trials of a competitive reaction-time task. Participants were told that they needed to press a button faster than their (ostensible) opponent and that whoever won in each of these trials would be able to set the level of a noise blast to give to their opponent through a pair of headphones. Participants were informed that blasting their partner with noise blast levels of eight, nine, or 10 could result in them receiving permanent hearing damage.

A strength of the Konjin and colleagues (2007) study was its use of an established research paradigm (i.e., wishful identification). This is because it provides confidence in the results and allows them to be compared with similar research. Another strength of the study was the random assignment of participants into each of the four video game-type conditions. This is a strength because it allowed them to rule out self-selection bias as a confounding factor.

A limitation of the Konjin and colleagues (2007) experiment was that aggression was operationalized through giving a noise blast to an unknown opponent. This is because it is quite abstract from aggression in a real-world environment where it is usually defined as the direct assault of another person. This limitation also relates to how violent video games themselves are quite abstract from real-world violence. That is, it is quite different to press buttons in a video game than it is to actually cause harm to another person in the real world. I would argue that as long as a child is at a stage of development where they can distinguish between fantasy and reality, then it is unlikely that much harm could come from them playing age-appropriate video games. This is because studies have demonstrated that children are quite skeptical and have an increasing ability to distinguish fantasy from reality as they age (Woolley & Ghossainy, 2013). Another limitation of this Konjin and colleagues' (2007) experiment is that they are short-term effects, so it is not possible to infer any long-term effects from them. This is particularly important since it is what people are likely to do when reading the results of an experiment like this one.

“…the authors concluded that adolescents who identify with violent characters in virtual environments such as violent video games can influence them to have more real-world aggressive behavior. However, this is just one study, and different studies often produce conflicting results, which is why meta-analyses are important…”

Consistent with the hypothesis, the results of the Konjin and colleagues (2007) study found that those who played violent video games and wanted to be like the character in the game were the most aggressive, with an increased effect for realistic violent video games. This wishful identification and aggression were significantly correlated. They also found that those who assigned eight or above in blast levels were those who had a strong identification with the violent video game characters. From these results, the authors concluded that adolescents who identify with violent characters in virtual environments such as violent video games can influence them to have more real-world aggressive behavior. However, this is just one study, and different studies often produce conflicting results, which is why meta-analyses are important. But even meta-analyses on this topic have produced conflicting results in what has been called the “meta-analysis wars on violent video games” (Mathur & VanderWeele, 2019). There are also alternative theories such as self-determination theory where experiments have found evidence that increased aggression resulting from video game play can be explained by a need for competence and is unrelated to the violent content (Pryzybylski et al., 2009). All of this lends credence to the idea that the evidence on this issue is varied and unsettled.

Study 2—Support for Drive-Reduction Theory

IMAGE: The cover art for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a popular violent video game in South Korea that was likely one of the games played by the participants of Lee and colleagues' (2021) study. © PUBG Corporation.

A study by Lee and colleagues (2021) found support for the predictions of drive-reduction theory. This study sought to address the issue that different strategies used to analyze data can lead to different conclusions. The aim of the study was to test the stimulation hypothesis against the catharsis hypothesis. That is, they predicted that playing violent video games might increase or decrease aggression.

The Lee and colleagues (2021) study was a longitudinal design that analyzed existing data that had been collected from a four-year survey conducted in eight waves from 2014 to 2017 by the Korea Creative Content Agency. The quasi-independent variables were overall video game use and video game type. Overall video game use was divided into nine levels through participants’ indication of how often they had played video games each day over the previous three months (1 = not at all, and 9 = six hours or more). Video game type was decided through the game that they indicated as their most-played game, and was divided into two categories: non-violent, or violent (based on the official game classification). The dependent variable was aggression. This was operationalized using the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (Buss & Perry, 1992) and measured four types of aggression: physical aggression (e.g., “There are people who pushed me so far that we came to blows”), verbal aggression (e.g., “I can’t help getting into arguments when people disagree with me”), anger (e.g., “I sometimes feel like a powder keg ready to explode”), and hostility (e.g., “At times I feel I have gotten a raw deal out of life”). These were all measured on a five-point scale (1 = not at all like me, and 5 = very much like me).

Participants of the Lee and colleagues (2021) study included adolescent male and female participants that were recruited from a convenience sample from the metropolitan area of Seoul. The first wave of surveys included 2,000 participants with roughly equal proportions of fourth, seventh, and 10th-grade students. Seven surveys followed the initial survey at six-month intervals. 662 participated in all eight waves and were included in the final sample.

Similar to the previous study, one strength of the Lee and colleagues (2021) study was its use of an established research paradigm. In this case, the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (Buss & Perry, 1992). As before, this is because it allows it to be compared with similar research and provides confidence in the results. Another strength of the Lee and colleagues (2021) study is its longitudinal design. This is a strength because it is a direct measure of long-term effects.

A limitation of the Lee and colleagues (2021) study is its use of self-report measures. This is because they may be inaccurate for a wide variety of reasons (e.g., forgetting details, emotional states, cognitive distortions, biases, etc.). One example is that participants may have pre-existing beliefs about how game use influences aggression and might respond to the questionnaire in a way that is aligned with those beliefs. Another example is that the questions may give them some idea about what the survey is about, and participants change their responses to make them more or less favorable for their assumed hypothesis of the study. Other limitations of the study are that they used a convenience sample where there was a high rate of attrition. This is because the sample may not be representative of the broader population and be subject to attrition bias.

“This led them to conclude that a more thorough scientific investigation is needed before conclusions are drawn…”

Consistent with the catharsis hypothesis, the results of Lee and colleagues' (2021) study indicated that high usage of violent video games lowered levels of physical aggression six months later. The results also showed that usage of non-violent video games had marginally significant increased physical aggression six months later. However, they also note that these findings are the result of using a method of analysis called the dynamic fixed-effects model, but that when using the more conventional contemporaneous FE analysis model of the exact same data, it had the opposite results. This led them to conclude that a more thorough scientific investigation is needed before conclusions are drawn. I agree with the authors’ conclusion. These results are akin to a re-analysis of a meta-analysis which had found a significant impact of violent video games on aggression (Hilgard et al., 2017). The re-analysis found that the previous analysis was subject to an assortment of biases, and that once they were adjusted for using a different statistical analysis, the effect of violent video games on aggression was negligible. This provides even further evidence that the literature on whether violent video games influence aggression is mixed and inconclusive.

This essay has discussed two competing theories in the effects of violent video games on aggression debate, social learning theory, and drive-reduction theory. The predictions of social learning theory were supported by the Konjin and colleagues’ (2007) study, which found that identifying with violent characters and playing violent video games increased aggression. The predictions of drive-reduction theory were supported by the Lee and colleagues’ (2021) study, which found that aggression decreased when people played violent video games. These studies have demonstrated evidence that the literature on violent video games and their effect on aggression is diverse and unresolved. Therefore, it is my opinion that until there is a stronger evidence base one way or the other, concerns that violent video games may cause increased aggression in our youth are unfounded. Future studies could further investigate the issue of different statistical models reaching opposing conclusions, as well as use a combination of more direct measurements of aggression and them being taken over longer timeframes.

References

American Psychological Association [APA]. (2020a). APA dictionary of psychology — Drive-reduction theory. https://bit.ly/2RpqyiG

American Psychological Association [APA]. (2020b). APA dictionary of psychology — Social learning theory. https://bit.ly/3mAGtWO

Brand, J. E., Jervis, J., Huggins, P. M., & Wilson, T. W. (2019). Digital Australia 2020. Eveleigh, NSW: IGEA.

Buss A.H., & Perry M. (1992). The aggression questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(3), 452–459.

Feilitzen, C. V., & Linné, O. (1975). Identifying with television characters. Journal of Communication, 25(4), 51–55. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1975.tb00638.x

Hilgard, J., Engelhardt, C. R., & Rouder, J. N. (2017). Overstated evidence for short-term effects of violent games on affect and behavior: A reanalysis of Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 143(7), 757–774.

Konjin, E. A., Bijvank, M. N., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). I wish I were a warrior: The role of wishful identification in the effects of violent video games on aggression in adolescent boys. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 1034–1044. http://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.43.4.1038

Lee, E., Kim, H. S., & Choi, S. (2021). Violent video games and aggression: Stimulation or catharsis or both? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 24(1), 41–47. http://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0033

Mathur, M. B., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2019). Finding common ground in meta-analysis “wars” on violent video games. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(4), 705–708.

Pryzybylski, A. K., Ryan, R. M., & Rigby, C. S. (2009). The motivating role of violence in video games. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(2), 113–122.

Sherry, J. L. (2001). The effects of violent video games on aggression: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Research, 27(3), 409–431.

Woolley, J. D., & Ghossainy, M. E. (2013). Revisiting the fantasy-reality distinction: Children as naïve skeptics. Child Development, 84(5), 1496–1510. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12081

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Psychological Science Student, UQ | Designer, Design Good | Climate Leader, The Climate Reality Project | (Pronouns: he/him) | https://linktr.ee/jarrennylund

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Jarren Nylund

Jarren Nylund

Psychological Science Student, UQ | Designer, Design Good | Climate Leader, The Climate Reality Project | (Pronouns: he/him) | https://linktr.ee/jarrennylund

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