In response to the horrific Newtown massacre, state and federal lawmakers have proposed at least four bills to study and regulate the impact of violent video games on children’s behavior.
The bills all come in reaction to published reports that Adam Lanza, the gunman who shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, appears to have spent hours playing violent video games on his computer before the shooting.
But research on video games is conflicting and inconclusive so far, partly because the impact of these games is difficult to measure. Many researchers believe there is a tendency for those who play violent video games to become more aggressive and less empathetic, particularly if they play excessively. But that’s a long way from becoming a school shooter.
Other researchers dispute those studies, saying they are flawed and that there is no causal link at all between the games and violence. They caution that the media, including these games, are often blamed after shooting tragedies like Newtown as leaders look to do something to address the problem.
A direct link to aggression
Douglas A. Gentile, who has studied video games extensively, says there is a clear connection between violent video games and aggressive behavior.
“The research here is a no-brainer,” said Gentile, an associate professor at Iowa State University’s Center for the Study of Violence.
“Anything you practice, you get better at. If you practice reading games, you get better at reading. If you play violent games, you get better at aggressive ways of thinking. You become more vigilant for energies. When provoked you retaliate. You become desensitized. You become a little more callous about pain and suffering and see aggression as a more acceptable way to behave. It does have an effect,” Gentile said.
Kirstie Farrar, an associate communications professor at the University of Connecticut who has researched violent media, said research has consistently shown over the past 10 years that exposure to violent media does increase aggressiveness.
“The game gives you a complete script for how to respond to a situation aggressively. It gives you weapons. It gives you ammunition. You respond by killing a whole bunch of people, and you get rewarded. Unlike TV where you are watching a character, you are the character,” Farrar said.
The Hartford Courant has reported that Lanza, 20, spent hours playing graphically violent video games in his basement before the shooting that killed 26 children and faculty at the school and Lanza’s mother at her home. Police are looking into whether video games were a factor in the shooting, the Courant said.
Researchers say that violent video games can’t help but have a direct biological impact on the brain because they raise the gamer’s blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
“If these games had no influence on us at all we’d call them boring,” Gentile said. “The fact is that they that give us an adrenaline rush. They release a cocktail of hormones into your blood stream. The body has a full fight or flight response and we like that we can have a full fight or flight response.”
But gamers can’t keep up this level of arousal for so long, so over time eventually they become acclimated to this kind of content and desensitized to violence, Farrar said.
“If your friend gets involved in fight, for instance, you are going to just stand back and watch,” Farrar said.
Yale researcher Marc Potenza polled thousands of New Haven students about video gaming and found that those who admitted to excessive gaming often reported cigarette smoking, depression and getting into fights.
His study found that girls who played excessively were more likely to get into serious fights and carry a weapon to school.
But Potenza stopped short of linking these games to aggressive behavior, saying that would overstate their impact. Video games are, after all, a relatively new and understudied medium, he said.
He compared them to violent comic books, which were highly suspect when they came out in the 1950s. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham famously warned parents that comic books would lead youths to become juvenile delinquents in his book “Seduction of the Innocent.”
No evidence of violence
Another expert, Christopher J. Ferguson, says that studies have been inconsistent and typically only measure aggression, not violence.
“There is no evidence of a link between violent video game use or any other media violence and violent youth outcomes,” said Ferguson, department chair for psychology and communication at Texas A & M International University.
Most academic research is limited because it usually only involves college students and typically measures aggression in an artificial manner, such as taking paper-and-pencil surveys or testing how much students are willing to blast each other with white noise. This is not exactly the type of measures of social violence that the public and legislators are after, Ferguson said.
When researchers factor in family violence or mental health, the research does not show that video game violence contributes substantially to violent behavior in youths, he said.
He said some research shows that game violence has no impact on players. Others show that it may actually reduce aggressive behaviors by providing an outlet for relieving stress.
In the weeks since Sandy Hook, lawmakers have, among other things, keyed in on the fact that Lanza played violent video games. Ferguson said this feeds into the stereotype about gamers as being violent and out of control. But Ferguson says that almost all 20-year-old males play violent video games at some point.
In fact, in the two months since the Newtown shooting, there have been several shootings involving older men, including a 62-year-old man who shot two firefighters in New York and a man in his 70s who attacked a law office in Phoenix. None of these men were gamers, Ferguson said.
State Sen. Scott Franz, R-Greenwich, has proposed forming a task force to explore and identify any links between violent video games and violent behavior in youths. He wants to ask the Office of Legislative Research to compile and analyze all research done to date. The task force could — and perhaps at the very least — send a public service announcement to all parents to warn them of potential risks.
“I have a strong suspicion that there is a causal relationship between violent video games and people becoming desensitized and harming other people,” Franz said.
The Entertainment Software Association, which represents the gaming industry, denies there is any such link. In fact, the association pointed out in a statement that violent crime has decreased since the early 1990s at the same time video game sales soared.
Rather than video games, what these shooters often have in common is a history of rage and mental health problems, Ferguson said. He is currently researching whether children with preexisting mental health issue are more susceptible to violent game effects, but the data so far suggests that they aren’t.
During a hearing this week in the legislature, lawmakers said they want to set an example and take the lead for the rest of the nation. As they struggle with the aftermath of Newtown, they are considering many measures to address such violence – measures for gun control, mental health care and school security along with video game violence.
The Connecticut bills call variously to study, tax and regulate violent video games. State Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, is calling for a 10-percent tax on video games rated “M” for mature audiences. She wants the money used to pay for a program to educate parents.
State Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, seeks to bar minors from playing point-and-shoot video games that use simulated guns in arcades and other public places.
On a federal level, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D- W. Va., has proposed a federal study on the impact of violent gaming and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has called for mandatory warning labels.
In 2008, the state of Pennsylvania formed a similar task force to the one Connecticut is proposing. It concluded that parents should carefully monitor their children’s use of violent video games, but warned against restrictive legislation.
These games are protected by the First Amendment, as California learned two years ago when the Supreme Court rejected the state’s ban on selling video games to minors.
The Pennsylvania task force recommended setting up a publically funded consumer education program on video and computer games. It also called on the academic community to pursue more scientifically based and objective research into the effects of video games on children and young adults.
The Connecticut bills are being monitored closely by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. ACLU Staff Attorney David McGuire noted that the video games are treated the same as books and plays under the First Amendment.
“It would be the same as the legislature trying to ban books based on violent content, like saying they are going to ban sale of horror novels or gory science fiction books,” McGuire said.
Many researchers agree.
“Most media scholars would never argue for censorship,” Farrar said. “We’re not going to trample on the First Amendment.
“But, she added, “we think we should share our findings with the broader community so people can be more aware of this content and more mindful of what we’re exposing our children to.”