Aggression is an interesting thing, but the psychology of it is even more so. We tend to think of violent games on Xbox One and other gaming consoles as increasing aggression and making people more violent – especially children. In fact, several studies have shown that a person’s level of aggression – or the tendency to think and behave more aggressively – is increased after playing game genres like first person shooter. And that’s the general belief in society today, whether we agree with it or not.
Here are the findings of one particular study of interest:
“ cannot ignore the comprehensive reviews that indicate violent game play has a significant effect on aggressive behavior, affect, cognition and empathy across work conducted with over 130,000 participants…the effects have consistently been reported as significant findings with various age groups and in a number of different cultural settings.”]
While we cannot conclude that violent games lead to violent behavior – there is, to date, no direct correlation between the two – it is undeniable that there is some sort of psychological ‘shift’ at play. But it might not be the one we all assume it is.
Interestingly, an article from 2015 in Scientific American dug into police investigations around the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza. The police reportedly found that Lanza had been visiting a movie theater over a three-month period during the year of the shooting; he went there nine times, in fact. But it was not to watch a movie. It was to play an arcade game that was in the theater lobby. And he often played the game for eight, ten hours straight. Sometimes, the manager even had to pull the plug to get him to leave, and witnesses even said that he would “whip himself into a frenzy” when playing the game.
But now comes the twist.
The shocking part about this is that it was not Call of Duty or Dead or Alive or any of the Xbox One or PS4 titles that Lanza reportedly owned and were found in his home – the arcade game was Dance Dance Revolution, a popular rhythm and dance game that came to the US in 1999. The game is actually used as part of fitness programs in several schools across the United States.
This discovery went against every bit of media speculation that it was violent video games that helped turn Adam Lanza into a killer.
Another study, by Markus Denzler, Michael Hafner and Jens Forster in the December 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, shows that violent video games do have an effect on the mind, but not necessarily the one we think they do.
The study even went so far as to suggest that playing a violent video game could actually decrease aggression, but only if the goal of playing the game is to vent your anger.
It was actually a series of studies.
In the first one, participants were asked to recall a situation where they were particularly angry with someone. They were then asked to do a lexical decision task, where they were shown a series of words and asked to identify and respond to them, some of which were related to aggression.
In this first study, they found that people were quicker to respond to aggressive words, presumably since they were already in a state of aggression.
Those results are in line with what is generally believed to be true – aggression breeds more aggression.
But next, they were asked to play a 4-minute video game – a first person shooter like the ones we typically play on Xbox One, PS4 and other gaming consoles. In this particular game, the participants were given a chance to shoot at soldiers on the screen, and watch blood appear on the screen as they were shot.
Now here’s the interesting part: half the participants were asked to just play the game; the other half was asked to play the game to vent their anger.
What did the researchers find?
The results were more than a little interesting. They found that the first group, which played the game without any purpose in mind, did actually show more aggressive thinking when they did the lexical decision task that followed.
But the other group – the one that was asked to vent anger as they played the game – actually showed lower levels of aggressive thinking in the task. It was harder for them to respond to words connected to aggression, in fact.
The researchers also studied how people typically deal with anger, and they found the same pattern. Whenever people did something aggressive, like slamming a door, to actually vent their aggression, they succeeded. it was the same with the video game test. People who vented their anger through the video game once again found it harder to respond to words relating to aggression.
Though not conclusive by any means, the study suggests that if your goal is to vent your anger, then plonking down in front of your Xbox or PS4 to “work out” that aggression through violent video games could actually be a good thing. On the other hand, if you’re playing those same violent games with no purpose in mind, it could affect your aggression in a negative way.
Does this mean we should or shouldn’t let our kids engage in violent video games on their favorite gaming consoles or their PCs? That’s a personal choice that every parent has to make.
Evidence – and common sense, when you really think about it – suggests that an angry kid trying to vent his or her anger through inherently aggressive but harmless means like slamming doors or playing loud music could actually be a good thing.
The problem is when such violent games are played with no goal in mind – just because they’re bored, for example – it could subtly alter their frame of mind.
So, if you have a PS4 or an Xbox One or a gaming PC at home, and you have kids that use them, you have to think deeply about whether or not you want them playing things like first person shooter or fighting or killing games just to while away their time.
None of these studies have ever been conclusive one way or the other. They merely make us think differently about what we sometimes assume to be true.
The studies outlined in this article are about how ‘thinking about aggression’ is altered through video games with violence and killing. More research needs to be done on how this is actually played out as aggressive behavior, in practice.
There’s no black and white here, unfortunately. As a parent, you need to think about what’s best for your child, and only you can do that because every child is unique.
The main takeaway here is that violent games don’t automatically lead to violent behavior, as many of us assume. That’s actually news to me, to be honest. And it might open your eyes as well.