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Do Violent Video Games Contribute to Murder?

Psychologists suggest some violent video games increase aggression.

Various UK newspapers report that the pupil accused of stabbing teacher Ann Maguire to death is a fan of a violent video game promoted with the catchphrase "prepare to die".

Ann Maguire was a 61-year-old teacher who was stabbed to death in the UK while teaching a Spanish lesson on 28 April 2014. The perpetrator was 15 years old when he committed the murder, and was jailed for life on 3 November 2014.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

The accused apparently relished 'Dark Souls 2', in which a cursed character uses medieval weapons to kill. Police confirm that the suspect's online activities were investigated. The prospect of future legal regulation of video games was raised by an announcement from 10 Downing Street: 'to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of the murder of Ann Maguire'.

Regulation or restriction of video games might be electorally popular with middle-aged voters who probably, reflexively, disapprove of youth. And the young tend not to vote.

Psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, one of the world's leading authorities on the link between violent video games and real world aggression, has just published results from a new study entitled, 'Intense acts of violence during video game play make daily life aggression appear innocuous: a new mechanism'.

The research published in the 'Journal of Experimental Social Psychology', was inspired by a paradox - players usually deny that violent computer games make them aggressive, yet Greitemeyer points out that with aggressive gaming, the most recent comprehensive review of past psychological academic research suggests links with hostile thoughts, mood and behaviour.

Many psychologists believe vicious play dehumanises adversaries and desensitises players to savagery. But how much is any effect found down to those who were antagonistic before they started playing, being drawn to intimidating amusements?

In many violent video games, Greitemeyer points out, players use weapons such as guns or missiles to slay as many victims as possible. The psychologist argues that after causing such serious mayhem during game play, real life events such as shouting at, or shoving others, might be perceived as relatively non-aggressive. In contrast, those who don't encounter violent video games are more likely to perceive daily life aggression as much more hostile.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

We usually restrain ourselves from yielding to savage impulses. However, when such desires are seen as relatively harmless, the impulse is less likely to be squelched. For instance, a slap in a real-life dispute might appear innocuous compared to homicide (during video game play), and so you might inhibit less the urge to punch in real life.

This comparison theory suggests that performing intense violent acts during video game play leads to lowered appreciation of the nastiness of subsequent real-world behaviour. This biased perception in turn increases the possibility of aggression.

Greitemeyer's experiments found that after performing intense acts of violence during video game play, one's own daily life aggressive behaviour appears relatively harmless.

But would playing violent games render you more aggressive to others in the real world? How to create the ethical opportunity to express hostility in the psychology laboratory was solved by seeing how much hot chilli sauce game players subsequently administered to another person.

Participants played a randomized assigned violent (Wolfenstein) or neutral (Tetris) video game for 15 minutes, then were asked to administer hot chilli sauce, after being told that sauces would be tested in context of another marketing study, by individuals who didn't like hot spices.

Gamers were then shown six bottles containing between 5ml and 100ml of the hot chilli sauce, being asked to administer one. They were further told that tasters would have to consume all, and that they would never learn who administered what.

Participants who played the belligerent game were more aggressive with the chilli they administered for others to consume, compared with those in the neutral condition.

Tobias Greitemeyer concludes that his experiments reveal acts such as taking others' things by force, or insults, are perceived as less aggressive after playing a violent video game. This biased perception of what counts as aggressive in turn could account for increased aggressive behaviour after violent video game play.

But before video games are condemned out of hand, it's important to note that psychologists find the impact of games differs dramatically depending on the kind of game, and how it's played.

Another new study entitled, 'Effects of cooperative gaming and avatar customization on subsequent spontaneous helping behavior' found that participants who cooperated in that game play mode, picked up significantly more pens spilled by the confederate afterwards, than those who had competed.

The authors of the study, Igor Dolgov, William Graves, Matthew Nearents, Jeremy Schwark, and Brooks Volkman, also found sometimes a greater positive effect for those who played using customized or generic avatars (digital representations of the players in the game environment).

The authors based at New Mexico State University, point out that previous research has found avatar customization amplifies the negativity to others associated with playing aggressive video games. Other psychologists have speculated that avatar customisation and similar virtual reality gaming experiences could be leading to the emergence of 'virtual selves'. Gamers may be experimenting with becoming contrasting personalities to their real lives. We don't yet know the potential long term impact of this on behaviour.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

However, as Igor Dolgov, Brooks Volkman and colleagues point out in their study, the Entertainment Retailers Association UK report for 2012 shows that video game titles accounted for 53% of online media sales and nearly 40% of the total media market (rivaling video sales e.g., DVD, Blue-ray, digital downloads for the first time). And they also point out that nearly 90% of children and teens play video games regularly, so these amusements could yet have massive impacts on the future of behaviour.

The authors believe that their findings and others suggest that game structure, particularly whether a game involves cooperation, has greater implications for future behaviour than game content. They conclude the worldwide emergence of multi-player gaming may even have unexpected positive pro-social benefits.

Tobias Greitemeyer points out that ultraviolent video games depictions of human injury and death are becoming ever more realistic. Daily life aggression might appear even more innocuous compared to what is experienced in these newer games. The effects of ultraviolent video games on aggressive behaviour may therefore be even more pronounced.

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