Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

You can’t blow off steam with video games, either.

Video games can teach violence rather than calming it.

In my last post, I talked about how it can be counterproductive to try to let out your anger through a violent act. The evidence I reviewed there suggested that letting off steam through violence can actually increase your future aggression. (By the way, there was a reply to my initial post by Stephen Diamond. I agree with Dr. Diamond that there is great value in long-term treatments to give people structure to deal with anger. I hope that nobody too my initial post to say that there aren't any positive ways to get beyond anger.)

But what if you try to channel that violent energy, say through video games?

If you talk to teens (and particularly teenage boys) about why they play violent video games, you get a lot of responses. They find the games fun. It is a useful escape from reality. But another reason they play games is that it provides them with an opportunity to do things they cannot do in real life. And often these teens feel that violent video games are a way to channel anger that they might have about things going on in the real world.

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One possibility is that just banging a punching bag makes you more aggressive, but that playing video games provides a healthier outlet for that aggression.

Unfortunately, violent video games don't seem to be a particularly good outlet for anger either. I'll give two examples here.

First, research by Douglas Gentile and Ronald Gentile reported in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence looked at the relationship between aggressive behavior and video game play. They treated video games as if they were a school curriculum with the potential to teach aggressive behavior. In school, if you want to teach something effectively, you want students to practice it often, and you want them to practice it in a variety of circumstances. Consistent with that analysis, they find that kids who play many different violent video games and play them often display more aggressive behaviors than kids who play fewer games and play them less often.

Grand Theft AutoSecond, research by Peter Fischer and colleagues in the October, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked at the relationship between violent driving video games and aggression in driving. In their experiments, they had people play video games that promoted reckless driving. These games are ones where violating the rules of the road is rewarded. At a later time, they had people perform a driving test that had them decide when to stop a risky driving behavior in a realistic situation. The longer people wait to stop the risky behavior, the greater the driving risk they are tolerating. People who played aggressive driving games were willing to take on more driving risk in realistic situations than people who played driving games that reward good driving skill (such as Formula 1 racing games).

These results suggest that video games can actually create a curriculum for teaching aggressive and risky behaviors. Unfortunately, they do not provide a good outlet for anger and aggression. Instead, they reinforce anger and aggression and allow players to transfer that behavior to the real world.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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