The Psychological Effects of Playing Violent Video Games.

Over recent times in Australia many have become deeply concerned that violent video games are widely accessible to the general community. Some, in fact, forced the radical modification Mortal Kombat. Last June the situation was so intense that the State-Attorney Generals urgently called a meeting in Darwin. During the meeting most agreed that violence is unacceptable in video games and that a classification system should be enforced on them like that imposed on magazines and television programs. They suggested that video games which enter the commercial market should undergo a rigorous screening process and given a rating; those rated as violent should be restricted to adults only and those deemed as excessively violent, banished altogether. The temerity of these developments are much like those experienced in the 1950s with the inception of television. Many at the time suggested that violent television- both on news programs and contrived settings- would have great long-term deleterious effects on society: some even spectulated that western civilisation would degenerate to a belligerent arena (a prophesy not altogether untrue). The race began amongst academics then to determine the precise effects that violent television would have on human behaviour, but, like most psychological research, the findings were often conflicting, some laboratories claiming one thing, and others publishing antithetical findings. Also, the findings were problematic with the majority of experiments conducted in artificial environments. Notwithstanding, after 35 years of research, in artificial and naturalistic settings, most agree that watching violent television leads to antisocial attitudes and behaviour. Lately, the growing concern over violent video games is analogous to the violent television furore in the late 1950s. The furore, however, is not a coincidental occurrence; computer technology has evolved to the extent that graphics have become extremely life-like. With the CD-ROM in full force, and Virtual Reality just around the corner, there may be reason to be concerned. Or is there?

The Study

I set out to scrutinise the argument that violent video games make people more aggressive. Since children and adolescents are no longer allowed to purchase violent video games, it seemed logical to conduct an experiment on adults to see whether they were resilient to the exposure of violence. Subsequently, seventy adults participated in an experiment in which they would play one of two different games. The first was a problem solving game called Brix. The second game was Wolfenstein 3-D, arguably one of the most violent video games on the IBM both in terms of graphics and sound. I decided also to vary the difficulty level of each game. Thus, subjects played one of the four following games:

1. An easy version of Brix (ie. a nonfrustrating-nonviolent game).
2. A hard version of Brix (ie. a frustrating-nonviolent game).
3. An easy version of Wolfenstein (ie. a nonfrustrating-violent game).
4. A hard version of Wolfenstein (ie. a frustrating-violent game).
To begin with subjects were administered a questionnaire which asked a series of questions with respect to their video game playing habits. Next they completed a personality inventory and an anger-expression inventory. The anger-expression inventory was the central feature in this study. The inventory measures not only how angry the subject feels at the time (ie. state anger) but, also, the extent that he or she experiences anger daily (ie. trait anger), how often they hold anger inwards (anger-in), and how frequently they express their angry feelings (anger-out). Subjects then played one video game for twenty minutes and were, again, asked to complete the anger-expression inventory. Lastly, subjects also completed a questionnaire which looked at their perception of the game they had played.

The Results and General Remarks

The results of the study were quite interesting to say the least. Those who played video games every week quite frequently reported experiencing anger more often (ie. trait anger) than those who played infrequently. High frequency players also expressed their anger more often (ie.anger-out) and sensed they could control it much better (ie anger control) than low frequency players. The interesting results, however, did not cease there. It turned out that high frequency players engaged in more violent sport each week, watched more violent television, and also reported greater satisfaction when playing video games. Low frequency players, on the other hand, did not enjoy playing video games much. In addition, high frequency players felt a greater compulsion to play video games. When the actual experiment was analysed I found that high frequency players actually became less angry if they played an easy version of Wolfenstein (ie. the nonfrustrating-violent game). In contrast, low frequency players became more angry. Interestingly, high frequency players perceived Wolfenstein as more violent than their low frequency counterparts. What then can one make of these results. Of course, with most psychological research, analysing data can be a difficult and subjective, and the inferential process can be coloured by the researcher's preconceptions and presuppositions. One must then proceed with caution and consider the alternative interpretations that may issue from the results. From a social perspective, the results may suggest that violent video games cause angry dispositions and foster aggression. This seems like a reasonable conjecture. However, the contention I would like to offer is counter-intuitive and can only be seen when the data are interpreted as a whole. I argue that violent video games may be beneficial to the player in the sense that he or she may be allowed to vent or purge their anger; video gaming could be an outlet to vent built up angry feelings. There seems to be strong evidence in the data that points in that direction. First, those who play frequently tended to perceive Wolfenstein as more violent and also became less angry when they played it. This suggests that high frequency players tended to increase the saliency of characters they were shooting and, in so doing, maximising the satisfaction of being aggressive: a purgation of anger necessarily followed. To say that playing video games, in general, causes an angry disposition or fosters aggression would be an erroneous generalisation. Remember, the results suggested that high frequency players watched more violent television and played more violent sport, and these findings imply that violent video games cannot be seen as a sole contributor (if a contributor at all) to the development of an angry disposition; a person may experience anger quite frequently, and, in addition, play video games often, but he or she also watches violent television and plays violent sport. The problem is: which is the cause of an angry disposition? The video game? And/or the violent television? And/or the playing of violent sport? Or, none of the above? In fact, recent research in the field of aggression suggests that people become aggressive because they are raised in environments that condone violence- mother and father, for example, allow them to watch violent television and fail to inform the child about the social and personal implications of heinous acts. Therefore, to say that violent video games are bad and that they foster aggression would be an injustice to those who use them to redirect their anger in a socially desirable manner. In sum, the precise psychological effects of playing violent video games are difficult to establish because they vary from individual to individual. That is, within any one group their was a substantial degree of variation; consequently, if you are a high frequency game player and you feel that the claims I have made above do not apply to you, then you are, more than likely, correct. The findings simply do not apply to everyone, all the time. The final point I wish to make is a moral one. If violent video games can be used to purge anger, then should they be banned or not? By doing away with excessively violent video games may force those with hyperaggressive problems to seek other media to vent their feelings. This begs the question: what are these other forms of media and will they perpetuate antisocial activity to a greater extent than violent video games. One can only speculate!

Alexander Ask
(The University of Adelaide)