Do Violent Video Games Make Kids Violent?

If you have kids—boys especially—you likely have video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 72 percent of U.S. homes play computer or video games. In 2010 consumers spent $25.1 billion on video games. 

Though not all video games have violent content those that do have caused concern: Violent video games have been blamed for school shootings, increases in bullying, and violence towards women. Critics argue that these games desensitize players to violence, reward them with points and higher levels of play for simulating violence, and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict.

John P. Murray, PhD and visiting scholar at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston says media violence is nothing new. Almost since the inception of television there's been concern about the impact of viewing violence.

Yet the video game industry and other video game advocates contend that the research is flawed and that no causal relationship has been found between video games and social violence. Some even believe that violent video games reduce violence by acting as a substitute for rough play and providing a safe outlet for aggressive and angry feelings.

In "Reality Bytes: 8 Myths About Video Games Debunked," MIT professor Henry Jenkins points out that the overwhelming majority of kids who play violent video games do not commit antisocial acts. "According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General's report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure," says Jenkins in the article.

The professor claims there is a growing body of research that suggests video games can enhance learning. Author James Gee describes game players as active problem solvers who do not see mistakes as errors, but as opportunities for improvement in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

The Case Against Violent Video Games

Opponents of violence in video games, like the "Center on Media and Child Health" say research has shown three effects of media violence on youngsters:

Fear and anxiety: Children become nervous about what they see

Desensitization: The more children see violence, the less they are shocked by it over time

Aggression: Children learn that violence can be used to solve conflict.

Murray's own research on the developing brain concurs. The expert looked at the neurological effects of the movie Rocky IV on 8 to 13 year old boys and girls and found unique brain activation patterns.

"The violent clips activated threat arousal systems of the brain and stored violence in a manner that enables instantaneous recall of violence as a schematic for planning behavior," Murray explains. The result is that kids who see a lot of violence are more likely to draw on those violent images as their model when they feel threatened. The effect can be desensitizing.

"In other words, you are less able to make reasoned judgments about what to do. You don't consider or ponder. You respond impulsively and what pops into your head first are the images you've stored of violent encounters," says Murray who cites other neurological research on the effects of video violence.

"The work of Jordon Graffman at NIH and Kronenberger and Mathews at Indiana University show that viewing violence activates areas of the brain resulting in less judgment and reasoning ability." Murray says young boys are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of playing violent video games. "This is a time when younger males are actively searching for role models and ways to pattern their lives and social interactions. There's no doubt that violent video games are especially inappropriate-even harmful-for them."

What Parents Can Do

If you are concerned about video game violence here is some advice from Dr. Murray:

Play video games alongside your child and discuss any objectionable parts with him so he gets a sense of your values.

Rent first. Many video stores will rent games and consoles so you cane experience the material first hand before deciding to purchase it.

Put games in a shared space so you can see and hear what's happening.

Research games and ratings at the Entertainment Software Rating Board ( You can also visit the game maker and distributor websites for information on the contents of a particular game but Murray says parents should be mindful of the source of the information. "The ESRB rating system is set and determined by the industry and not enforced," Murray points out.

Set limits and boundaries. Don't allow teens to play M-rated (mature) games for instance and restrict the amount of time spent gaming to one or two hours per sitting.

Murray's best advice is to make sure that younger teens are involved in activities--projects, hobbies, sports, community organizations, etc.--that give them opportunities for constructive social interactions with peers. "It's often a question of striking a balance between academic activities, creative or leisure activities, and sports," says Murray. "If the youngster is doing ok in school and has some good friends, they are likely on a fine trajectory to becoming a great young person."

Interview with John P. Murray, PhD
Visiting Scholar, Center on Media and Child Health
Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School

Center on Media and Child Health

Public Broadcasting Service

American Psychology Association
A non-profit group dedicated to, "providing resources for critical thinking and to educating without bias."