Are Violent Games Harmful?

gta4.jpgQUESTION: Do M-rated games – violent games – cause harm in children?

There are studies that indicate video games can temporarily raise the aggression level in children and that soon after playing these games or watching footage, the kids imitate what they’ve seen.


Here’s the problem: the same studies prove the same thing about Baseball and Prime Time TV. Other problems exist: These studies tend to involve strangers herding a group of kids who don’t know each other into a room that feels clinical. Violent and non-violent toys are at hand. That way, if they’ve seen a scene showing a sword, for example, the plastic sword is the most popular toy afterward. 

Also, psychologically speaking, kids are well known to “play” what scares them. It’s how a child conquers fear – deals with powerlessness. I can imagine a disturbed individual being inspired by a game – but then again, some of most infamous killers were inspired by innocuous things. Mark David Chapman killed Lennon because of Catcher in the Rye and Hinkley shot Reagan because he didn’t understand Taxi Driver at all. Parents should be careful and try and avoid the most violent, most antisocial games . . . but blaming gaming for violence is essentially deferring blame from what might be the real causes of these kinds of problems. Depression, abuse, suicidal thoughts, unhappiness, despair. What about things like Columbine and other horrors? I ask you, given that the statistics say 9 out of 10 kids play video games, if they cause violence, doesn’t it stand to reason that violent crime among juveniles should be much higher?

When the mainstream media reports that a child is blaming a game for something terrible he/she did I immediately see a clever child trying to avoid responsibility. When a lawsuit is brought against a game company for what happened in Paducah Kentucky, I see lawyers acting as opportunists at the expense of the victims and the families of the killers.

When something truly horrible happens, we try and find a reason. If we can’t imagine one, traditionally, the arts were blamed.  Seriously, this all goes back to Aristotle and Plato. Plato believed that drama “incited the youth to violence”, Aristotle believed that drama “acted as catharsis (purged violent thoughts).”  It’s equally unproven, but could it be that violent media is a way to deal with fears and remove violence from a person’s soul?  Real violence I mean?  Something to think about.

None of that means that I think kids SHOULD be exposed to violent games. All I ask is that parents do so knowing what they’re doing, paying attention to the kid and their reactions, and remaining involved.

I think the best reason to avoid Mature games for teens and kids is simple: there are plenty of awesome E, E-10+, and T-Teen games to chose from. Why not stick to those a while? The gory stuff can wait.

Grand Theft Auto IV: Picture courtesy of Rockstar Entertainment

No Responses to “Are Violent Games Harmful?”

  1. The other major problem is that humans tend to be very complex and it is hard to predict how idividuals will react based on these kind of stimuli. Social psychology does a fairly good job of predicting how groups of people may act, but it gets harder when you want to predict how Jimmy will act of he plays GTA. It is very difficult to control for all factors.

    To be fair, it may not be the lawyers that are opportunists. The fact is that many people want some kind of retribution when they feel they have been wronged. You’d be surprised at what people ask me in terms of wanting to sue other people.

    I think people should have a healthy degree of skepticism for any kind of study, but I also think they should be open minded. I have seen parents rule out any kind of violent game without even looking at the evidence (which is their perogative), but I have also heard people counter their fears with, “I played video games as a kid and I turned out fine.”

  2. Thanks Steve, I want this to be a living document. So lets use this message board to debate.

    I put the burden of proof the other way.

    Clearly I think it’s a bad idea to let kids play violent games (teens is another matter, but I’m still generally against that) but none of my calculation is based on any belief that games are actually harmful in and of themselves. I just don’t see the point in exposing children to intense/mature subject matter before they can understand it. I do not believe that even young children will become bad people, or cruel people, if allowed to play games.

    The problem is that, yes, loads of people counter their fears with “I played video games as a kid and I turned out fine.” Well, why shouldn’t they? Isn’t that how most parental decisions are reached? How many people do you know who were exposed to violent media as children and are perfectly fine today? How many do you know that are messed up in a way that clearly points – or even hazily points – to video games?

    We should be open-minded to new studies maybe, but this is a debate that’s been picked over for 1000’s of years with no resolution. Why is that? I’m coming to the belief that the reason for that is that there actually is no measurable negative effect to find. If they were negatives, particularly big ones, why aren’t they perceivable? How come the violence rates don’t go up when the latest GTA game comes out? And given that we’ve had about 40 years now of very violent media being readily available to teens – why have violence stats not risen sharply and clearly as games got more and more violent? Shouldn’t we ALL know somebody by now who went from being a good teen to a horrible teen just because of videogames? Not because of poverty, abuse, dysfunction, bullying, depression, drugs, etc., but clearly it was a game that did it.

    The problem with this is: Show me a happy teen, and I’ll show you someone who probably likes mature content. Show me a kid who has killed someone and… I’ll show you someone who probably likes mature content.

    Now Aristotle believed and argued that youth SHOULD be exposed to “drama” (he means those Greek plays with all the killing and maiming) because of Catharsis. Where are the studies trying to show that violent media is beneficial? Where are the ones that try to see if kids should be exposed? (I’m not going that far mind you, but I think the question is valid. When it comes to violent media – videogames in particular – why do we automatically assume they must be harmful? Remember, the graphics have only been photorealistic for about 2 years now and that, while the average video game has more incidents of killing and violence than a horror movie – I guarantee that the horror movie will be more upsetting and cringe-inducing in most people than the game. There are really only a VERY few ultra-violent games after all. Lots and lots of movies to choose from.

    Violent video games are fantasies. Dreams. Albeit dark ones, but we’re human beings and darkness is part of our makeup and world. When I play a shooter, I’m a small child again waging war with popguns in the neighborhood. The graphics are actually less intense than my imaginings of that time. Or to put it another way, violent video games influence ME. You know how? They made me into a trusted parental advocate who, when his kids are asleep, loves violent video games.

    As for your lawyer comment – I see a person who provides false hope to a victim and tries to do harm to an incidental player (like a video game maker) as an evil.

    (Desensitization will be covered in a future article)

  3. I agree that the burden of proof should be on the side that wants to regulate or bad violent media. I also think that burden should be quite high. As for parents, I can’t tell them how to parent their own kids or what criteria they should use.

    Anecdotal evidence is weak, IMO. My grandmother smoked from age 15 to age 80 and lived a reasonably healthy life…I certainly wouldn’t suggest that path. I had a great uncle that drank a quart of scotch a day from the time he was 65 until he died at 101…I certainly wouldn’t suggest that level of drinking was harmless. I am not suggesting violent media falls into the same category, I just think there are plenty of past practices that time has shown are unwise. I am in my 30’s and remember when many people didn’t wear their seatbelts. I just prefer that any discussion on the effects of violent media include some research and evidence.

    Juv. crime is relatively low. This tends to support a position that violent media has little or no effect on juv. crime. What about violence in general? There is no good way of measuring violence rates among children apart from court system. In my former practice, I saw hundrends of children that were violent and the ‘system’ did not get involved. I am not suggesting that child violence is high, I am just suggesting that there may not be any good way of measuring it. Certainly, there has been a rise in bullying and mass school shootings in the past 30 years. I don’t know what the cause is.

    I still believe it is a complex issue. To what degree do video games influence children? What other factors are involved? If there are negative effects, can they be mitigated by other practices? Personally, I think violent games are a minor player among psychologically healty teens and any negative effects can be mitigated by good parenting practices. Pre-teens and younger children are more vulnerable, IMO.

    I certainly can’t comment on all lawyers, but I have never provided any false hope to a client, nor have I encouraged them to do something wrong or unethical. Ultimately, the client is one that agrees to any legal strategy and is the one that initiates the legal action in the first place.

  4. I love what you add to these discussions Steve, I really do. Thanks.

    Going backwards, I believe the lawyers who’ve brought the high profile anti-gaming suits to the court are the “Ambulance Chaser” kind. I think Thompson in particular is known to be on the phone as soon as these stories hit the wires. (Note: I’m in no way prejudice against lawyers as a profession. They are necessary and mostly beneficial)

    “I just think there are plenty of past practices that time has shown are unwise. I am in my 30’s and remember when many people didn’t wear their seatbelts.”

    Yes and in the past it was believed reading books led to laziness and undue inluence from the author. Comics and Rock N’ Roll led directly to juvenile deliquency. Later Rock led to suicide. Oh and in 1800 the Waltz was considered obscene and would lead directly to sexual abandon. All of that was presented with the same kind of evidence levied against video games. The same kinds of studies. Anyone here believe anything in the above is true?

    I’ve read a lot of studies and seen the evidence and that’s why I’ve diagnosed this problem as one of “prejudice” – if you don’t play games and if you find virtual violence indistinguishable from real violence then you will be predisposed to find evidence games are bad. If you love game and you’ve been exposed to violent media for the bulk of your life with no harm evident – you’re predisposed to not blame games.

    I’m just bringing the opposite kind of prejudice to the argument. I’m predisposed to believe that violent gaming isn’t harmful because if it was – especially if it was to the degree most people think it is – we’d see ample evidence of the harm it’s doing to society. I see no evidence, so why should I villify and industry and hobby and those who enjoy it?

    This is why the ground I’ve staked is the “Since nobody can prove violent media harms children – the best reason to avoid exposing children to violent media is that it’s unnecessary and potentially upsetting to the child.”

    I’ll never recommend kids play violent games. But given the lack of evidence involved, I’ll never tell a parent who does that they’re wrong.

    As far as your alcohol and cigarette examples go… it’s not that they’re anecdotal. That’s not the problem. The problem is that games have no evidence they cause harm to most people – while the evidence against alcohol and tobacco is extremely compelling.

  5. I’d like to think of Thompson as an aberration. I am glad the authorities are trying to disbar him. He is a grandstanding loudmouth.

    Good point about comics and rock n’ roll. I remember a few high profile teen suicides that were blamed on Heavy Metal music in the 80’s and I also remember the controversy over D & D. I guess time will tell, but that certainly calls for skepticism when anyone claims something is to blame.

  6. It brings up a very valuable question (and it isn’t just you, a very articulate guy took me to task over my Ask GamerDad column last week. I gave all the reasoms I could think of as to why COD4 might be okay for 15+.)

    My question, and it’s an honest one is: Can’t I be useful to the people who abhor violence and would never allow their kids to play an M game AND also still serve the large group that does let their kids play M-games and only bans the really severe titles?

    I’d like to because I’m realizing that when my kids get older I’ll probably be the latter type.

  7. I am a 13 year old kid and my parents do not want to buy my 17 year old brother Halo 3 because they think it’s too violent and that it somehow inspires nutcases that are potentially homicidal. My brother thinks that this is unfair, seeing that he is almost an adult and most of his friends have M rated games that are worse than the previously mentioned. Most of my classmates have M rated games too and I don’t think their parents even care if they got an A (Adults Only) rated game. I have read your article on violence in Halo and agree with it, most of the violence could be compared to sci-fi films. Thanks

  8. GD, I would say that the answer to your question is yes. If parents want to forbid their children from playing violent games, that is their choice. Many parenting decision are judgment calls or based on some kind of morality. On that token, parents should be honest and informed when making those decisions. Banning a game because they want to prevent their kid from going on a shooting spree is just intellectually dishonest.

    As a parent I would probably let my teen play most M-rated games. I feel the same way about most R-rated movies and books. I also don’t have a problem with offensive language, as long as they show some self-discipline.

  9. Right Steve, but the essence of my question was –

    Yes, I have a responsibility as GamerDad to inform and warn the sensitive parents about violent gaming.

    But lately I’ve been hearing a lot from parents who DO let their teens play M-rated games and they’re looking for me to say it’s okay. (Also, eloquent 13 year olds too, ;-)). Btw, this group of parents is probably the average. And I totally understand why they do this – if you love your kid and feel they’re good kids – then you want to buy them the game they really want sooo badly. One of my jobs seems to be telling those parents that they’re not bad parents – and I’m happy to do that.

    Since the former group is shrinking and the latter is growing -generationally speaking- don’t I have an obligation to be honest with both? If I’m being honest, my study and expertise in this field has led me to believe that the only valid reason to keep your kids from playing M-rated games is:

    * it’ll remove some precious innocence
    * some of the violence may be shocking, disturbing, upsetting or confusing
    * there are plenty of awesome T games out there as alternatives.

    This debate seemed to hinge originally on your saying that I should treat the “Do Violent Games Make Kids Violent” argument as possibly true and valid.

    My problem is, after reading studies, history, etc., – after being GamerDad for 5 years – I know longer believe in my heart that games have this effect at all. But! I still think it’s a good idea to be prudent, to be informed, and to consider less intense alternatives to M-games with teens – so I concentrate on those reasons instead.

  10. I think it’s all a fairly dumb debate personally. I mean to me it’s rather obvious that violence has existed for thousands and thousands of years. It’s always existed. So it’s beyond me that some think that suddenly something (or some media) can suddenly be the cause of violence in kid’s today.

    Second it’s obvious that playing games is an escape. What is the common ground amongst all escapes? Well too much isn’t good for you.

    Third, it’s obvious that gameplaying is not the best use of your time. There are much more constructive hobbies out there. It’s also obvious that it’s not the worst vice in the world either.

    The biggest issue to me is not violence, but too much time spent escaping.

  11. You calling my job dumb boy?

    No, you’ve hit the nail on the head. But most of life’s arguments and supposedly thorny issues can be solved if people would just take a moderate take. But they don’t, and they never will. So my goal politically speaking is to keep trying to make the extremists look illogical and foolish. It’s taken 5 years but I’ve made real progress doing this and there’s a lot more to come.

    I’m finally getting a megaphone – more on that later.

  12. I think it’s just a generational thing and that will die out soon enough. 🙂

    But then we’ll probably start thinking games of today are crap and too violent or whatever. Just like I’m sure many of us “Dads” think of the music of today. I already am starting to get there with games. God of War? Just too over the top violence and blood thirstiness for me. And how did GTA make it’s dough? By pissing off parents with inappropriate content for kids who make up half it’s audience.

    Yeah I know games won’t warp my kid’s mind overnight. Still I wouldn’t find it particularly positive to let my kid spend 50 hours playing GTA even if he’s 15. That’s a lot of hours of escape time. I’m a bit torn there. I had fun playing a few large games like that growing up, but I mostly did them socially. I beat Ultima 3 with a friend for instance. We took turns. Played together. Mapped it out. Yada yada yada. And yet would a stronger parental influence that directed us to more constructive hobbies have benefited us more later in life? I ask myself questions like that often enough.

    I’m torn because I do like some of those games, but I also recognize that perhaps my time would be better spent elsewhere. Get involved in my community more instead or something.

    Anyway it’s really all a never ending struggle between generations.

    I guess I do think too much in the middle though. Most folks really like to polarize issues. If it ain’t black it’s white. I think because it’s just easier to deal with reality that way. Your head does sorta hurt if you think about the variables. It’s easier just to say evil or good.

    The reality is games aren’t evil and they really aren’t that good either. I think Nintendo is rather obviously trying to find the “good” in games. And doing a great job of showing that games can be fun without violence and now can be exercise as well. They are trying to tie their games to positive constructive attributes.

    Also as much as I don’t think games or media turn kids into killers I think they do influence folks. Like people say, why would we have commercials if they don’t influence people in some fashion or another?

    Clearly media has an effect on people. OH it’s late and I’m rambling. Gotta go.

  13. I don’t think it is a dumb debate. I think it taps into the desire of most parents to do a good job in raising their kids. We are bombarded on a daily basis with information on parenting practices. Some of it is useful, some not. Another forum I frequent is discussing an incident in the news with 3rd graders plotting to attack their teacher. Once the speculation as to why started, some were quick to say video games and movies must have had an effect. I offered another perspective and cautioned that there is just isn’t enough information to say what caused it. Some said there were some studies showing a causal link, but couldn’t cite them. I suppose they had already made up their mind.

    I’d like to think this is a generational issue, but I just don’t know. Blaming TV is before my time. Didn’t they used to call it the ‘boob tube’ and the ‘idiot box’? While video games can claim a fairly large audience, I wonder what percentage play violent games.

  14. Yeah, growing up, my neighbor’s Mom thought the TV was the Devil’s Box. And I heard all the idiot box things too.

    And you know there’s some truth in all that. And it’s that escaping from reality too much while sitting on the couch isn’t good for you. It isn’t constructive. GAming isn’t immune from that.

    The gaming side can be extreme too. I mean promoting sitting on your couch and staring at your screen for 20 hours while shooting virtual humans is walking a tight rope. Kind of like what McDonald’s does. 😛

    I don’t know. I guess I find the debate dumb personally because I just don’t find it that interesting. I see gaming for what it is. It’s an escape. Too much is not good. A little is fine.

  15. I believe that games don’t harm everyone but, at the same time, they’re not completely harmless. Some people mature more quickly than others and some people don’t. You can’t say “violent games always negatively effect everyone” or “violent games never negatively effect anyone”.

    Anyway, one phrase I’m sick of hearing is the “innocence of children”. A child innocence is an illusion and children grow up. A childs innocence is just an idea that your child will always be the little angel they were which is simply false. Parents just like thinking of their children as the little angels they were.

    When I say “parents”, I mean the parents who repeatedly use that phrase and refuse to except that their children will grow up, not parents in general.

    Anyway, this is simply a pathetic attempt to get this discussion back on topic.

  16. “My question, and it’s an honest one is: Can’t I be useful to the people who abhor violence and would never allow their kids to play an M game AND also still serve the large group that does let their kids play M-games and only bans the really severe titles?

    I’d like to because I’m realizing that when my kids get older I’ll probably be the latter type.”

    I’d say a resounding YES, because it is what folks do with R-rated movies. We have our kids at 10 & 11.5 watching some R movies (Stand By Me, Flags of Our Fathers, and a select few others) with us. But not widespread watching, and not stuff at other kids houses. That is also true with games, but more in terms of T-rated at this point. Quite frankly there has been nothing much I have wanted to share outside of the Neverwinter Nights games with them that is rated M at this point …

  17. your kids just need to know the difference between video games and reality

  18. To me , i think that actually if really can classify games n reality it i always ok . and for me , i’m 14 n i think that it is really okay to let ur child play the game if they are really sensible if even though they are not a the age of the game . same goes to it , if you think that your child is not sensible to play the game even though he reached the age its the other way round . great job done anyway =)

  19. Im 12 and my mom thinks that i will become a lunaitic if I play mature rated video games but im only asking for games with no drugs sex or achohal and ive been begging for 6 years because Im to old for kiddish games and I have every Teen game Ide like wich is not very much I used to play gta 3 when I was 6 and I was fine and I am very mature for my age do you think I should be able to play mature rated games with just blood gore and voilence and possibly bad language?

  20. You might want to get your facts straight. Of all the school shootings….only one kid actually said he played video games.

    Just some food for thought.

  21. To my understanding of this situation, is that games can be violent and cruel in many was…..but that is why there is RATINGS on many games. For example, when i play halo 3 online and i hear 5 years old playing the games, it makes me wonder. If the parents are concered with what games there kids are playing..why are the buying these games for there kids. Dont get mad at the games……many games that are out today are based on what is happing in REAL life. So what i am saying is that, if games are harmful, then dont play them or lets kids play them.

  22. I’m sure some will agree with me, but the majority of better games are M. Gears of war, CoD4 and WaW, Dead Space, Far Cry 2, Half life 1 and 2, Gears of war 2, Persona 4, TF2, Counter strike, Halo 1, 2 and 3, etc.

  23. I disagree – Dark Forces, Jedi Knight series, Knights of the Old Republic, all of the Neverwinter Nights stuff, Temple of Elemental Evil, and many more are ‘T’. And if you look at the ‘best reviewed games of 2008’ list from Joystiq you’ll see that the vast majority are *not* M.

    There are loads of good M games, but there are loads of great non-M games. But for X360 centric teens, it seems like all the world is a M game their parents won’t let them play …

  24. I agree with more with the Wampa King,,,,,he has a very good point

  25. Allthough i still think that when Halo 1 first came out it should have been rated teen

  26. When you are a carpenter, everything looks like a nail …

    Thing is – if you are looking for a blood-soaked, horror-ridden, vulgarity-dense experience full of characters with ‘troubled pasts’ and so on … you will find only M games.

    When I look at my play habits, it is very much populated with T and M games, and has been since before they had ratings. It is just the stuff I prefer to play. That doesn’t obviate the fact that there are loads of great non-M games.

  27. Sorry that this is not really pertaining to this subject but please email me on this. Should Half-Life 1&2 be rated M? I am a 14 year old and was wondering. Thank You

  28. i just turned 17 and i love video games and most of them tend to be violent and gory to the extreme and im as violent as a peace loving hippy in bunny slipers

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