Violence and Video Games

Today on Amazon.com, one of the most popular video games being sold is titled "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare." In this game, players can take on the role of either a U.S. or British soldier who is sent to military "hot spots" to defeat the world's most dangerous enemies. Like other games in its genre, the images are near lifelike and the violence is graphic.

As the level of violence in video games has increased, so has concern for the effects on those who play - especially those who play a lot. Many are quick to point out that most school shootings in recent years have been carried out by avid gamers, and their games of choice were always dark and violent.

But it begs the question: Which comes first? Can aggressive and violent behavior be attributed to violence in video games? Or do those who play already have violent tendencies which draw them to violent games? It's a type of "chicken or the egg" debate that has strong advocates on both sides.

Though video games made their appearance in the 1970s, it wasn't until systems like the Sony PlayStation were released in the 1980s that violence became an issue. Along with these more sophisticated systems came the ability to make graphics more lifelike. The more lifelike they've become, the more interest there has been in the correlation between violent games and violent behavior.

One of the primary concerns with violence in video games is that gaming is not passive. In order to play and win, the player has to be the aggressor. Rather than watching violence, as he might do on television, he's committing the violent acts. Most researchers acknowledge that this kind of active participation affects a person's thought patterns, at least in the short term.

Another factor that concerns both researchers and parents is that violence in video games is often rewarded rather than punished. In army and sniper games, players "level up" based in part on how many people they kill. If played frequently enough, games like this can skew a young person's perception of violence and its consequences.

In 2002, researchers Anderson and Bushman developed the General Aggression Model (GAM). Often considered one of the greatest contributions to the study of violence and video games, the GAM helps explain the complex relationship between violent video games and aggressive gamers. The GAM takes some (though not all) of the heat off video games by acknowledging that a gamer's personality plays into how he is affected by violence. Anderson and Bushman refer to three internal facets - thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses - that determine how a person interprets aggressive behavior. Some people's responses are naturally more hostile, making them predisposed to respond more aggressively to violent video games.

Short-term effects were easily identified in the GAM; the most prominent being that violent games change the way gamers interpret and respond to aggressive acts. Even those who aren't predisposed to aggression respond with increased hostility after playing a violent video game. The game becomes what's called a "situational variable" which changes the perception of and reaction to aggressive behavior.

Long-term effects of violent video games are still uncertain and are fiercely debated. No long-term studies have been conducted to date, so there are only hypotheses. Anderson and Bushman theorized that excessive exposure to violent video games causes the formation of aggressive beliefs and attitudes, while also desensitizing gamers to violent behaviors.

Though long-term effects haven't been clinically documented, one need only look at the way video game violence has progressively increased over the past two decades to get a sense of potential long-term effects. Parents would be wise to monitor the amount of time their kids spend gaming and watch closely for any negative effects.

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