Video Games and Youth Violence

I’ve recently participated in a discussion about video games and their effect on youth violence. I loathe the idea that video games cause violence. That’s like saying children who read books are more likely to be promiscuous. Out of the many books that are out there, how many are Harlequin-esque romances? Just by being interested in books, a child may stumble upon one of these books and read them. We should all stop reading! Protect children from the vulgarity of books!

That’s nuts, right? There are a ton of video games out there. In 2007, only 6% of all games released were rated M for mature. The vast majority, 59%, were rated E for everyone. This has been the typical trend. How ridiculous is it to then blame the totality of video games for the violent content of 6% of games?

I can already hear your arguments. Many popular game titles, like Final Fantasy and Zelda incorporate fighting into the game play and they are not rated M. I hardly see that as a problem, though. It’s like a digitized version of cowboys and Indians. The kid shoots, the other fall in pretend death. Then their moms call them home for dinner and they both go home. There were no consequences for the cowboy… is that kid going to grow up to be a mass murderer if he plays cowboys and Indians every day.

In my own experience, video games are a huge stress relief. I was bullied in school and escaped into video games and books. When the main characters faced adversaries, I pictured those adversaries as my bullies. I overcame them vicariously through those main characters. Yet, this is just my own experience. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the number of young people committing violent acts has increased dramatically since the dawn of video games.

Violent Crime Offenses and Video Game Sales, 1996-2007

Source: Entertainment Software Association, “Essential Facts
About Games and Violence,” http://www.theesa.com, 2008

Violent Crime Offenses and Video Game Sales, 1996-2004

Source: “Chasing the Dream,” Economist, Aug. 4, 2005

Sales of Video Games Compared to Youth Violence, 1996-2005

Source: Adam Thierer, MA, “Video Games and ‘Moral Panic,'” http://www.pff.org, Jan. 23, 2009

Total Violent Crimes by Juveniles, 1995-2008

Source: Adam Thierer, MA, “Violent Video Games & Youth Violence: What Does Real-World Evidence Suggest?,” http://www.pff.org, Feb. 9, 2010

Juvenile Violent Crime by Type and Year, 1995-2008

Source: Adam Thierer, MA, “Violent Video Games & Youth Violence: What Does Real-World Evidence Suggest?,” http://www.pff.org, Feb. 9, 2010

Oh, look at that. There is NO TREND. Despite the fact that people increasingly blame video games for violent youth behavior, there is no correlation between the increasing sales of video games and violent acts. In fact, the only stat that has gone up is reports of bullying. Then, we have to ask ourselves, is bullying increasing or are children simply more likely to report bullying now? Are video games and violent movies to blame for this correlation, or is it something else?

Consider this before you jump on video games for that single stat. The average age of a gamer today is 35, with 49% of gamers being between the ages of 18 and 49. Only 25 % of gamers are under the age of 18. Of all the video games that are sold 44.9% are rated E for everyone and another 27.9% are rated T for teen. Games rated M for mature make up only 25.5% of all games sold.

I’m sure there are some violent children whose parents give them mature games (since they often would not be able to purchase these games themselves). Does that mean that every signal child who plays that game regularly is going to go on a murderous rampage? Is every 11-year-old who picks up a Harlequin out of curiosity while browsing the library going to turn into a harlot?

Come on, let’s be reasonable here people.

The problem of ‘violent youth’ has two causes, in my opinion. The first is increasing media coverage. This has more to do with our perception of violent acts than the acts themselves. While violent acts by youths has gone down, the media coverage of these events has increased. All of a sudden, the public sees something as increasing, when it has really been declining. It’s not the violence that is increasing, but the media’s attention to it.

The second problem is parents blaming anyone and anything but themselves for their child’s mistakes. We’ve all heard the comparison that, back in the day, parents yelled at their child for failing in school. Now, parents yell at the teacher. That particular issue is clearly more complicated that than. Teachers can be unfair and unforgiving sometimes. What I think this analogy points out, though, is how the parents jump on the teacher first. Did they try to help their child with school work? Did they take the time to pay attention to the child’s life and see how things are going for them?

Similar questions can be asked of parents in terms of media exposure. How much television and games do they allow their child to play, or do they just let them do what they want. Do they discuss violent or controversial images with their child and make sure they understand why that is wrong? Do they make sure their child understands that the movie or video game, even if it is set in modern-day, is not necessarily a good depiction of reality?

When I hear someone claim that a child learns death has no consequences from a video game, what I really hear is that a child does not have parents who have been successful in teaching their child right and wrong, so they’re going to blame the video game.

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To be clear, I do acknowledge that the media, be it in the form of art, music, books, video games and film, has an affect on the population. It affects children as well as adults. Those who suffer from mental illness may be effected differently than others. I am certain that may result in behavior that could be categorized as violent. That said, we’ve been killing, maiming and terrorizing each other long before video games and movies came around. Correlation does not equal causation. I think it is simple-minded and easy to lay all the blame on media for violent acts. The reason people commit crimes, be they violent or other wise, is rooted in how our brains work and develop. Media is probably in the mix, but there are plenty of other factors. There is no one reason. It’s a mix of biology, life experiences, environment and personality that makes a person who they are.

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All stats and charts are from the following:

ProCon.org. (2010, February 18). 22 Charts & Graphs on Video Games & Youth Violence. Retrieved from http://videogames.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=003627

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33 thoughts on “Video Games and Youth Violence”

  1. While I’ve never enjoyed video games (not even Pac-Man) because I wasn’t good at them, my sons did. I allowed them to buy mature games after they turned 16. I do think the violence goes too far, but I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic.

    1. I can agree that some games are unnecessarily violent. They are unappealing to me. While I’d agree some games are too violent, that’s not the same as saying that games causes gamers to act out violently.

      Grand Theft Auto for example. I don’t understand the appeal, but my younger brother enjoys the game.

  2. My psychology degree involved a major emphasis on statistics and research and one of the things that always stood out to me about correlational studies is that you can pretty much manipulate them to ‘prove’ anything;

    —) hey look, the number of pop tarts sold in the 1990’s increased and crime increased in the 1990’s too….. there ‘must’ be a correlational link!

    —) hey look, the number of teens who participate in oral sex went up in the 1990’s and the number of children who played Super Mario Brother’s increased in the 1990’s so there ‘must’ be a link between blowjobs and watching Mario jump on Gumba’s!

    I honestly have no clue as to whether there is a link between violent video games and children’s behavior; I wrote at least 2 dozen essay’s on the topic in college (its a huge issue in the psychology field that is being debated) and half the time I took the pro-side and the other half the time I took the con-side.

    I do believe there is convincing data connected to young children who are exposed to too much media (television/video games) at young ages (like under the age of 6) and their attention spans, ADD & ADHD. And I’m not referring to correlational data, but actual studies on brain patterns and pattern recognition…… so with my own children I have always been very careful about not letting them sit in front of the television for very long when they were younger.

    As far as violence goes; there are countries in Africa where we know of very violent tribal culture and those people have never held a Xbox or PlayStation controller; not to stereotype Africa as being intensely violent everywhere…..but its just the first thing that popped into my head

    I have a lot of friends who don’t let their children watch horror movies; but I’m the exact opposite. My daughters LOVE horror movies (they are 11 & 13) and I think it is good for them because I DON”T want them to be scared of that kind of shit. I want them to understand it is all make up and special effects and I don’t want them to have nightmares because they are afraid of horror movies….. of course I didn’t let them watch them when they were 4 years old! But as they became interested in them I allowed them to watch varying degrees of horror (and I’m not even really into horror films at all) and now I’m pretty laid back and let them watch whatever they want…… although I have a MAJOR problem with films that glorify rape and sick and twisted torture and tend to tell them to skip ‘those’ kind of films.

    Ultimately, I believe it all comes down to parenting; moderation is the key and parents who aren’t actively involved in their children’s lives… well, there are gonna be a lot of problems.

    1. I would have a hard time saying that video games cause violence if there actually was a correlation. Sometimes, correlation is enough to convince people. I remember discussing correlation in my journalism classes. The example used was child obesity and TV viewing. Now, if you do nothing but watch TV, you’re not automatically going to gain weight. That involves what you eat and how active you are. If we found that children who watch more than 5 hours of TV per day live far away from parks or in dangerous neighborhoods where the parents won’t let them outside, what is the real cause of the weight gain? You can’t stop at correlation. You have to ask why these things are correlated to see if there is any real connection.

      Like I said, I’m sure media has some effect, especially if the person has a hard time telling the difference between what’s real and fake. I imagine a four year old (and those younger) might fall into this category.

      I’ve learned enough about books and video games in particular to know that I will be watchful over any future children I have. I was reading at an adult reading level in middle school. My father was so proud when I would ask him to buy me a 800+ page fantasy book. Did he know there was sex and violence detailed in there? Nope, he was just happy I was reading.

      I don’t think it’s good to completely shelter kids from this stuff. Like you with your daughters, they reach an age where they can be exposed to these things. If they don’t find it on their own, they will see a horror movie somewhere else, like a sleep over. I think it’s important for parents to be there and explain the difference between what’s true and what’s not.

  3. Oh and here’s another silly Kenny-Correlations for ya;

    —) The majority of young adults who read the bible lose their virginity before marriage; so reading the bible must lead to higher levels of promiscuity

    Honestly, we can pretty much come up with correlations to ‘prove’ anything so the people who say there is a correlational between violence and video games…. well, I think they need to reassess their position.

  4. I don’t buy into the video games/ violence correlation. I was, and still am, a huge Zelda player when I was younger and never had any violent inclinations. As part of the gaming world for most my life, The only aggression I see is while in game…first person shooters get a bit dicey in online play, and I have yelled my fair share of expletives at the tv, but it’s always ended there.
    For me, I’d think there would be a stronger link between violence and media, or even just this day and age has more weapons of violence available to the average person whether it be guns, knives, or technology-hello cyber-bullying-and the internet babies lacking empathy that comes with face-to-face interactions. Of course, that’s just how I think, not backed by any data, just personal experiences-which I know shouldn’t be used to generalize.
    And, if you go back to any town way back when, the crazies are there; there just wasn’t the same amount of coverage to spread around. I remember reading a news article from the late 1800s of a husband who butchered his family and all it got was a little side column on the front page. You want to see real gore and violence, try the Middle Ages, now that is some literature that is worse than any gore I’ve seen on a video game. Nothing shocks me after taking a medieval romance class.

    1. I agree whole heartedly. I always laugh when people talk about ‘the good old days.’ My dad will do that while looking at black and white photos. All I can think is thank God I can vote, make my own decisions and be valued for more than my baby making ability.

      When it comes to violence, I see us getting better. We’re not a perfect society, but we’re getting threre.

      I’ve read about the middle ages. Dear lord was that an awful time to be alive.

  5. we discussed this in my research class last semester. the conclusion was reached that if you think of the millions of people who lined up for the midnight release of GTA, how many of them will become violent? sure many may have more violent dreams (I did after playing for 3 hours before bedtime) but very few will become physically violent. when tragedies happen, people look for anything to blame. unfortunately, video games tend to be the scapegoat.

    1. It’s so frustrating, though. It defy logic to think that is the one source. Like I said, violence has been a part of the human experience for a long time. It’s far more logical to consider a child’s mental stability and the environment they were raised in when looking for answers.

  6. Thanks for a good and thoughtful piece! It’s nice to read something that provides more light than heat on this subject.

    From the graphs you provided, it appears that if anything, there is a negative correlation between video games and violence. Violence in real life is horrible. But violence in video games is not real violence, no matter how realistic it might look. If anything, I would say that violent video games help both children and adults to work out their conflicts psychologically, so that they do not have to come out in real life–just the way you dealt with being bullied by battling the bad guys in video games. It would make perfect sense to me if there actually is a negative correlation between video games and violence.

    Speaking of violence in the media, have you read the Bible lately? It’s chock full of sex and violence. Yet it is considered the most sacred book in Western society. If there were a correlation between violence in the media and real-life violence, then the Bible should definitely be banned along with violent video games.

    Needless to say, that’s hogwash. The Bible deals with human realities without sugar-coating them. People playing video games are working out themes and issues in their psyche in a harmless and even beneficial way. Obviously video games can be overdone–as can everything, including food, water, and air. But misuse of something does not mean it should be eliminated. Should we ban cars because of the large numbers of drunk drivers and auto fatalities? I don’t think so.

    Anyway, if you don’t mind a link, here’s the first of a two-part article on video games that I wrote about a year and a half ago:

    What Does the Bible Say about Video Games? Part 1

    I came to some conclusions similar to yours.

    1. I agree with everything here. I wish I could remember where I read it, but I heard of a study that showed video games help children learn problem solving skills. Now, I’m sure that depends on the game, but I would say games did that for me. You’re given a set of clues and have to figure out where to go next. In the middle of a battle, you often have to act fast or be defeated.

      It’s interesting that you mention the Bible. I have met a number of people who refuse to get more involved with Christianity because of some of the violent themes. A co-worker of mine used to live next to two women who were in love. They went to church every Sunday. He has told me many times he didn’t understand because the Bible is clearly against them. People are violent towards them because of what the Bible says. This is where I would disagree. I don’t honestly believe the Bible is telling people to be violent or that the Bible can only be interpreted in a way that disagrees with that lifestyle. Being lesbians doesn’t mean they can’t desire a relationship with Divinity.

      For me, it comes to purpose in video games. If you’re beating up on someone because they are your enemy and are threatening your kingdom/family/life, great. If you are beating up on someone just for the enjoyment of hitting them, I’m not a huge fan.

      When it comes to video games and violence, I doubt there is anything more than a correlation. I don’t think video games are having any effect one way or the other. It just so happens society is becoming a little less violent at the same time as video game sales are rising.

      1. Yes, there are good and bad video games just like there are good and bad books, movies, and so on. Most violent video games do come equipped with their own form of good-vs.-evil moral code. But even the “bad” video games give people a chance to harmlessly try out their dark side. If you just suppress the evil within yourself, rather than dealing with it, it’s only going to come out later in a more virulent form. Some of the violence in the Bible actually is “bad” violence. Should we ban the Bible because of that?

        1. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to comment back on this. I must have lost your comment somewhere. Anyway, I completely agree. There used to be far more violence in the world than there is now. I wonder if mothers during the Crusades wondered if their children would turn into murderers by watching the soldiers. Media has an effect, but it doesn’t increase violence. Children don’t need to be sheltered from violence. They should be taught that the violent images in the media aren’t real and their parents should provide them with a moral code. Whether or not someone plays video games is not an indicator of whether or not they are more violent.

      2. About lesbians and gays going to church, this is so common that by now it shouldn’t be all that remarkable. There are even (gasp!) lesbian and gay ministers. And lots of gay priests–though they mostly have to be closeted.

        It’s funny how conservative Christians pick and choose which things that are condemned in the Bible to pay attention to and enforce, and which to ignore. I doubt any of them worry about eating meat and milk together, even though they may be breaking a Biblical commandment when they do so. Wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fibers, such as wool and linen, is also taboo. And how many of them advocate stoning to death a stubborn and rebellious son, as the Bible says to do?

        Some of the things the fundamentalists are loudest about, such as homosexuality, abortion, and premarital sex are very minor issues in the Bible, if they are even mentioned at all. Premarital sex is actually fairly common in the Bible, and there were various rules about how to deal with it when it happens. Often it just involves paying a fine and marrying the woman. Not that this should be the rule for present-day society, but it was actually a protection for women in the ancient cultures of the Bible, when an unmarried woman who wasn’t a virgin was in serious trouble.

        The various rules given in the Bible have to be read in the context of the cultures in which they were given. That’s why in the New Testament, Jesus abrogated some of the Old Testament laws, in one case even saying that a particular law (about divorce) was given because they were so hard-hearted (Matthew 19:8). Christians commonly don’t consider themselves bound by most of the ritual and behavioral laws of the Old Testament. So it’s not particularly logical or consistent to arbitrarily pick out certain laws and decide that those ones must be strictly enforced!

        About homosexuality in the Bible, you might be interested in a piece I wrote last year:

        What is the Sin of Sodom?

        It’s actually less about homosexuality than it is about how the story of Sodom, which is commonly used by conservative Christians to condemn homosexuality, is really not about homosexuality at all–and certainly not about homosexuality among consenting adults.

        1. I completely agree. Like it or not, what is important in the bible is largely up to the individual. It can be interpreted in many different ways. It should come to no surprise that there are members of the LGBT community attending church services and participating in the ministry.

      3. One more thing:

        I think violence in the Bible, like violence in video games, is not about condoning real-world violence. It’s a metaphor for the battle of good against evil that rages both within us and in society. My grandfather once said that if we don’t fight the inner battles against the evils of selfishness and greed in our own hearts, we will inevitably fight the outer battles of soldiers and guns–which are all about unrestrained selfishness, greed, and a desire to dominate others and steal their land and possessions.

        1. “It’s a metaphor for the battle of good against evil that rages both within us and in society.”

          I agree. Some of the very first games I played helped me to better understand myself and the world. It wasn’t about taking the game literally – it was about understanding the ongoing struggles of good and evil.

    2. “Speaking of violence in the media, have you read the Bible lately? It’s chock full of sex and violence. Yet it is considered the most sacred book in Western society. If there were a correlation between violence in the media and real-life violence, then the Bible should definitely be banned along with violent video games.”

      I agree. If books or video games were banned for containing any sex or violence, then the bible would probably have to be banned. Sometimes I wonder if it does lead to violence. The good news is, most people aren’t reading it.

  7. “It’s like a digitized version of cowboys and Indians. The kid shoots, the other fall in pretend death. Then their moms call them home for dinner and they both go home. There were no consequences for the cowboy… is that kid going to grow up to be a mass murderer if he plays cowboys and Indians every day.” Well said! I say this all the time!

    “In my own experience, video games are a huge stress relief. I was bullied in school and escaped into video games and books. When the main characters faced adversaries, I pictured those adversaries as my bullies. I overcame them vicariously through those main characters.” I never thought of this. Brilliant!

    You are a rare and gifted person, my dear, keep it up!

  8. I used to play video games all of the time in my younger years. I wasn’t by any means popular at school and video games were an escape for me, as I would play adventure genres.

    The only problem I have with them isn’t that of violence. People should know right from wrong, especially if they were taught early by their parents. The problem I have is that they are addictive. I am a year clean myself, haha. I gradually phased them out as I entered my 20’s and haven’t play since. Way too much of a child’s time is spent playing video games, of course I am talking about the children who play them incessant;y, with an emphasis on online gaming like Call of Duty. I really think it is a problem. Over 4 hours a day spent playing video games? Not saying don’t play but in moderation, geez. Read a book, go outside, get some exercise. haha

    1. I think this problem in regards to video games is true. It’s up there with TV. I may have benefited from having many hobbies, all of which I still keep with me today. Playing video games actually got me into reading. I remember playing Final Fantasy IX with a dictionary next to me because I wanted to understand every word (I was 10. Pandemonium was a big word for me).

      It’s all about balance. My parents used to basically lock me out of the house so I would play outside. I always made a point to have a book or my portable CD player with me. All I really did was read or swing on a swing set outside while listening to music.

      1. Indeed. What I said certainly doesn’t pertain to all gamers but a majority of the type I mentioned do have a problem. I know a 12 year old who plays Call of Duty as soon as he gets home from school and will play it for 4-8 hours straight.

        Interesting you brought that bit up about reading. I would say that RPG’s really helped my vocabulary as a whole. The games are made by adults and they don’t dumb the scripts down that much because adults also play them. I would say some of them had a small hand in helping me become the thesaurus I am today, haha

    1. yeah, and it kind of ruined comic books for a while. I won’t let video games go down the same path without a fight.

      1. I think with the way technology advancing like has been and the fan base for Xbox, Playstation, even as far as Nintendo I think it would be hard for the video game industry to be affected through no fault but there own.

        1. Looking at the video game industry, I don’t think the idea they promote violence is as much a threat as they are to themselves. Like you say, if something happens it will be from their own fault. Right now, they’re trying to keep long time fans who have grown up and who don’t have as much time to play and also attract new fans. I think they struggle to find a game that appeals to both.

          1. I think the concept of having a box unit attached to a TV is almost a thing of the past as people are playing more games in phones and tablets so I think eventually Mixrosoft, Sony and Nintendo need to bridge the gap to help appeal to all thee demographic but mostly for the rise in the aging population of people always on the go.

  9. “That said, we’ve been killing, maiming and terrorizing each other long before video games and movies came around. Correlation does not equal causation.”

    Very good point. The violence that already exists in the world just happened to make it into the media.

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