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Violent videogames aren’t the problem – it’s in our genes

The debate around videogames and violence is getting seriously out of control – not least in the US. Just take this recent homepage on The Huffington Post: Hyperbole aside, videogames are (once again…

Do violent videogames make us any more aggressive than other triggers? Robbie Veldwijk

The debate around videogames and violence is getting seriously out of control – not least in the US. Just take this recent homepage on The Huffington Post:

Huffington Post

Hyperbole aside, videogames are (once again) being used as a scapegoat by politicians looking for a simple answer to causes of violence. But despite how they skew research outcomes there is one undeniable fact: aggression is a normal response that is caused by many different triggers.

The US Senate, along with the media, is in a large debate over whether aggression caused from videogames does or does not cause violence.

Jason Schreier, a writer at Kotaku, published an excellent article recently summarising what researchers have found about links between videogames, aggression and violence over the last 20 years. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to read it.

It highlights points for and against links between videogames and violence. But as with all other articles discussing the topic, it focuses on videogames and aggression – and therein lies the problem.

There’s no reason to believe the aggression videogames cause is any different or more severe than aggression from any other source.

A violent evolution

Let’s look at aggression from an evolutionary standpoint. Humans have long since responded aggressively when in competition, territorial disputes and disagreements, as doing so could provide an advantage. Throughout our development, individuals that responded aggressively in the proper contexts would have had more favourable outcomes, and therefore access to greater resources and mating opportunities.

In the same vein, one can see how too much aggression could be negative. Express this aggression at the improper time, or allow it to escalate, and you could find yourself in a potentially dire and/or life-threatening situation – clearly something natural selection would select against.

As a result of the above, individuals responding moderately and at the right times may have had the best success.

Although most individuals no longer encounter the same types of situations that require the aggressive responses of our predecessors, the physiological machinery remains and responds to situations that mimic historical confrontational challenges.

Sporting events increase aggression, especially when teams are more equally matched, and workplace aggression seems to be caused, with alarming regularity, by belligerent supervisors.

Increased alcohol use and hot weather, among many other triggers, can likewise make us aggressive.

So should we be surprised that videogames can increase aggression? I don’t think so. But we should be able to scrutinise this link more closely to ask whether videogames make us more aggressive than other triggers and whether this aggression persists for longer.

Putting a finger on the trigger

Unfortunately, studies don’t often compare responses between different aggressive triggers (although the outcomes may be similar) and we don’t understand how aggression caused by videogames compares to other aggressive triggers. But we do have some insight into the duration of aggressive behaviours and thoughts after playing violent videogames.

Research suggests it can be less than ten minutes. It’s been estimated this timeframe can be increased by 24 hours if players dwell on the game: a common outcome when individuals continually reflect on what triggered the aggression in the first place.

As a result, it’s possible excessive gameplay could affect aggression over the long term. Studies looking for exactly that link do find effects of violent videogames on long-term aggressive behaviour.

But when researchers consider other social factors linked to adolescent aggression, it seems increased exposure to family violence and negative peer influences and less communication with their parents have greater effects. Violent videogames, it seems, may be an indicator, but there are clearly deeper issues at play.

Experimenting with aggression

I’d like you to imagine you’re driving your car, calmly, alone. As you’re cruising along, a car comes squealing by and cuts you off, meaning you have to swerve to avoid it as its speed away. If at that very moment you had a button in your car that would blast the driver with some of the most annoying sounds possible, would you press the button? And if so, how loud would you blast it?

This is an example of how studies examine the effect violent and non-violent videogames have on aggression. Two individuals play a game, and the loser receives an offensive noise blast. In general, studies show that individuals playing violent games tend to blast opponents with a louder noise.

Irish Typepad

There are other means to test aggression, such as word association or even hot sauce, but the point is that a pre-determined punishment is often used to assess aggression at that exact moment.

Let’s take a step back and look at this experimental design in a different light. Participants play a competitive game to determine which individual is better. Should we be surprised that individuals become aggressive in this scenario?

In many animals (humans included), winners often perform “victory displays” – a well-known behaviour used to reinforce a triumph. As the only way for opponents to communicate in the type of experiments mentioned above is through pre-determined punishments, the noise blast (or its equivalent) could perhaps be viewed as a dominance or victory display.

In such situations, does responding in an aggressive way make you a violent individual? Unlikely, as aggressive feelings will likely dissipate after time, as in the videogame study.

There are, of course, some individuals that do respond violently in certain situations. If we use driving as an example again, we’ve all heard of stories where road rage escalates into violence.

In such situations, it’s important to remember that these individuals may perceive and react to aggression differently. This doesn’t make their violent response acceptable, but does encourage us to try to understand why this variation exists. This is where it may be especially fruitful to combine evolutionary and psychological approaches that could help explain the variation in these responses.

In the same way, there may be a subset of individuals that are at a greater risk of the influence of violent video games. As videogames have many benefits, rather than demonising them, shouldn’t we use videogames to try and identify these individuals?

Unfortunately, I doubt the $10 million the US president pledged towards videogame research will examine that.

What needs to be done

The debate is already hijacked by rich, old, white politicians that are clearly misguided through outdated morals and NRA donations. But the biggest problem is the xenophobia about societal progression.

The introduction to the the book Grand Theft Childhood by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson provides an excellent historical overview of how politicians have responded correspondingly to each introduction of new media starting from the dime novels of the late 19th century, to silent films, to movies and videogames today.

What’s needed is a lobby group as powerful as the NRA that stands up for gamers, and not the industry. Gamers make up a large proportion of today’s population and if each of them were card-carrying members of an organisation that critically and honestly examined the effects of videogames on children and adults, we might be able to have a proper discussion about their benefits and costs.

I’m sure gamers wouldn’t disagree with the idea, especially given that many of us are parents and have our own children’s safety in mind.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Good Article, thanks for posting, much better analysis than what Andy Ruddock attempted

    The idea that gamers need a lobby group like the NRA is retarded - first, the NRA gets most of its money from Gun manufacturers not from its members - its a lot of money

    Second, if our democracy is reliant on lobby groups to be the voice of reason then we no longer have a democracy - we r fukd

    Here it is, one fact that puts this whole theory to rest

    They have violent video games in Japan - Lots of them

    but they dont have mass shootings like they do in the US, simple, problem solved, they also have video games in Aus, NZ, England, France, etc, etc

  2. Geoffrey Edwards

    logged in via email

    Thanks for the article, Michael.

    I can't help thinking that, in the context of the current debate, "agression" is actually a bit of a red herring.

    The mass killings that have spurred this debate seem to go well beyond simple acts of agression in response to an emotional trigger.

    If we look at the cases of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza and so on in that increasing list, it seems that calling these "acts of agression" fails to capture so much that appears salient or is in fact completely…

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    1. Kim Darcy


      In reply to Geoffrey Edwards

      While there might be - probably is - new forms of violent expressions, it is undeniable that violence overall plummeted during the 20th century, with the sharpest drop over the past 20 years. And the form of violence that has plummeted most of all over the past 20 years? Violence against women.

    2. Jennifer Norton

      statistician, researcher, entrepreneur

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      That's an interesting statement that I'd like to know more about--do you have a reference?

  3. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    "But despite how they skew research outcomes there is one undeniable fact: aggression is a normal response that is caused by many different triggers."

    Why, then, do we have laws criminalising assault, domestic violence, murder and so on if aggression is such a normal event?

    I'll paraphrase you:

    "Hyperbole aside ... genes ... are (once again) being used as a scapegoat by ... a young man ... looking for a simple answer to causes of violence."

    Violence is a process of acculturation. You are wrong to suggest that it comes easy to humans and that it is a normal response. There is a wealth of information from military studies, and lets face the fact that the military are experts on violence, on how difficult it is to train soldiers to actually kill. This information directly undermines your central argument.

    1. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      "Why, then, do we have laws criminalising assault, domestic violence, murder and so on if aggression is such a normal event?"

      Because violence - the obvious interpersonal physical manifestation - is different to the emotional state that can in certain circumstances lead to it. Not all agressive feelings lead to violence. Not all violence is the result of agressive feelings.

      Assault is not an emotion, it can be the a physical instantiation of the feeling of agression.

      Further, the fact…

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    2. Martin Hills

      Web developer

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      No, he's saying that aggression and violence are not the same thing. You can be aggressive without becoming violent (happens all the time). I dare say it may be possible to perform a violent act without aggressive feelings. There are no laws about aggression - it is a feeling - rather than violence, which is an act.

    3. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      "I'll paraphrase you"

      BTW, That is not paraphrasing. You are not restating the authors case but making your own which in the context is a strawman.

      "looking for a simple answer to causes of violence."

      - the author is not looking for a simple answer, he is doing exactly the opposite. The second pargraph concludes that agression results from "MANY different triggers." He is directly adressing the complexity of the issue and arguing that this complexity needs to be admitted in any response.

    4. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Geoffrey Edwards

      Geoffrey and Martin, above:

      Human behaviour can involve aggression without violence but not the reverse. Aside from that you are clutching at straws to distinguish between the two within the context of this article.

      "Aggression, in its broadest sense, is behavior, or a disposition, that is forceful, hostile or attacking."

      Wikipedia is your friend.

      "In narrower definitions that are used in social sciences and behavioral sciences, aggression is an intention to cause harm ..."

      I'll stand by my argument that the claim that it is "in our genes", one that is unsubstantiated within the article, is an example of crude biological reductionism designed to explain away the (probably) pathological obsession with play violence that informs "gamers".

      No-one who has ever been a victim of violence could have written this nonsense.

    5. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      "...clutching at straws to distinguish between the two within the context of this article."

      - I was actually adressing your rhetorical question which failed to acknowledge the difference - It had nothing to do with the article.

      "pathological obsession with play violence that informs "gamers"

      - This is just silly. Gamers and the games the play are stunningly diverse. Your comment is simple ignorance. The kind of ignorance that hampers any reasonable discussion on gaming and it's possible effects.

    6. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      the main thrust of the article is in relation to violent video games causing increased aggression, not actual violence.

      I would say that society as a whole rewards aggressive behaviour i.e. sports, commerce, conduct in boardrooms.

      you could go all "primal" as in base human psychology looking for an explanation but it probably comes down to something quite simple. the individual.

    7. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Martin Hills

      Sure, its a phrase used. To kill 'in cold blood' if I remember rightly? And that kind of people are scary, and not fully human to me. It's not as they are rational, although they have probably some logic to their actions, making them rationale if you just accept their value base. It's easier to understand those that lose control, and possibly not even being able to remember their actions afterward, not that any of those two behaviors are what I would call a sane approach to life.

  4. Yoron Hamber


    You're telling me that propaganda and advertising has no effect?
    Because it is propaganda.

    Doesn't really matter what it advertises, we are still influenceable. The military use it to desensitize soldiers to war. Why spend the time trying if it doesn't work?

    And take a kid, let him play a game where he changes weaponry, killing is fun with catchy phrases in the background, gore and parts of limbs flying around as he shoot. And all of them resurrecting until next time the killing starts.

    And they won't be influenced?

    1. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      "The military use it to desensitize soldiers to war. Why spend the time trying if it doesn't work?"

      - I don't know if they are actually seeking to de sensitize. This article suggsets a somewhat different rationale.

      "The rationale is you want to teach people this stuff when they're in a state of arousal so that they're more likely to access that learning when they're in a similar state" in real life, Rizzo said.

      "Such stress-resilience training, or emotional coping, has existed in U.S. military…

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    2. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Geoffrey Edwards

      And you cite the rationale through a more positive spin than me, don't you :) Wanna guess who wrote the spin on it?

      We are a species that is aggressive, against it we have our ability to empathize with others, when meeting them one to one. That usually cracks out value systems, forcing us to feel and act instead of just believing that there is 'one right way' to live a life, and that all that fails that are responsible for their own faults.

      Take away your ability to react as a human being, and what you're left with is a shell, obeying orders.

  5. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    Firstly, this whole focus in the US is a red herring by the gun looby (not a mispell) to distract from the fact that the availablility of guns in the US is the major reason why people get shot. Keeping in mind the power of the Military-Industrial complex and what impact that would have on their domestic sales should guns be restricted in that country. Follow the money.

    Secondly, it all comes down to the individual, in terms of children, the emotional maturity of that child (not withstanding…

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  6. John Kerr

    IT Education

    I don't believe genetics has much to do with this otherwise the outcomes would be the same in Australia, the USA and England. These three societies are all very similar genetically. Genetics due to evolution normally takes thousands of years not hundreds. The three societies which have similar roots and therefore similar genetics are different so I believe the differences are caused by the different cultures of each country.

    I don't suggest that I have any answers but there some observations…

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  7. Pamela H.

    logged in via email

    'Victory displays' like when an elephant struts away after a fight, or a dog scrapes his feet in the grass and gives one last bark at the losing dog, or when John Howard tried to be Sylvester Stallone by putting both his fists in the air after won an election, but, embarrassingly, looked more like a pitiful monkey (apologies to all the real monkeys out there, which are actually very likable creatures).

  8. Pamela H.

    logged in via email

    Seriously though, I think these mass shooting are not about aggression. I'd be more inclined to believe it's about a lack of mental health support in the country. And yes, the fact that anyone can buy themselves an assault weapon, even a very wounded soul.

  9. Jennifer Norton

    statistician, researcher, entrepreneur

    I would like to see a different research focus around violence and video games. If the bottom line issue is mass shootings (for example), and there has been evidence that the people who commit these shootings are somewhat disturbed (I think that's correct?), then a randomised controlled trial with 'ordinary' people might not get at the subtleties of the problem.

    It's possible that individuals who are disturbed in a particular way (say, low empathy, dysfunctional home life) might be more attracted…

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