Do video games cause violence?

There's a lot of debate about video games. Most of this debate seems to boil down to one simple question: are video games likely to make someone violent?

This is a very loaded question, and while most people just want a simple yes or no answer, giving one without explanation is just asking for trouble. Gamers often feel attacked or slandered by people who say 'yes', while concerned parents and moral guardians feel like we're allowing children to be harmed when people answer 'no'.

The more I've thought about it, the more I notice a few things that may provide some answers. Coming at this from the perspective of a life-long gamer and from a concerned Christian, I can see some merit in both sides of this argument. In my opinion, the answer is ultimately yes, games do cause people to get violent. But you need to recognize that there's a lot of things going on here. Just being exposed to a video game doesn't automatically make a person different than they were a few moments ago, and not everybody reacts the same way to the same situation.

Let's take a moment and look at this critically.

Statistics do not support a direct correlation

The biggest weak spot in arguing that playing games causes violence is that statistics don't back it up. If playing a game where committing crimes are rewarded made a person more likely to commit those crimes in real life, then statistics ought to reflect this. In other words, the more people play that game, the more those crimes should be committed.

Such a direct correlation would be easy to spot. Look at Grand Theft Auto for a moment. It features shooting police, stealing cars, performing "hits" and many other types of serious crimes. There have also been over 150 million copies of the game sold worldwide. That's an impressive number, but it can be hard to picture just how large a number that is compared to say, the general population. According to census information, the combined populations of California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia add up to roughly 150 million people. If there was a one-to-one relationship between a game and the crimes it depicts, there should be a pretty massive crime wave caused by Grand Theft Auto alone.

That many murders, thefts and other felonies suddenly occurring around the world would be frighteningly obvious, so you don't need to check statistics to see that they haven't been happening like this appears to predict.

Define "violence"

The next big hurdle that needs to be cleared is that it's not entirely clear what you're arguing when you say games cause "violence". The word "violence" refers to a destructive or harmful action, but it doesn't specify how destructive the action is. It could be as benign as a powerful sneeze or as harmful as a mass shooting. That's a pretty broad range of possible outcomes.

A better way to address this concern would be to rephrase the question. Instead of asking whether or not games encourage people to be violent, let's ask whether or not games can cause people to become irritable or argumentative. People that are irritable have a proverbial chip on their shoulder and are easily provoked -- and thus they are more likely to respond violently than your everyday person.

So, can games make a person irritable or argumentative?

Yes, they certainly can. This is why I say that games can cause violence: if the circumstances are right, video games can make a person pretty irritable. However, as much as moral guardians want to blame specific games, specific genres or games as whole, it's not what games depict that causes the problem. A game may feature lots of graphic violence and yet cause no trouble at all, while a game that appears squeaky clean makes people froth at the mouth.

The problem isn't what the game looks like or what concepts it involves. It's the gameplay itself that leads to trouble.

What you are really seeing

Most of the time, the reason people get irritated while playing a game is because they are getting frustrated. People generally vent frustration in ways that look like anger, so it's pretty easy to confuse the two. It's even easier to confuse them when you're not familiar with what the person is experiencing.

Games are supposed to be fun. But, they can also be difficult and frustrating. In fact, games sometimes make the player so frustrated that they throw a small fit and quit the game outright. This happens enough that gamers have even coined a term for it -- it's called a ragequit.

Various things can make a game frustrating. These include trying to play at difficulty level that is too high for the player's ability, poor game design, attempting to earn a difficult achievement, or simply playing it for too long.

Players are known to vent their frustration in various ways. Some of the typical examples include swearing at the game or slamming controllers. Once the player cools off, they're fine and might not even remember how agitated they were.

With this in mind, the first thing a player can do to prevent problems is to watch themselves and take breaks when they need to do so. Some groups recommend taking a short break every 15 minutes, but this might not be practical for every game.

Non-gamers can contribute to the problem

Unfortunately, non-gamers can make the situation worse. If a player is getting frustrated by something in the game, interrupting them will likely make them more frustrated than before or provoke them enough to actually make them angry. When this happens, they might turn and vent that frustration on you. This is not an acceptable way to behave, but it's predictable and preventable. Also, it's possible that the player isn't aware that they've just snapped at you, so be careful about how you handle the situation -- specifically, try to defuse it rather than punish. If they aren't aware that they did something wrong, any punishment appears to be arbitrary and unjustified from their point of view, and this just escalates the entire situation.

Another thing to be aware of is that the player is not always able to pause or otherwise leave the game. Parents that expect their children to just drop what they're doing and do something else right away cause more fights than they resolve. For example, if they need to take the trash out, let them get to a stopping place first. Most of the time, getting to a safe stopping place requires less than five minutes, but it's not always instantaneous.

Lastly, some parts of games require the player to pay careful attention. This includes boss fights, cutscenes and instances where the player is being given instructions via audio. Interrupting a player during these can really hurt their performance and enjoyment of the game. In worst cases, they may have been left without any clue as to what to do next. Frankly, this will really irritate the player and can easily cause a fight.

If you need to interrupt someone playing a game, get their attention and wait for them to pause or reach a point where they can stop before continuing.

On the other hand, if the reason you're interrupting them is because there's something in real life that they need to do (such as going to the table at dinner time), then it's the player's fault for not planning their time properly. Interrupting someone is rude enough, but it's just as impolite to start something when you know you don't have time for it.

Further reading

For a more detailed guide on dealing with this issue and other problems that may arise out of playing video games, see Simple Rules to Keep Games Fun and Safe.