Popular Video Games: Quantifying the Presentation of Violence and Its Context

By Smith, Stacy L.; Lachlan, Ken et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Popular Video Games: Quantifying the Presentation of Violence and Its Context


Smith, Stacy L., Lachlan, Ken, Tamborini, Ron, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Video games are one of the most recent forms of mass media to come under attack. Critics have charged that video games such as Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem, and Doom are not only inundated with violence, but that playing such games may be having a harmful effect on youth. As U. S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (1998) stated recently, "these games ... are part of a toxic culture of violence that is enveloping our children, that is helping to desensitize them and blur the lines between right and wrong, and encouraging some of the most vulnerable of them to commit violence" (p. 1). In fact, playing violent video games was implicated as a possible contributory factor in the recent schoolyard massacres at Columbine High and Westside Middle School (Gegax, Adler, & Pedersen, 1998; Flatin, 2000).

Despite this growing concern, children still seem to be spending time playing video games. A recent report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation (1999) reveals that a majority of 2- to 18-year-old children in this country have access to video game technology in their home. Nearly three-fourths of all children surveyed have at least one video game player such as a Sega system or Nintendo. Furthermore, a third of all children in this age group have a video game system in their own room. The data from this study also shows that B- to 18-year-old boys spend 41 minutes per day playing video games whereas girls in this age group spend only 12 minutes. These findings suggest that many children not only have access to home gaming systems, but also spend at least some time every day playing such interactive technology.

Several studies have examined the impact that gaming has on individuals' aggressive tendencies. Some of the research conducted in the 1980s found a relationship between game playing and aggression (Dominick, 1984; Lin & Leper, 1987) while other studies did not (Graybill, Kirsch, & Esselman, 1985; Graybill, Strawniak, Hunter, & O'Leary, 1987; Winkel, Novak, & Hopson, 1987). However, the games 15 years ago were much less violent in nature (e.g., Activision Boxing, Berzerk) than are the killing games available in today's market (e.g., Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein 3D). Consistent with this thinking, more recent evidence suggests a positive relationship between playing interactive violent media and aggressive tendencies, especially when subjects are male, characteristically aggressive, and prefer violent gaming content (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Fling et al., 1992; Wiegman & Van Schie, 1998).

Notwithstanding a few exceptions (Scott, 1995), there is also a growing body of experimental research that documents a causal link between playing violent video games and aggressive thoughts, interpretations, and/or behaviors (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Anderson & Ford, 1986; Calvert & Tan, 1994; Kirsch, 1998; Schutte, Malouff, Post-Gorden, & Rodasta, 1988; Silvern & Williamson, 1987). Two recent meta-analyses reveal that playing violent video games is significantly and positively associated with aggressive behavior (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Sherry, 2001).

Recently, Anderson and his colleagues have developed the General Affective Aggression Model (GAAM) to explain how playing violent video games contributes to short- and long-term aggression (Anderson & Dill, 2000). According to this theoretical perspective, playing violent video games can have a short-term impact on aggression by increasing arousal as well as the availability of aggressive thoughts and hostile feelings. Through repeated playing of video games, violent scripts for social problem solving are reinforced, over-learned, and thus become automatized, resulting in biased perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs about aggression. The theory also posits that the effects of violent video games may be heightened for the characteristically aggressive.

In total, the public concern over violent video games may be warranted. …

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