The causal link between aggression and video game violence is an interesting topic. Craig Anderson (along with Karen Dill) has done a lot of empirical research in this regard, and suggests that exposure to violence in video games increases aggressive thoughts and behavior in both the short and long term (2000). The explanation for this is that continually playing violent video games actually teaches a person something: the gamer is learning, rehearsing, and reinforcing aggression-related knowledge structures (p. 775). They are learning a way to think and behave in the world. This is because video games are successful learning environments and exemplary teachers, a line of thought taken up recently by Douglas Gentile and Ronald Gentile (2007). Video games (even the violent entertainment-centered ones) follow many of the best practices of learning and instruction. Further, people who play a more varied assortment of violent video games are more likely to learn to be aggressive and to have aggressive thoughts, and players who play for the same amount of time but more frequently are also more likely to learn these thoughts and behaviors and to retain these long term (Gentile & Gentile, 2007). One question remains: where did all of the violence in video games come from?
Many violent video games are gory. We see blood, guts, brains, and body parts being splattered, spilled, exploded, ripped, sprayed on objects…the gore can even be seen dripping from the player’s avatar at times (like when a zombie takes a bite out of your head). Where is this gore coming from? Do 3D computer objects have blood, hearts, and brains? Do we need the gore for fun or entertainment? Further, do we need the violence? And where does this violence arise? Are video game designers an extremely violent or aggressive lot by nature? Are they nefariously trying to get all of the rest of us mere humans to kill each other so that they can take over the world? They are teaching us to be more aggressive: is this intentional? If not, does this unintentional (but highly successful) learning occur in a vacuum: where does the violence originate?
It would be interesting to study if designers of violent video games are more aggressive individuals than designers of non-violent video games. I would venture a guess that they are not. I would further surmise that the violence arises from the genre, and the genre exists because people buy those games, and people buy those games (in part) because they are cognitively aggressive and enjoy pretending to have violent actions. I know that is why I like some violent video games. Violent video games don’t necessarily teach us violence, but rather aggression. But are we learning aggression from video game designers, or are they learning it from us (and mirroring back to us what we want to see)?
Another related question is whether or not players of violent video games more likely to actually cause blood to flow than players of other kinds of video games? What about other activities that we think of in a positive light, like sports? Are football, basketball, and soccer players more likely to be aggressive than people not frequently engaging in these activities? Are athletes by and large taught to be more aggressive by engaging in aggressive thoughts and behaviors in their sport? Yes (Oproiu 2013). Taking this further, are athletes more likely to cause physical violence to other people than non-athletes? And are they more likely than violent video game players to draw blood–to commit violent actions? Well, yes. This happens on the field quite often. Why are we engaged in these activities (sports and violent video games) that we know affect our levels of aggression?
I think because they are fun, and because we think that aggression is not necessarily negative. Violence in both sports and video games transpire in a ruled environment: there are rules governing the use of violence, who can commit violent actions, and what (and who) can properly have violent actions perpetrated against them. There is unlawful violence and negative aggression in both sports and video games, allowing for proper and improper (or disallowed) violent behaviors. The question is “How permissive are the rules, and do the rules map well with real life?” In other words, is this an acceptable thought or action in the real world? If I learn well from what I am doing (in sports, video games, and elsewhere), and I transfer that knowledge and those skills, will I (and the world around me) be better? How can I reflect best on my practices (even my virtual practices) and critique my thoughts so that I transfer the good and leave the ill-mapping thoughts and behaviors where they belong (in the game)?
Anderson, Craig A., & Dill, Karen E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78:4, pp. 772-790.
Gentile, Douglas A., & Gentile, J. Ronald. (2008). Violent video games as exemplary teachers: A conceptual analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, pp. 127-141.
Oproiu, Ioana. (2013). A study on the relationship between sports and aggression. Sport Science Review, 22:1-2, pp. 33-48.