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The association between violence and playing violent videogames is still largely unclear.

Violence and videogames: why researchers can’t seem to come to an agreement

The association between violent videogames and aggression has already been a topic of discussion for years, if not decades. However, scientific research shows inconsistent results. Why do studies disagree?

This post is also available in Dutch.

 “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.”

Donald Trump

This is what American president Donald Trump said in his press conference about 24 hours after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio on the 3rd and 4th of August, 2019. This is just one of the many examples where violent videogames have been associated with violent behaviour in society. Therefore, there is a lot of scientific research into this association but, strikingly, there does not seem to be any consistency. There are studies that do find an association, but just as many that do not. Why do scientists disagree?

When is something violent?

A reason is that the terms we investigate are very ambiguous. Because when is a videogame violent? Is violence in a cartoony game (i.e. World of Warcraft) the same as in a more realistic game (i.e. Call of Duty)? Probably not, so we need to distinguish. One study (that did not find an association) distinguished between non-violent, violent and very violent games. This way, you get more insight into whether the differences you measure are associated with the amount of violence, the realism, or just the fact that you are playing a game. However, not nearly all studies do this.


A second difficult point is the behaviour we measure. There are several different forms of aggression and violence. You can investigate physical aggression, verbal aggression, aggressive associations, antisocial behaviour in a collaboration, etc. The fact that studies use different outcome measures makes the interpretation of the results harder. There could possibly be an association with physical aggression but not with antisocial behaviour, which prevents us from drawing consistent conclusions. Furthermore, you may ask yourself whether these different measures actually say something about behaviour outside of a laboratory environment.

Drawing conclusions

Finally, the conclusions you draw are dependent on the type of research you do: observational or experimental.

In most observational studies, participants are asked to join a study once or several times. There is often some time between measurements, for instance a year, which gives researchers the opportunity to investigate the long-term association between aggression and playing violent videogames. A disadvantage of this method is that it is often difficult to separate cause and consequence because these type of studies are often correlational (read here about the difference between correlation and causation). An increase in violence and playing videogames can also be caused by a third factor outside of the study (i.e. a fight at school) or the association can even be reversed (more violence leads to playing more videogames). This simply cannot be determined.

In experimental studies, researchers try to influence a certain aspect while other possible factors are kept constant. People are, for instance, divided into groups that play games with different gradations of violence. Subsequently, aggression levels between those groups are compared. The advantage of this type of study is that there is more clarity regarding cause and consequence (gameplay is under control of the researchers). The disadvantage, however, is that such research often takes place in one day only. It is then unclear whether findings are representative of long-term behaviour (read also here about how researchers extrapolate their findings).

All-in-all, research regarding the effects of violent videogames on aggression is harder than expected. Take into account that factors like sex, education and culture are also influencers and it is not so strange that we find inconsistent results. At this moment, it cannot be ruled out that there is a relationship between aggression and violence in videogames, but at least it seems to depend on a variety of factors.

Original language: Dutch

Author: Felix Klaassen
Buddy: Angelique Tinga
Editor: Floortje Bouwkamp
Translator: Jill Naaijen
Editor translation: Christienne Gonzales Damatac
Picture from Soumil Kumar via Pexels

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