Violent Games: Minimizing Gaming’s Impact on Societal Violence

Violent Games: Minimizing Gaming’s Impact on Societal Violence

            From Columbine to Newtown, today’s most sensational violent activities are being blamed on one hobby: video gaming.  Sometimes the killers themselves are the people pointing the finger, sometimes it is an investigator looking at the killer’s home entertainment system.  Regardless, many people have put the two topics together, enough to fill hundreds of studies from several different branches including psychology, sociology, biology, and criminology.  Though a cursory examination of these studies is warranted for background and literature review, whether there is a connection between pixels and real-world violence, or how strong that connection may be is not entirely under discussion here.  Rather an anthropological approach must be taken to review, correct, and properly disseminate existing and potential policies regarding consumption of particular video games by children. 

As part of his gun control plan, President Obama suggested researching the effect of video games on young minds (Molina, 2013), and there has been a $10 million study proposed in Congress (Moriarty, 2013).  This topic is one that is being discussed currently, and has been discussed for decades in different terms.  It is time to bring anthropology into the discussion and the culture of gamers itself, rather than assuming that hardcore gaming is a psychological oddity or something automatically assumed to be unnatural.  As it is, many gamers are starting to push back against the voices trying to lay the blame for Columbine, Newtown, and more at the feet of their favored hobby.  It is an anthropological duty to take into account the culture of these gamers when discussing possible courses of action.

Violent media has been blamed for violent crime since the days of Plato and Socrates, who cautioned against plays and the alphabet, respectively (Ferguson, 2010).  Each new generation’s chosen form of media, whether it is the talking pictures of the 1920s, the rock-and-roll of the 1950s, or the television of the 1980s, is attacked by elders or politicians attempting to raise moral panics with false targets in order to maintain the status quo and cause distraction (Ferguson, 2010).  Sane adults are at no risk playing violent video games, and in fact, Ferguson (2010) has shown how several studies, once properly controlled for other issues like gender, upbringing, and education, show no causal data at all.  It is those who have reduced capacity to distinguish reality and fiction or right and wrong- children and the mentally ill- who are at risk.  There are already programs championing mental health at the forefront of social activism in this country, and there is already a rating board for video games.

The most popular theory regarding children and media violence is that of Bandura, Social Learning Theory.  It posits that young children, particularly those with damaged or under-developed moral senses, are more likely to mimic actions (Ferguson, 2010).  Bandura’s study utilized “Bobo” dolls, beaten in specific ways, on screens shown to children (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963).  The children were then allowed to play with an item of choice until the item was taken from them to frustrate them and trigger aggressive response (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963).  The researchers then watched to count how many children acted aggressively towards the Bobo doll, and how many used the specific actions and words they had shown on screen (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963).  The team concluded that a significant number of children acted aggressively, and a significant number acted in an imitative fashion compared to the control group (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963).

The American Academy of Pediatrics, represented by Dr. Cook, testified before Congress, stating that over 3,500 research studies had been done and “[a]ll but 18 have shown a positive correlation between media exposure and violent behavior” (Cook, 2000, p.1).  In fact, they claim that the correlation is stronger than “that of condom non-use and sexually transmitted HIV, lead exposure and lower I.Q., passive tobacco smoke and lung cancer or calcium intake and bone mass,” which have all been the basis of preventative education and policy (Cook, 2000, p.2).

Though this speech is high on hyperbole and contains zero citations or references, it does make a good point at the end, which is the point of this paper.  It tasks parents with ensuring children understand reality and fiction, setting time and content limits on media consumption, and taking a more active interest in their media use (Cook, 2000).  It also tasks health care professionals with monitoring for health risks, and educating parents, and policymakers with strengthening media consumption laws meant to protect children, similar to the laws in place for pornography (Cook, 2000).  Finally, it asks that the entertainment industry become, essentially, more socially aware and responsible (Cook, 2000).

Both Bandura and Cook, among others, have been thoroughly examined by Ferguson’s meta-analysis, and he has concluded that few if any of the studies claiming causation even find significant correlation, and correlation is often due to inappropriate controls, publishing bias, small subject sizes, low standards of evidence, and other methodological and theoretical problems (2010).

The seemingly obvious answer to all of this is that video games as a whole are on the rise with huge increases in sales, while violence, particularly gun violence, is on the decline (CDC, n.d.;, 2011).  For example, the 2010 rate of gun-related murders, the crime one would expect to rise if caused by games, is at its lowest rate since at least 1981 (, 2012).

The majority of literature about the effect of violent media on behavior is related to children, but most of the games under fire for their violent content are intended for adult audiences, and most surveys directed toward adults showed that violent media had a negligible, or even positive, effect on violent crime.  One such study followed blockbuster releases and crime reports, stating that self-selection of violent people into theaters effectively neutralized them for the remainder of the evening (Dahl & DellaVigna, 2009).  The potential criminal chooses entertainment over other activities which may include or lead to criminal activities, often accompanied by alcohol (Dahl & DellaVigna, 2009).  The effect is even stronger later in the evening, explained by the lack of alcohol at the theater leading to a safer, more appropriate activity after the movie (Dahl & DellaVigna, 2009).  If this is true of movies that last only two or three hours, imagine the effect of a video game that neutralizes self-selected violent video game fans for anywhere from fifteen to three hundred hours.

Similarly, Felson (1996) compares laboratory results to real-world observations and finds that there is likely no real effect, except in rare cases where the media provides a novel method of violence that would not otherwise have occurred to the viewer.  This is similar to Bandura’s mention of a switchblade knife fight re-enactment from Rebel Without a Cause (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963), or the four teens who “raped a nine-year-old girl with a beer bottle, enacting a scene similar to” Born Innocent (Felson, 1996, p. 118).  The people who mimic these acts are likely in one of the aforementioned vulnerable groups, already criminal, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

As it happens, these exact copy-cat style re-enactments are what prompted the entertainment industry to create The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, otherwise known as the “Hays Code.”  It prohibited many items from the motion picture screen, including criminal activity seen in a sympathetic light, adultery, revenge, murder, illegal drug traffic, white slavery, liquor, child birth, and scenes of passion, both to prevent offending the American public and to eliminate the chances of imitation by the viewers (Hays, 1930).  These standards have obviously been eliminated since, but in their place is the MPAA rating system which provides an understandable rating of movies to ensure only appropriate viewers are present at screenings.

Similar to the MPAA’s G through NC-17 rating system, the video game industry has the ESRB, or Entertainment Software Ratings Board, to provide age-appropriate guidance for console and computer games. Games are not required to be rated by law, but industry and retailer pressure makes it a general standard (ESRB, n.d.).  The ESRB has no legal authority to mandate reviews or enforce sales requirements, such as mandatory identification checks on M-rated games (ESRB, n.d.).  They do, however, try to educate shoppers and retailers on their system as well as supporting retailers’ “store policies pertaining to the sale or rental of Mature-rated games to minors” (ESRB, n.d., Enforcement/Retailer Support of Ratings).

To further complicate the issue, video games are not without merit, even when violent in content.  Gaming does have benefits, such as better hand-eye coordination, multi-tasking, less depression, and less aggression, as accounted in Tamborini, Eastin, Skalski, and Lachlan (2004), Dahl and DellaVigna (2009), and Berg and Lune (2012).  Video games appear to be excellent at transmitting raw data, even if they are not effective shapers of moral beliefs (Ferguson, 2010).  Players of violent video games, particularly competitive first-person shooters, have “higher visuospacial acuity, perception, processing, visual memory and mental rotation” (Ferguson, 2010, p. 76).  It is unclear, however, whether it is the violence or the fast-paced and competitive atmosphere that provides this boon (Ferguson, 2010).

The Pew Research Center determined that video games were “highly social activities for most children,” particularly with such a high participation rate (Ferguson, 2010, p. 77).  There is also evidence that friendships forged across an Ethernet cable can be just as deep and meaningful as those forged in face-to-face situations (Ferguson, 2010).  A final example comes from a game called Re-Mission which is a violent shooting game featuring a robot who hunts cancer cells within the body of a patient (Ferguson, 2010).  The game, played by patients, improved “self-efficacy, cancer knowledge, and treatment adherence in teen and young adult cancer patients” by holding the player’s attention while simultaneously providing an entertaining educational experience (Ferguson, 2010, p. 77).

To solve the riddle, applied anthropology would need to take a four-pronged approach to the research: game companies, game retailers, game purchasers, and game players.  Game companies, including the ESRB, need to be studied to determine the reasons for the policies already in place and the developers’ responses to them, including a determination about why the ESRB uses different ratings than the MPAA which are more widely known to the older people buying video games for their children or grand-children.  This could easily be accomplished through a few key-informant interviews with a senior member of the ESRB and some senior members of various game developers.

Game retailers need to be studied to determine whether the ratings have an effect on consumers in the stores.  It must also be determined whether retailers are actually recommending purchases based on the age ratings, if retailers check the age of customers attempting to buy Mature-rated games, and if they warn parents who appear to be buying the games for their children.  The easiest way to accomplish this would be a survey, but the honest of the retailers would be questionable, leading to a spot-check or participant observation of particular retailers to determine actual habits.

Game purchasers, particularly adults buying games for children, would be surveyed to determine whether they know about the ESRB, what the ratings mean, and whether they are followed.  This is a large number of people, so initial inquiries would likely be performed by questionnaire, particularly after the purchase of a game, perhaps with a gift card or rebate attached for participation in the survey to encourage participation.  The survey can determine average knowledge of the ESRB rating system as well as elicit suggestions about spreading awareness and educating other game purchasers about what to look for when buying a game for a minor.

A recent Harris Poll determined that two-thirds of US adults use the ESRB, but only fourteen percent claimed to “fully understand what the guidelines meant” (Smith, 2013, para. 2).  A possible cultural aspect to explore is the purchaser’s misconception that video games are just for children, leading to the belief that any video game is appropriate for children.

Focus groups can also be used to determine whether current advertising for video games is geared toward children or the supposed-target audience of adult gamers.  Survey questionnaires sent to a stratified-random selection of people, stratified by age, race, socioeconomic status, and so on, can determine where public opinion is on the subject as well as providing valuable information about what types of games are being played, by whom, and how much.

Key-informant interviews may provide important insights about why specific people acted out, and why some specifically blamed video games for their actions (Alabama v. Grand Theft Auto, 2005; Goddard, 2006).  Unfortunately, many of the killers who have had their actions blamed on games are no longer able to be interviewed, often because they took their own lives or were killed as they neared the end of their activities (Goddard, 2006; Johnson, 2012; Sarkar, 2013).

Finally, game players, particularly those under seventeen who play M-rated games, should be studied to determine how they are attaining the games and whether anything can be done to prevent or minimize it.  This is the most difficult of the four because teens playing the game may be wary of anyone attempting to limit their gaming, and participant-observation would be difficult in person with many gamers choosing the privacy of their own homes as their gaming headquarters.  An overview of how actual gamers view the impact of gaming on their lives is also an important aspect that should not be overlooked.  The gamers themselves will have some insight into how gaming has shaped their outlooks or lives.

Once the four groups are researched, areas of weakness, whether in education, enforcement, or elsewhere, should be apparent.  It is at this point that the anthropologist may become an activist, championing a course of action that will fix these weak areas and protect children from age-inappropriate media.

There are many potential discoveries and subsequent outcomes of these studies and the advocacy that stems from them.  An awareness campaign can educate the uninformed about the ESRB’s mission, ratings, and usage.  Laws may be enacted to prohibit the sale of M and AO rated games and R and NC-17 rated movies to minors.  Stricter standards may be placed on advertisement of games to ensure M rated games are not occupying the commercial space of children’s programming.  Public and politician re-education may be necessary to dispel some of the myths of previous studies that gamers are simply ticking time bombs.

Few people would say that minors should be allowed to smoke, drink, or view pornography, but many parents allow their children to play hyper-realistic, gory, violent video games on a regular basis, therefore the ESRB should be studied, corrected, and strengthened to ensure their stated goal is achieved.  Many studies claim correlation between violent media and aggressive behavior, but the methodology and theory behind those claims is often faulty.  Few, if any, studies have shown that a sane adult is at any risk of violent media with the rare exception of novelty providing a new idea.  To ensure that media is consumed by the appropriate audience, the MPAA and ESRB created ratings systems that should be consulted before allowing minors to view or play the products.  After studying all the groups associated with gaming, the appropriate paths may be taken to ensure children are protected from age-inappropriate material.


Alabama v. Grand Theft Auto.  (2005, Mar. 4).  60 Minutes [website transcription of television show].  Retrieved from

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. (1963).  Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models.  The Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 66(1), pp. 3-11.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost, 1963-04724-001.

Berg, B. & Lune, H. (2012).  Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences.  Boston: Person Education, Inc.  (n.d.).  Youth Violence: National Statistics.  Retrieved from

Cook, D. (2000).  Testimony of the American Academy of Pediatrics on media violence before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.  Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.  Retrieved from

Dahl, G. & DellaVigna, S. (2009, May).  Does movie violence increase violent crime?  The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(2), pp. 677-734.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost, 1049327.

ESRB. (n.d.).  Entertainment Software Review Board website. Retrieved from (2012).  Gun Rhetoric vs. Gun Facts.  Retrieved from

Felson, R.  (1996).  Mass media effects on violent behavior.  Annual Review of Sociology, 22, pp. 103-128.  Retrieved from JSTOR.

Ferguson, C. (2010).  Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video games be a force for good? Review of General Psychology, 14(2), pp. 68-81.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost, 2010-11858-003.

Goddard, J. (2006, Sep. 27). Sony faces £317m lawsuit over video game massacre.  Daily Mail, p. 32.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

Hays, W. (1930).  The motion picture production code of 1930.  Retrieved from

Johnson, S.  (2012, Apr. 27).  Video games blamed for murders… again.  The Feed.  Retrieved from

Molina, B.  (2013, January 16).  Obama seeks research into violent video games.  USA Today. Retrieved from

Moriarty, C.  (2013, January 17).  Violent Games Legislation Introduced to US Congress.  IGN.  Retrieved from

Sarkar, S. (2013, Mar. 18).  Sandy Hook shooter used ‘score sheet’ and video game logic, according to NY Daily News report.  Polygon.  Retrieved from

Smith, E.  (2013, Feb. 27).  Over half of US adults link videogames to violence.  International Business Times.  Retrieved from

Tamborini, R., Eastin, M. S., Skalski, P., & Lachlan, K. (2004). Violent Virtual Video Games and Hostile Thoughts. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48(3), 335-357. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from ProQuest Telecommunications. (Document ID: 856439331). (2011). 2011 sales demographic and usage data.  Essential facts about the computer & video game industry.  Retrieved from


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