Violence Exposure in Video Games Essay

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The introduction of new technologies has often been associated with fear and distrust by citizens and policymakers who fear a new corrosive influence. Like television before them, video games have recently been the subject of intense scrutiny because of graphic violent content. Concerns that video games might be associated with or cause increased aggression, especially in children, have led researchers to investigate violent video game exposure and outcomes including aggressive behavior and aggressive cognition. The research literature on violence exposure in video games is comparatively small when compared to that of televised violence; however, there is growing evidence to suggest that exposure to violent video games is associated with increased aggression, although longitudinal data are lacking.


Data on content-specific video game use is scarce, and so it is difficult to know what percentage of time is spent playing violent video games specifically. However, ownership and use of video game consoles (including television set-based consoles such as the Playstation 3, the X-Box 360, and the Nintendo Wii, as well as handheld video game players such as the PSP and Nintendo DS) has been increasing for more than a decade, with more than 80% of households owning a video game system. Computer ownership and use has also risen to more than 80% of American homes, providing another platform for video game play. Although television viewing is still the number one media activity in most households, the proportion of time spent playing video games is increasing, with some estimating combined use of video game consoles and computer games at more than an hour a day. Survey evidence suggests higher levels of home computer and videogame use among older children and adolescents, particularly males, than among other demographic groups. Video game play is often combined with other media-centered activities such as television viewing and listening to music.

Parental Rules

Rules are likely to fit into one of two categories: regulation of time spent video game playing and regulation of video game content. In homes with video game systems, less than a quarter of parents have rules stipulating how long their children can play. Even fewer have rules regulating the content of their children’s video games. Rules regarding video game use decline as children grow older.

Types of Games

A wide variety of games with violent content is available and falls into several categories. A shortened list of those genres most associated with violent content is listed here.

First-person shooters. First-person shooters (FPS) emphasize action and shooting from the point of view of a character being controlled by the player. FPSs often emphasize finding powerful weapons and aiming and firing at enemies or other objects in the game environment. Examples of the genre include games from the Doom, Half-Life, and Halo series.

Third-person shooter. These games also emphasize action and shooting, but players control characters they see on-screen from a third-person perspective. Examples include Metal Gear Solid and the Tomb Raider series.

Fighting. Players fight a computer-controlled opponent or a human-controlled opponent in one-on-one combat. Examples are games from the Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Super Smash Bros. series.

Video game violence can often be categorized as containing human violence or fantasy violence, along a spectrum of graphical realism. In some games, the effects of violent actions, such as shooting a character, are graphically realized with blood and realistic gun shot sounds, while in other games the targets of violent acts simply disappear.

Rating System

Video games are voluntarily rated by the Electronic Software Rating Board (ESRB), an industry self regulatory organization that assesses game content. The ESRB evaluates many criteria, including graphical realism, human versus fantasy violence, inclusion of blood and gore, sexual content, and strong language. Video games are labeled with a rating that indicates their suitability for an age range, such as everyone, indicating content suitable for children 6 years and older, or mature, indicating content suitable for players 17 years and older. Ratings have generally not been found to impact parents’ purchase of video games for their children. However, parents with higher levels of education are more likely to check video game ratings. Additionally, children are often able to purchase games designated for older children at retail outlets.


Some critics believe video game violence to be a more potent factor in promoting aggression because of the level of interactivity involved. Unlike television or movies, where viewers are passive and unable to direct the content of what they are viewing, video game play allows for a level of controllability not seen in other media. Players are given control over where their characters move, what actions they choose to engage in, and even what their goals are. As a result, game play requires active concentration and physical and mental activity.

More often than not, violence is a necessary tool to accomplish game objectives and to advance to higher levels. In violent video games, players often make decisions about the type of violence they will inflict (shooting, punching, blowing up, etc.) and how they will inflict it. Increased computing capabilities allow game worlds that are more fully interactive; objects and people not central to game objectives can often be interacted with or manipulated. Thus, in games with open environments where players can choose to explore a world as they choose, it is possible to inflict violence on nonenemy characters. This possibility is typified in games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that allow players to punch, shoot, and runover bystander characters in pursuit of their goals. In contrast to television violence, game players are the agents and recipients of violence. Violence takes place in an environment without real-life conduct restrictions; thus games may be played without fear of consequences aside from those imposed by the game itself.

Theoretical Explanations

Several theories have been proposed to account for the link between violent video game exposure and aggression.

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory framework holds that learning occurs through direct and observational experiences. Individual behavior may be shaped by observing models, especially those who have been rewarded for their behavior. Players who observe game characters consistently rewarded for aggressive or violent behaviors may be more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors in the real world. Additionally, the closer a player identifies with a game character, the stronger the effect is likely to be.

Cognitive Neoassociation Theory

In this theory, the discharge of aggression, real or virtual, can increase aggressive behaviors and feelings. Within an individual’s memory, an associative network is formed from aggressive thoughts and feelings. Violent video game content may activate this network through related semantic informational nodes, priming aggressive ideas and emotions. The priming of these nodes can potentially transfer aggressive cognitions into real-world aggression.

General Aggression Model

Proponents of the general aggression model (GAM) argue that exposure to violent video games impacts individuals’ internal states, as reflected by cognitive, affective, and arousal variables. In a single-episode GAM, exposure to violent video games may increase aggression by priming aggressive cognitions such as aggressive scripts, by increasing arousal level, or by facilitating an aggressive affective state. In turn, this increased exposure can affect an individual’s abilities to appraise situations and to make decisions. The single episode model surmises that violent video game exposure could impact impulsive or thoughtful actions so that the likelihood of aggressive behaviors is increased.

A multi-episode GAM accounts for long-term effects by specifying that knowledge structures develop over time from daily observations and interactions in the real and imaginary (i.e., media, including video games) worlds. Repeated exposure to violent video games functions as additional learning trials where knowledge structures are rehearsed, differentiated, and made more complex. Frequent players of violent video games may experience changes in aggressive personality and aggressive behaviors in immediate situations through the learning, rehearsal, and reinforcement of these aggression-related knowledge structures.


A few researchers hold the view that violent video games can be used positively as a cathartic tool; game violence could provide an outlet for aggression that would be inappropriate or dangerous in the real world. In this theory, violent video games can be utilized to release stress, decrease arousal, and lessen the likelihood of transferring aggressive thoughts and feelings into real-world actions. Although this theory has not been extensively tested with video games, it has not been supported in the television violence literature and seems unlikely given accumulating evidence to the contrary.


  1. Anderson, C. A. (2004). An update on the effects of playing violent video games. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 113–122.
  2. Roberts, D., Foehr, U., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8–18 year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from
  3. Sherry, J. L. (2001). The effects of violent video games on aggression: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Research, 27, 409–431.

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