In 2004, rates of U.S. youth violence hit a 40-year low, and have actually decreased even further since then. Despite this, it’s still not uncommon to switch on the TV and see a news report question whether violent video games could be the cause of increased aggression and violence amongst children and young people. In the wake of shootings like those at Sandy Hook, Aurora and Washington, the subject is one that keeps bubbling to the surface.
The topic has become heated once again with the release of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest in a series that has been no stranger to controversy and outrage. GTA V is as gloriously and gratuitously violent as ever, and includes one scene in particular that shocked even some of the most hardened gamers. Yet how many people actually buy into the belief that playing Call of Duty, GTA V or Surgeon Simulator 2013 increases real world aggression and violence?
Looking at the demographics of people who do hold such convictions, it seems like this attitude might be on the way out. A recent UK survey of 1978 people, carried out by YouGov, found that although 61% of people thought that there was a connection between video games and violent or aggressive behavior, 57% of people surveyed thought that video games could actually be a useful outlet for frustration or aggression. Moreover, those who believed that video games could be harmful were mainly older people and/or those who had little to no experience of playing games themselves. Check out these graphs to see how the stats were distributed:
Unsurprisingly, those who had either never played a video game or described themselves as “non-gamers” were far more likely to believe that there was a connection between video games and real world violence or aggression, whereas less than 50% of those who had played a video game recently or described themselves as “gamers” believed that such a link existed.
What’s most interesting of all is that a certain number of people who were surveyed believed that video games could be the cause of aggression, but at the same time also that they could relieve aggression. “Aggression” is usually what is measured in studies of the potential effects of video game violence, and it’s important to distinguish aggression from violence, and particularly from full-blown killing sprees. Increased aggression could simply manifest itself in being temporarily more short-tempered or rude – the same kind of effect that could be produced by getting stuck in traffic on the way to work.
Many studies have been carried out to examine the possible effects of violent video games on aggression, but the results have been inconclusive due to mixed results and flawed methodology, and also because psychologists have difficulty settling on a unified definition of aggression and an accurate way to measure it.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 58% of all Americans play video games and 51% of US households own at least one dedicated games console, so it would actually be more unusual for the high-profile killers in recent years to have not played any video games. Nonetheless, it seems that high-profile shootings are nearly always been accompanied by an investigation specifically into the killer’s gaming habits, particularly ones that make for a good headline. For example, much was made of the fact that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza played Call of Duty, but very few outlets mentioned the fact that his favorite game was Dance Dance Revolution.
The connections that have been made between violent video games and real-world violence by the media are often tenuous, to the point of being comical. A recent article by The Mirror was headlined with the claim that Washington shooter Aaron Alexis had “used the same Grand Theft Auto style rifle” as James Holmes and Adam Lanza, along with an image of Michael holding the AR-15 rifle on the cover of Grand Theft Auto V. Putting aside the fact that AR-15 is hardly a weapon specific to the Grand Theft Auto games, it was later revealed that Alexis didn’t even use an AR-15 during the shooting.
Though the YouGov survey was conducted in Britain, it seems to be fairly consistent with statistics obtained by VentureBeat earlier this year, which found that 58% of Americans believed that video games caused violent behavior in teenagers. If the majority of people who still believe that video games contribute to violence and aggression are older people and those who don’t play video games at all, we should start to see a trend of such fears beginning to decrease as time goes on, especially since a 2011 poll by the NPD Group found that 91% of children up to the age of 17 play video games.
Such a trend would also correlate with previous moral panics related to certain types of media, such as the claims in the mid-20th century by Dr. Fredric Wertham that reading comic books led to violence and homosexuality in children, or later insists that listening to rock music or playing Dungeons and Dragons would cause kids to start worshiping Satan. Most people would find such beliefs laughable these days, but at the time such fears were just as real as the current condemnation of video games.
Considering the fact that GTA V has already sold over 15 million units, we’d better hope that violent video games don’t actually cause people to become more violent, or soon we’re going to be completely overrun with real-life Trevors. Tell us in the comments how you would have responded to YouGov’s survey.