What’s the first question parents ask when their kid comes begging to play a violent shooter-type game? Is there blood?
Kids are often good at making strong arguments for why they should be allowed to play non-gory but murderous games like “Fortnite” and “Among Us.” Even in “Minecraft,” there are skeletons, zombies and pillagers to kill. Kids will say they understand the difference between games and real life. And besides, they’ll argue, these popular games are cartoonish—cute, even.
Do the children know best here? If so, why do parents still have a nagging suspicion that these games are harmful in some insidious way?
Decades of research haven’t established a firm link between violence committed in games and violence committed in real life. Yet questions persist about the subtle effects that violent games have on developing minds. The questions have become more pressing as the pandemic drags on. U.S. consumers spent nearly $19 billion on videogames in the fourth quarter of 2020, a 26% increase from the prior-year period, according to the NPD Group. “Fortnite” and “Minecraft” were among the best-selling games in the quarter.
On the one hand, videogames have been a saving grace during a time of little other social interaction. Yet we still worry about how all of this time spent shooting, stabbing and bludgeoning friends, strangers and bots alike will affect kids.
A study published last month has raised fresh questions about aggression and violent videogames. Unlike past studies, this one followed adolescent gamers for a decade. Researchers at Brigham Young University found players with consistently moderate levels of violent videogame play were more linked to higher aggression levels than those who started out playing a lot but tapered off, or who played at low levels with slight increases over time.
The authors concluded that “sustained violent game play over time may be more predictive of long-term outcomes as opposed to high violent game play that fluctuates dramatically over time.” However, they acknowledge limitations to the study, including the fact that the players’ aggression was self-reported.
“The videogame research is very hotly contested and debated and most of the research is very short-term, so it’s hard for parents to know what to do,” said Sarah Coyne, the study’s lead author. She suggests parents consider several factors when determining what kind of games to let their children play. “I’d look at their personality, how they’re doing in life, who their friends are,” she said.
The study didn’t distinguish between cartoonish violence and graphic violence. Most violent games that existed when the study began were of a more-graphic nature, such as “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto” and “Gears of War.” In recent years, games such as “Fortnite” have featured a more-sanitized version of violence, providing an alternative to bloody first-person shooter games. “Fortnite” earned a “T” rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, meaning it is considered appropriate for teens, rather than an “M,” for mature players. That has given some parents more comfort in allowing even pre-teens to play it.
Numerous studies have found that cartoon violence is no different for children than realistic-looking violence, and some studies specifically comparing cartoonish and graphic violence in videogames have found the impact on aggression is similar.
So does that mean violence of any kind in videogames is bad for kids, or neutral at best? The consensus appears to be that neither cartoonish nor realistic violence in games translates to real-world violence.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all.
director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, said parents shouldn’t be worried about their kids committing criminal acts as a result of playing violent videogames, but rather about the more subtle impacts to their psyches. He pointed to studies that have shown people being less empathetic and helpful to others after playing violent games or watching violent films. “There are small-to-moderate effects on aggressive thoughts and actions, but violent videogames are not the single determinative thing,” he said.
Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University and co-author of a book, “Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy,” said he is concerned about the aggressive behavior that is rewarded in videogames, and the impact it has on shaping players’ worldview. In one of his studies, kids who played both cartoonish and realistic violent videogames were more likely to want to blast an opponent with a loud noise. “The way you think shifts the odds of the way you’ll act,” he said.
But what about the social, cooperative nature of many games? “The human brain is capable of learning a lot of things at once,” Dr. Gentile said. “If the game has aggressive elements, you’ll learn those, and if you’re practicing cooperation, you’ll learn that, too.”
Also, frustration can be mistaken for aggression, said Rachel Kowert, a psychologist and research director for Take This, a nonprofit mental-health organization for gamers and game developers. “You might see your child slam their mouse when they lose in ‘Fortnite’ and that looks like aggression but it’s more likely the frustration from the competitive nature of the game,” she said.
She points out that while some kids display frustration and anger after playing videogames, juvenile delinquency has declined over the same period in which violent videogame consumption has increased. “The takeaway is that the kids will probably be all right no matter what they’re playing, as long as it’s age-appropriate,” she said.
Dr. Coyne was surprised by one major finding in her study, which may provide comfort to worried parents. “We predicted that violent-videogame playing would have a long-term negative effect on empathy and pro-social behavior, and we didn’t find that,” she said.
What You Can Do
Here’s what to consider when deciding whether to let your kids play violent videogames.
Consider the risk factors. Rather than making a choice based solely on a game’s graphics or rating, look at your child’s risk factors for aggressive behavior. Exposure to violence at home and peer delinquency are greater risk factors, according to Dr. Kowert.
Protective factors, such as having good friends and loving parents, are just as important to consider, Dr. Gentile said. “For each risk factor, the odds of aggressive behavior increase, and for each protective factor, the odds go down,” he said.
Study the nuances of the game. Not all violent games are the same, and even within games there are different ways to play. In “Minecraft,” for example, kids can choose the “peaceful” level of difficulty, where they can play without encountering hostile mobs. Some games can be played alone or with others, and in some multiplayer games people can choose to play with or against each other.
Emphasize critical thinking. Don’t underestimate the value of asking questions while you watch your kids play—or while playing with them. “Ask, ‘Why did this character do that?’ ‘Why is it shown like this?’ ‘At school if someone acted like that, what would really happen?’ ” Dr. Gentile said. “When parents talk to their kids about what they’re seeing and hearing, it can mitigate almost all the negative effects.”
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