In recent years, there has been a significant debate in the fields of child-rearing, gaming and psychological research about whether exposure to violent content in media leads to aggressive behaviour in children. Past research has focussed on violent television content. However, as video games become more popular, the concern about the effects of violent content in these games has continued to grow.
It is suggested that approximately 76% of Australian citizens under 18 years of age play video games (Brand, Todhunter, & Jarvis, 2017). As the majority of Australian children are exposed to video games, it is vital that the severity of the impacts these games have is evaluated. There are several key theories that support the notion that exposure to violent video games leads to aggressive behaviour in children. Many empirical studies supporting the negative effects of violent video games use these key theories as the basis of their experiments.
Social learning theory is a key theory that focusses on behavioural modelling and reinforcement (Bandura, 1978). The theory suggests that behaviours are learned through the observation of others’ behaviours and the consequences that accompany them. When the consequences are favourable, the behaviour is reinforced. Children observe violent behaviour in video games. Although unrealistic, video game violence generally results in favourable outcomes (such as proceeding to the next level) that reinforce the child’s violent behaviour. This constant reinforcement of violence makes the aggressive behaviours more justifiable in other dimensions of the child’s life (Dill & Dill, 1998).
An additional theory that should be considered in this context is emotional priming. The Cognitive-Neoassociationistic Model of Anger Formation suggests that there are associations between specific feelings and subsequent physical reactions (Berkowitz, 1990). If a player experiences negative feeling such as anger when playing a violent video game, their behavioural response in the game will likely determine their behaviour the next time they feel anger or associate a memory or idea with the video game.
There appears to be less literature in the field that contradicts the idea that violent video game exposure causes aggressive behaviour in children. Hilgard et al. (2017) argue that publication bias could be the reason for this lack of evidence. Journals are less likely to publish articles that do not show any significant effects (Hilgard, Engelhardt, & Rouder, 2017). Therefore, empirical studies concluding that violent video games have no effect on aggressive behaviours may remain unpublished.
Regardless of the validity of Hilgard’s publication bias argument, there remains an abundance of literature supporting the notion that violent video games lead to aggressive behaviour in children. This essay will focus on the immediate impacts of violent video games on aggressive behaviour. Schutte et al. concluded that violent video games do influence children’s subsequent behaviours, as a result of social learning. Cooper and Mackie’s (1986) findings contradict this suggestion. Through the evaluation of these studies and supporting literature in the field, this essay will argue that violent video games do cause subsequent aggressive behaviour in children.
Due to the lack of research in this specific area, Schutte et al. (1988) sought to examine how violent video games affect immediate behaviours in children. Based on social learning concepts, they predicted that children’s behaviour immediately after playing a video game will resemble the behaviours displayed in the game. They also propose that aggressive behaviour will be more likely to occur following engagement with a violent video game compared to a non-violent video game. Thirty-one participants were recruited for this study (Male=15, Female=16) from one day-care centre. The children were aged between five and seven years old (M=5.52). This study enlisted an independent-group design. The violent nature of video game was manipulated with two levels: no violent content, and highly violent content. The non-violent video game was “Jungle Hunt”, a game where the objective was to jump between swinging vines without perishing. The violent game was “Karateka”. The objective in this game was to kill the opposing villain by striking or kicking them enough times. The games were played on a personal computer using a joystick and keyboard. The aggressive behaviour of each child was the dependent variable. This was operationalised by counting how many of the thirty-second intervals in the ten minutes children hit (or pretended to hit) the other child, bobo doll or other toys.
Children were randomly placed into gender-opposite pairs and assigned to a video game condition (Schutte, Malouff, Post-Gorden, & Rodasta, 1988). Each child played the assigned video game for five minutes and then observed their partner play the same game for five minutes. After playing the video game, the pair were sent to a playroom containing the following: a bobo doll draped in a karate robe, a jungle swing with ropes and a man swinging from it, two stuffed animals and two children’s books. The children engaged in free play for ten minutes. During this time, their behaviour was evaluated by two observers seated at one end of the playroom. Schutte et al. found that violent video games led to significantly more aggressive behaviour. They also found that children in the violent video game condition modelled the behaviour of the karate character. They were significantly more likely to hit the Bobo doll and other children. These findings are consistent with their expectations, based on behavioural modelling and reinforcement. The experimenters concluded that violent video games do lead to aggressive behaviour for children.
One strength of Schutte et al.’s design was including playroom toys that imitate the characters in the video game conditions. It is possible that some of the measured aggression may have been dependent on the individual natures of each child – some children may be more aggressive in nature than others without the addition of violent content. The likelihood of this being true, however, is reduced by the findings of the study. Regardless of the condition they were assigned to, children tended to imitate and be drawn to the toy that replicated the character from the game they played. This suggests that the children’s behaviours were based more on social learning than individual nature and preference.
A limitation of this study is measuring the instances of aggressive behaviours in thirty-second intervals. Thirty-seconds is a large enough time interval to engage in several behaviours, especially if the child is highly aroused and active. These broad time intervals may underestimate the amount of aggressive behaviour a child displays. Any discrepancies in the data due to this issue are rectified in Silvern and Williamson’s (1987) study. In this study, ten-second intervals and a behavioural coding system were used to measure instances of aggressive behaviour (Silvern & Williamson, 1987). Their results are consistent with Schutte et al.’s findings – that violent video games do lead to subsequent violent behaviour in children.
Although the studies contain similar procedures, findings from Cooper and Mackie’s (1986) study contradict the findings of Schutte et al. (1988). Cooper and Mackie sought to understand gender differences in how violent video games impact behaviour, and if active participation in the video game reaped different subsequent behaviours to passive observation. They predicted that boys and girls would perceive video games differently. They also predicted that a more violent video game would lead to more aggressive play. Eighty-four participants from the 4th and 5th grade (Male=44, Female=40) were recruited from a USA school. The violent nature of the video game was manipulated with three levels: control pen-and-paper game, nonaggressive video game and aggressive video game. The pen-and-paper game asked children to solve mazes. The nonaggressive game was “Pac-Man”, a game where the player chases and is chased by opposing ghosts. The aggressive game was “Missile Command”, a game where players had to terminate lasers before they destroyed the player’s city. The games were played on a colour television using a joystick control. Aggressive behaviour was the dependent variable. It was operationalised in two ways: the amount of time spent with each toy and the amount of punishment the child administered.
Children filled out questionnaires about their previous video game experiences (Cooper & Mackie, 1986). They were placed in gender- and age-matched pairs. Each pair was assigned to a video game condition. One child was randomly selected to play the assigned game for eight minutes while their partner observed. If they were not familiar with the game, they were allowed two minutes to familiarise themselves with it. The players score in the video game was recorded. After the eight minutes, half of the participants were sent to the toy room and half to another experimental room. In the toy room, children were told they could have free play with the variety of toys that allowed for aggressive, active, quiet and skilful play. An experimenter feigned doing paperwork in the corner of the room and recorded the behaviours of the child in the eight-minute period. After eight minutes, the children swapped rooms. In the second experimental room, children were asked to administer different punishments and rewards for hypothetical children based on a presented scenario. After completing all tasks, children filled out questionnaires about their perception of the video game.
The only significant finding for Cooper and Mackie’s study was that girls had significantly more active and aggressive behaviours directed towards toys than boys did after playing the more aggressive video game (Cooper & Mackie, 1986). However, alternative explanations were presented for this finding. Cooper and Mackie suggested that girls may have been frustrated if they felt they underperformed in the task, which could account for their more aggressive play. Additionally, a study surveying elementary school students found that girls have a distaste and unease for ‘space and war’ games – game genres more commonly associated with boys. This discomfort could be responsible for more active and agitated play (Wilder, Mackie, & Cooper, 1985). If the alternative explanations for this finding are accepted, then Cooper and Mackie do not present any results that suggest that violent video games cause subsequent aggressive behaviour.
One strength of this study is that Cooper and Mackie surveyed each child’s previous video gaming experience and allowed children to familiarise themselves with the game. To ensure that different experiences with the video games had no effect, they performed a covariate analysis between a score reflecting each child’s gaming experience and their play measures (Cooper & Mackie, 1986). They found no effect, which suggests that unfamiliarity with the assigned game should have no impact on the measured results.
A limitation of this study is that the violence of the video games may not have been manipulated intensely enough. The participants did perceive the games as containing different levels of violence, as intended. However, the mean rating for the most violent game did not surpass the midpoint of the 5-point scale. The lack of perceived violence in the game could explain the lack of subsequent aggressive behaviour in the children. If a more violent game had been selected, it is possible that the results could suggest a significant effect.
The findings of Schutte et al.’s (1988) study support the argument that violent video games cause subsequent aggressive behaviour in children. This study concludes that social learning causes children to imitate violent video game characters, resulting in more aggressive behaviours in play with toys and other children. The limitation to this study (a potential issue in measuring quantifying aggressive behaviour) was justified with findings from another experiment (Silvern & Williamson, 1987). Although Cooper and Mackie’s findings do not support this argument, it is possible that modifications to their manipulated conditions could produce more significant results.
Based on the evaluation of these empirical studies, I believe that violent video games do lead to subsequent violent behaviour in children. In future, claims of publication bias should be investigated to extend the opposing side of the argument. Controversy about the effects of violent video games on behaviour will continue until one side of the debate can be falsified.