Playing Violent Video Games: Good or Bad?

Consider the moral risks of videogames.

Posted Nov 09, 2010

The Supreme Court is weighing arguments for and against a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. The dispute is over whether it is a violation of free speech to ban them. But the issue is really about public health—the health of those who play and the health of everyone they encounter.

Certainly it is good for children to play—in fact, kids are not getting enough free play today. Kids learn many things through play, especially friendly rough-and-tumble play which helps the brain develop in multiple ways including building social competence.

Some people argue that activities like videogame play that on face value seem to be bad for you are really good for you. Steven Johnson points out how much more complex popular culture is today than in the past, including the complexity of videogames (compare PacMan with The Sims games). He argues that the increased complexity promotes intelligence. For example, when you play a videogame, it is often a frustrating learning experience that requires you to repeatedly problem solve to learn the game. In fact, James Paul Gee suggests that you even learn "the scientific method" through the necessary trial and error of figuring out how to meet goals in the game.

According to these criteria, playing constructive and prosocial games like The Sims can be "good for you" with at least one caveat—as long as you have a balanced life with real-life face-to-face friendships and enjoyment in socializing.

Okay, so that was the good news. Now, the bad news.

Playing violent video games is different from playing positive, constructive games. In fact, violent videogames may have an even more powerful influence than violent television and movies, whose risks have been documented for decades. While violent videogames may promote some complex problem solving and coordination skills as well, they may also have multiple negative effects. Here are three related to moral functioning.

First, in violent video game play, the player learns to associate violence with pleasure (rewards for hurting another character). This may undermine moral sensitivity. Under normal conditions, human emotional wiring is designed to abhor violence and feel rewarded for helping others. Those who play violent video games may build opposite intuitions.

Second, children practice over and over the actions available in a game. The player may practice simulated violent behavior hundreds if not thousands of times. Violent games allow and encourage virtual harm (e.g., burning people alive in Postal2). Is this what you want your children to be practicing for hours on end?

Third, video games can be habit-forming because they give immediate rewards for learning. Child and adolescent brains are typically susceptible to negative habit-forming as their brains are under development until the middle 20s.

Society should have a say about the availability of violent media. It is unfair to put the policing of media products onto the backs of parents when there are so many human-caused toxic elements to monitor in a child's life today (food, air, water, soil, toys, personal products) and parents do not receive the information they need to help make decisions. Parents could spend 24/7 being bodyguards of their children's every move because of the endless onslaught of risky products and media.