On Aug. 3, 2019, only hours after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, which left 23 people dead, a familiar talking point reared its head: video games were to blame.
The question of whether video games incite real-world violence among kids and teens has been sparking controversy — and headlines — for decades. But despite more than 20 years of investigation, researchers have failed to prove a causal link between playing violent video games and committing acts of violence. What's more, a longitudinal study into the connection between video game violence and human aggression found that any impact was “too small to be practically meaningful,” according to a meta-analysis published in Royal Society Open Science in 2020.
So why has this myth persisted? First, we need to look at the contentious battleground surrounding the supposed link between video games and aggressive behavior.
The Video Games and Violence Controversy
Video games have gotten a bad rap for about as long as we’ve been playing them. Only five years after Pong ricocheted onto the scene, in 1976, a lo-fi black and white game called Death Race — in which players rack up points by running down digital “gremlins” as they flee from your car — earned the ire of newspapers and civic organizations for facilitating virtual violence. As a result of the public backlash, its developers pulled it from store shelves.
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In the 1990s, the controversy leveled up. Thanks to advances in computer graphics, the fighting game Mortal Kombat boasted gruesome details like spurting blood and the ability to rip an opponent’s heart out through their chest. In 1993 and 1994, it became the focus of a series of congressional hearings into violent video games and their potential impact on kids.
Playing the Blame Game
Famously, the panic around video game violence spiked again in 1999, when the game Doom, which essentially pioneered the first-person shooter genre, was blamed for the Columbine high school massacre. Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University who has studied video game violence for decades, refers to the incident as a watershed moment.
“In the public imagination, it really solidified this idea that violent video games were responsible for school shootings or mass homicides,” says Ferguson. “Other than a handful of people, there was really a sense of there being a societal consensus on the issue —everybody thought that violent video games were causing these types of shootings.”
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As a result, in the early 2000s, several prominent studies dug into that link — and suggested that violent video games did indeed increase aggressive behavior. Still, even at that time, not everybody agreed. Ferguson, then a graduate student, says that he started to notice a mismatch between the evidence and what researchers were saying.
“It’s not that you couldn’t make a case for there being some kind of link between violent video games and aggression,” says Ferguson, “[but] the data just weren’t there.”
Video Game Violence Studies
For years, research on whether violent video games fuels aggression in players — a field that includes more than 100 studies — remained mixed. For example, in 2014, a meta-analysis from scientists at the University of Innsbruck in Austria found that violent video games boosted aggression in players. Meanwhile, just a year later, a longitudinal study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture suggested that playing violent video games was not a significant predictor of physical aggression.
Ferguson says that some researchers linked video games to aggressive behavior on the basis of shoddy science. In part, he continues, this is due to the perceived high stakes and emotionally charged nature of concerns about youth culture.
“There’s this idea that ‘we’re saving children’ or ‘children’s lives are at stake,” he says. “And scientists are human — we respond to social incentives just like anybody else does. If all of the incentives tell you to say one thing, then why would you say the other thing? Saying something isn’t a problem is a hard way to get grant money.”
The Problem of False Positives
The issue of false positives is just one of the problems plaguing the field. (In the behavioral sciences, “false positives” can occur when scientists deem something as statistically significant when the results are actually a result of chance, sampling errors or problems with a study’s methodology.) In a paper authored by Ferguson and published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry in 2018, he found that research into video game violence is particularly prone to false positives.
Still, in recent years, more studies and meta-analyses — with more rigorous research methodologies — have added to the growing body of evidence that any connection between video games and aggressive behavior is dubious at best.
“Generally speaking, this new wave of better studies is really questioning the perceived wisdom of 10 [to] 15 years ago,” says Ferguson. “That’s kind of where we’re at now.”
Do Violent Games Make You Violent?
In short, there is no firm, irrefutable evidence that playing violent video games leads to real-life violence — or even aggressive behavior — in kids and teens.
Still, that doesn’t mean that every game is a fit for every player. Far from a uniform, monolithic hobby, video games are a constantly-evolving art form that encompass everything from online shooters like Fortnite (which doubles as its own social media hub) to the first-person exploration game What Remains of Edith Finch, which basically functions like an interactive novel. In 2022, just over 3 billion people played video games worldwide.
“Every parent has the right to decide what’s right for their family,” says Ferguson. “My message isn’t for every parent to go out and buy Grand Theft Auto V. […] Do what’s comfortable for you as a parent. Just be aware that it’s a moral decision, not an empirical one.”
What’s more, emerging research is now pointing to a host of mental health benefits that video games can provide. Playing social games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons was found to be positively associated with well-being, according to research from Oxford University published in 2021.
So go ahead and pick up that controller — in most cases, it’s not hurting anyone.
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