Although I’m far more interested in exploring the positive use and potential of video gaming, journalists often approach me with questions on the topic of video games and violence. Many are surprised to learn that it was the immense popularity of violent video games that caused me to begin exploring the design of media capable of promoting concern for other people and the environment (evolutionary guidance media). With school out for the summer, many children will be spending more time playing video games. To help parents and caregivers navigate the violent video game terrain, I'm posting this short Q & A of the most commonly asked questions.
Q. Do you think violent video games cause their young players to change in behavior?
A. All forms of media including television programs, movies, songs—and yes, video games—influence behavior for better or worse. Whether media changes behavior is still the subject of intense debate. Some studies have indicated that when children play aggressive video games they have a tendency to become more aggressive in their play activities. Psychologists, however, are yet to compile a body of evidence to definitively prove that violent video games lead to aggression. This area continues to be widely researched, with claims of publication bias slanted toward reporting the violent effects literature.1&2 After the Sandy Hook shooting, the inconsistent state of the literature prompted President Obama to call for more research on the effects of video game violence.
Q. Do you recommend parents to allow their children to play these violent video games? Why?
A. There are many wonderful games that do not involve gratuitous violence—games that are positive, educational, and inspiring. I personally do not recommend violent video games for children. I recommend that parents closely monitor the games their children play and set aside time play the games with their children so the activity becomes a source of bonding—Think of video games as the board games of the 21st century—a shared experience that can be imbued with meaning and purpose.
Q. Why does a child (ages 8-14) find the violent graphics to be entertaining?
A. This is a complex question without an easy answer. In part, children find violent graphics entertaining for the same reason they find ghost stories and scary movies entertaining—there’s an adrenaline rush and the ever-present need to be accepted by one’s peers.
Children find many activities entertaining and can be guided toward games that are challenging and nonviolent. Unfortunately, violent video games (and horror films) are heavily marketed to the teenage demographic. And, it is well know that children, especially teens, like to do what their friends are doing. The latter creates a vicious cycle. One of the most important things we can do for our children is to help them recognize and deal with peer pressure.
Summary: We are healthier when we eat a balanced diet. This holds true in the world of media exposure. Limit your child's exposure to violent media just as you would limit their intake of junk food. Increase their appetite for healthy media that promotes character strengths and virtues.
1. Ferguson, C. J. (2009). Media violence effects: Confirmed truth or just another X-File? Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 9(2), 103-126.
2. Ferguson, C. J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 470-482.