Can violent computer games make you violent?

VR simulation of a head made of yellow lines wearing a VR headset
image: iStock / Getty

I don’t play computer games much these days. I played for endless hours when I was a teenager, though. 

It was at the time when computers and games were just becoming popular, in the early to mid-eighties.

The first computing course offered at my high school was O-Grade computing, which I took in 1986. It was the first formal school level qualification in computing offered in the country at that time. 

I learned how to use a word processor, a spreadsheet, and how to do some basic programming of the sort that might be useful in business. 

One of my teachers put on an extra leisure-time course, like a club for enthusiasts, where I learned how to do graphics and sounds. I also taught myself a lot from the user manual of my first computer, an Acorn Electron. I was hooked.

Not only did I play games like Pac Man, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pole Position, Defender, Star Wars, and Elite, but I also wrote and programmed a few myself. They were fairly simple games, limited by my programming knowledge and the computers’ processor speed, but I loved the adventure of creating something from scratch and solving programming problems as they arose.

Early on a typical Saturday morning, I’d sit in front of a blank screen and type:

10 PRINT “David’s new game!”

By around 9 pm or 10 pm in the evening and hundreds of lines of code later, I’d have some form of a new game up and running. I made adventure games, racing car games with block graphics, guessing games. I made snakes and ladders once, which started out as a school project, but I added lots of bells and whistles to it in my spare time.

My creations were always tame and never featured violence, blood, or gore. Partly that was due to limitations in my programming capabilities, but also that violence, even on the screen didn’t appeal to me.

I’m glad it didn’t as it may have had a negative effect on me. That’s the conclusion of a body of research that’s examined the effects of playing violent computer games.

One study invited 320 college students (160 male and 160 female) to play either a violent game, like Mortal Kombat, Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, or Future Cop, or a non-violent game, like 3D Pinball, Tetra, Austin Powers, or Glider Pro, for 20 minutes. Afterwards, the scientists staged a fake scuffle in the corridor outside where one person had been bullied and knocked to the ground. He was now unable to get up due to a sprained ankle and needed help.

Of course, actors wouldn’t want to repeat this 320 times, so they made a recording and simply pressed “Play” on a speaker outside the door after each person finished their game play.

The point of the study was to see if the type of game each person played would influence whether they went to help the seemingly injured person outside in the corridor and if so, how long they would take to offer help. 

Twenty five percent of the players of the non-violent games went to help and 21% of the players of the violent games helped. Not too much difference there. It was how long it took them to offer help that was significant.

On average, it took 16.2 seconds for players of the non-violent games to go help, but it took an average of 1 minute, 13.3 seconds for players of the violent games to help – almost five times longer. That’s a huge difference.

The researchers suggested that, “… violent media make people numb to the pain and suffering of others.”

This was indeed seen in another study.

Researchers scanned the brains of volunteers who had player either violent or non-violent games and were now shown violent images. Players of the violent games had reduced activity in a region known as P300, which essentially meant that they were more desensitised to violence.

The effect of that sort of reduced activity is that it can dampen empathy for the pain and suffering of others.

This desensitisation was observed in another study that invited 257 college students to play violent or non-violent games for 20-minutes before watching 10 minutes of scenes of real-life violence. This time the researchers monitored the activity of their nervous systems.

Anyone watching violent scenes will get a spike in their nervous system activity. It’s human nature. But the spike was much less in those who had played the violent games. Again, they were displaying desensitisation to violence.

Some critics of these studies rightly pointed out that they only examined short-term effects. There might be a world of difference between being tested for your empathetic or nervous system response a few minutes after playing a violent game and how you react in the actual real world hours or even days later.

And some critics suggested that the results might also be skewed by the fact that people with aggressive tendencies are more likely to be drawn to aggressive games.

Some research has since controlled for these factors. One study of over one and a half thousand children controlled for the latter by choosing three groups of children from different cultures. It found that those who played a lot of violent games actually became more aggressive later on, and this effect was seen in all groups regardless of culture.

A similar study of almost 300 German adolescents controlled for aggression and hostility at the start of the study and found that those who played a lot of violent games were more aggressive and hostile two and a half years later.

What should we make of these studies? Some parents are genuinely concerned for the impact this type of gaming might be having on their children. Also, as games become more real, as we enter the world of virtual reality, that violence might become effortless and commonplace for some people, that they lose empathy for the pain and suffering of others, that some of what seems easy and allowed in the virtual world might carry over into the real world.

One study compared 39 male and 35 females playing either a realistic game, one that was more like real life, or a less realistic one, for 45 minutes and measured aggressive thoughts and physiological arousal at time points during and afterwards.

Both games stimulated aggressive thoughts and increased physiological arousal, but it was much greater in players of the realistic game.

The more real a game or simulation becomes, if violence is allowed or encouraged, it might affect thinking and behaviour in the real world. That’s what research is suggesting.

Perhaps as VR games become hyper real and more like real life simulations, makers should be building in rules that discourage people from committing any acts of violence.

Saying all this, I suspect the link between playing violent computer games and aggressive tendencies in the real world is not the case for everyone and for all types of seemingly violent games.

I don’t think space invaders ever made anyone aggressive because they fired laser cannons at alien spacecraft. It’s when things become more and more like aspects of real life that problems can possibly arise.

However, some studies have suggested that a person’s family life, even influences from peers, can cancel some negative effects of playing violent games. If someone has a friendly and supportive life, with other interests and good-natured parents, grandparents, friends, or teachers, it may well buffer effects of violent game play. 

And perhaps effects are really quite minor and short-lived in the vast majority of gamers. My hunch is that this is probably true and that the averages are simply skewed by a small number with more aggressive tendencies.

My impetus for writing this blog today was after considering how computer technology might progress over the coming decades. Might we reach a point that it becomes impossible to distinguish a simulation from reality? 

I wrote about this in an earlier blog, around the notion of reaching a singularity, a point when computing power becomes almost infinite, where computers might be able to download and process the entire current internet, including every song ever written, every movie ever made, and book ever written, a trillion times a second into a device the size of a human cell. It’s been predicted to possibly reach such a point between 2050 and 2060.

If technology does progress that much, then surely we must build rules into the ‘games’ and simulations that prohibit violence, otherwise some people might struggle to contain allowed violent behaviour that’s permitted in a simulation once they’re back in the real world.

We may be decades away from such technological developments, but the time to start thinking about the ethics and conditions inside the games and simulations is now.

On a gentler note, I’m now feeling a sentimental notion to play a game of Pac-Man on my iPhone. Happy days!


Further references

I included a chapter on the effects of violent computer games in my book, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’, which contains references for all studies cited.

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  1. Lisa Burnage on July 6, 2022 at 11:10 am

    A really interesting, well balanced article, thank you David. I may well pass this on to a friend with teenage sons. She was worried about the effect a while ago; how addictive these games were as her son was pulling back from family interactions, preferring to spend time with a virtual group on line.

    • David Hamilton on July 7, 2022 at 9:43 am

      Thanks Lisa. I hope it’s helpful to your friend and her sons, even if it’s just to offer some perspective.

  2. Cindy Sym on July 7, 2022 at 1:52 am

    Great article. Thanks. Far too many parents are completely unaware as to just how much online activity is indeed violent programming. Getting the word out is important.

  3. Maurizio Figoli on July 7, 2022 at 8:41 am

    Good article. I agree with your conclusions. Who knows where it will all end but, it doesn’t look good.

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