Is it true that video games cause violent behavior?

The simple answer

The short answer is "maybe". Just like how the majority of people can enjoy a beer or some wine without becoming alcoholics, the majority of people can play video games without becoming violent. But there are going to be exceptions, and there are ways that the entertainment we consume can negatively affect us. This is true of any form of entertainment, though there is a prevailing belief that video games are more likely to be harmful.

This is probably one of the longest pages I've ever written, so I've tried to divide it into various sections to make it easier to digest. Hopefully this page can shed some light on the issue, though I doubt it will be enough to truly answer the question.

What makes violent games attractive?

Before continuing on, I think it's important to understand why people play violent video games. After all, these games sell millions of copies, so there's something people find attractive about them, and the idea that it's the violence is rather disturbing.

Speaking for myself, the most important aspect of any game is that it's fun to play. If I'm not enjoying a game, I probably won't continue playing it after I've finished reviewing it -- in fact, there have been a few cases where I've actually abandoned a review in progress because playing the game wasn't worth it. By the same token, if I really enjoyed a game, I'll probably play it several times over, even after I've written about it. But here's the thing: how graphic a game is doesn't really factor into whether I think it's fun to play or not. It's all about the gameplay.

Having said that, I'm not impressed by blood and gore, and if there's a way to disable it, I usually will. I don't think the graphic imagery improves a game, so why keep it around?

I don't know why other people chose to play very violent games, but I do have a guess. I've noticed that a lot of people only buy games that are from a series they are already somewhat familiar with. In other words, they don't feel around to see what's out there, they just go with whatever's popular. This results in the more well-known games getting most of the gaming community's attention, while many other games fly under the radar.

But there's also a catch to this. More than a few of the biggest names in gaming got there by being controversial. There's no such thing as bad press, so the more people rallied around protecting children from these controversial games, the more well-known the games became, and now that a lot of people have heard about them, the more likely it is that they'll buy the game, and the cycle simply continues.

This is one reason why it's a good idea to stray from the beaten path occasionally. For every well known violent game out there, there's at least a dozen non-violent games that are just as much fun. But since people aren't talking about them, you'd never know that these inoffensive games are out there. If you're interested, I have a little list that can help with this problem.

There is also another, much more serious, reason why some people are interested in playing violent games: violent people like violent entertainment. I'm not going to beat around the bush here. Evil people do exist, and they tend to gravitate towards things that reflect the evil in their hearts. This includes all forms of media -- movies, TV shows, comics, and even video games. But the games did not make these people evil; They simply fed an existing evil desire.

Can video games desensitize us to real world violence?

If you're around something often enough, you'll stop noticing or caring about it. This is known as being "desensitized" to something, and this ten dollar word tends to crop up a lot when people talk about how entertainment is affecting people. Despite how pretentious it sounds to use big words like that, it's really something we should be concerned about.

Video games, like any other form of media, do have the ability to desensitize us to various things. This becomes a problem when we start casually allowing things we shouldn't. For example, if you hang around people who swear constantly, you may stop noticing when people use foul language, or perhaps you'll even start using it casually yourself.

Since video games can depict some extremely unsettling things, people worry that players might become desensitized to violent behavior, and in turn, will be more willing to chose violent solutions to their everyday problems. I can see the logic here, but I don't agree with it.

In my experience, the current situation plays a big role in what we see as appropriate behavior. The choices we make in games make sense within the framework of the game we're playing, but may not make sense in reality or even other games. One example that readily comes to mind is how we approach public restrooms. In a game, players will usually visit the men's and women's restrooms in hopes that there will be useful supplies stashed away inside. After all, developers never include rooms unless there's a reason for the player to check them out. However, when it comes to visiting public lavatories in real life, a lot of people are very hesitant to even open the door, let alone go in and do their business.

Also, it's important to remember that the majority of video games don't provide a way for the player to choose a non-violent resolution to their conflicts. Since this option isn't available, players won't bother trying to find one. On the other hand, we have countless alternatives in real life, and most of us are only willing to use violence as a last resort.

No matter how terrible things can get on screen, I just don't believe that people would react to a real life situation the way we'd react to the same situation in a game.

Does frustration count as violence?

Games are supposed to be fun. That's kind of the entire point. But, many games can infuriate the people playing them, and this may lead to the player acting out in various ways. Young children are especially vulnerable to things like this, as they are still learning how to handle their emotions constructively.

So what causes these outbursts?

There are several possibilities, but the root of the problem is that video games follow their rules extremely rigidly. There's no negotiating when you lose, nor is there a way to call a time out when something goes wrong.

But it's not just that some people are sore losers. Video games aren't perfect, and there's a chance that something in the game will handicap the player unfairly. Poor controls can make things more difficult than they should be, unclear directions can waste your time, and badly designed mechanics can drive players nuts. Probably the most irritating thing a player can encounter is lag; there's very little a player can do to fix lag issues, and that lack of control really makes it worse. If you've ever needed to print something in a hurry, you can probably understand how enraging this sort of thing is.

Sadly, it's also possible for a player to vent this frustration on someone else. If someone is struggling with a video game and they are interrupted, they may yell at or otherwise lash out at the person who bothered them. Unfortunately, it's not always clear when someone is having trouble with a game, and this can make it seem like the outbursts come from nowhere.

So what do you think? Does stressing someone out count as turning them violent?

I'll leave that judgement call for you to make.

Before moving on, I'd like to point out that problems like these are usually linked to specific games, and if parents notice a recurring problem with their child's behavior, then I think they are justified in revoking access to that particular game. Maybe the player could try it again later when they've grown more mature, or perhaps it's best to disallow the game entirely.

Entertainment should be age-appropriate

Children learn by imitation. It's something we've all done, as it's a normal part of growing up. By experimenting with different roles, children develop healthy imaginations, learn to understand the world around them, and mature into well-rounded individuals. Throughout history, children have imagined themselves being ninjas, cowboys, robots, pirates, or just about anything else that captured their attention.

Since this is so commonplace, it's not a big stretch for someone to worry about who children chose to imitate. This is why there are many different "watchdog" groups out there who monitor different types of entertainment and warn parents when something is amiss. Many groups even impose strict rules about what children's entertainment can show, and if you're paying close enough attention, you might be able to spot some of these restrictions.

Parents need to ensure that their children have entertainment that is appropriate for their age. Children who consume inappropriate entertainment, may choose to imitate the inappropriate behaviors they've seen on screen, and that's where they get into trouble. Choosing age-appropriate movies and TV shows is easy enough, but for some reason, there's a blind spot when it comes to video games.

Many parents provide their young children with very inappropriate video games and then react with utter shock and horror when their children draw graphic images, talk about killing people, or include violent or sexual material when playing with other children. Some people will use this as proof that video games are evil or have some unusually powerful corruptive influence, but this isn't being honest about the situation. It doesn't really matter that it was a video game; when children indulge in inappropriate entertainment -- be it a TV show, movie, song, or a video game -- they will usually display inappropriate behavior afterwards.

So how can parents, who usually aren't gamers themselves, be sure that the games they provide for their children are appropriate? I've seen people ask for a content rating system to be created for video games, and it's a reasonable thing to ask for -- I mean, movies and TV shows are given ratings, and you'll find similar warning labels on inappropriate music. So why don't video games come with content warnings too?

Well, the thing is, they already do. In fact, official rating boards have existed since the 1990s. While it's not legally required for a video game to be rated, it's a smart business practice and nearly every famous game out there has been given a rating. Importantly, the infamously violent games that talk shows and watchdog groups keep using as examples have always proudly displayed their mature content warnings. The problem is that people don't know these ratings exist, and this needs to change.

If you're just now hearing about this rating system, I'd suggest taking a moment to learn about it via this nifty little page, where I go into some detail about the system used in the United States.

Why won't children share video games?

Despite how much we stress the importance of sharing, children (especially siblings) can be fiercely protective of their stuff, and children are far more stubborn about sharing their video games than usual. There's actually a really simple explanation for this, but it might not be obvious to someone who doesn't play video games themselves.

While co-op and multiplayer games are becoming more common than they used to be, video games aren't usually designed to be shared. Most games can only track the progress of one player at a time, and games that do allow for multiple saved games usually don't allow more than one person to play them at a time. If a second person joins in, it'll have to be by taking turns (which siblings absolutely hate) or it might come at the expense of the first player's progress.

Additionally, many multiplayer games require each player to have their own computer and copy of the game. That's not exactly feasible for most families, so in many cases, these multiplayer features are actually useless.

To be frank, if you really need to have your children share video games, PC gaming isn't going to work out well. Instead, you're probably better off purchasing the latest Nintendo console (currently the Switch) and picking up games featuring Mario and his friends. I don't review console games (unless they have a PC port), but I do know that Nintendo has worked very hard to corner the family entertainment market. Most of their best-known games are explicitly designed to be played by multiple people at the same time, hence my suggestion.

Addressing other common concerns

One of the difficulties of discussing how video games affect people is that many parents will attribute their children's misbehavior to whatever video game they happened to be playing at the time of the offense. If we're being honest, then we'd have to acknowledge that children are experts at getting themselves into trouble; they don't need video games to help them.

Kids get into things they shouldn't, teenagers rebel, and siblings constantly seek reasons to fight. This is how children behave, and it's been this way ever since Cain and Abel. Video games might be involved in a situation, but we should make sure that they really are the root of the issue before assigning blame.

For example, throughout the ages, children have "forgotten" to do their homework. Homework is rarely enjoyable and often thoroughly boring, so parents have always had to put in some effort to keep their children from getting distracted. Despite this being a problem in just about every household, people start treating it differently when the children are playing video games instead of getting their homework done. From the perspective of these parents, a toy or comic book might be a "distraction", but video games are an "addiction" or "obsession".

A similar issue can occur when children are asked to do a quick chore when they're busy playing a video game. It's not always possible to leave a game without being penalized for it, so the player might need a moment to reach a place where they can put the game down. This might not sound like a problem, but some parents turn it into one by getting angry when their children take what they feel is too long to put down their games. When this happens enough, it will eventually turn into a fight. Then their child will be punished, and the parents will claim this is more "evidence" of video games corrupting children.

Mind you, I'm referring to situations where parents don't give their kids time to respond to the request. If an hour goes by and the chore is still undone, there's a problem. It shouldn't take more than about five minutes to find a place where you can pause or save the game.

Yet another common complaint from parents involves playing video games at inappropriate times, like when it's time for dinner. This can be related to the above issue with leaving games, but it's much more likely that the player had misjudged how much time they had. Children aren't always that great at understanding how much time something will take, and sometimes start an activity without realizing that they don't have time for it. If you've read my page entitled Simple Rules to Keep Games Fun, you'll notice that one of these rules is about ensuring you have time to play before you begin, and it's for exactly this reason. This problem isn't generally a problem with video games as much as it's just a common mistake. The video game specific part comes in when the player doesn't want to stop playing -- and this time, it's their fault.

Unsupervised children and firearms don't mix

Now, there are plenty of reasons for someone to own guns, and I'm strongly in favor of the Four Rules and proper trigger discipline. I'm also educated enough on the subject to know that painting a gun black and adding some accessories doesn't magically change the gun itself, and that the "bad guns" that people want to ban are already illegal. In short, I'm generally reasonable about gun ownership and try to keep educated about the subject.

But I'm also going to tell you that giving children unrestricted access to guns, even their own, is a terrible risk.

You might be wondering why I'm talking about gun safety in the middle of an article about video games, but unfortunately, it's because we need to acknowledge that having guns is a serious risk. Children sometimes decide to play with real firearms, and today's entertainment can make guns look cool and exciting. When you combine easy access to real guns with a child's playful innocence, bad things happen. It doesn't matter if it's a movie, a TV show, a novel, or even a video game; anything that makes guns "cool" can encourage a disaster.

In order to be sure I had my ducks in a row while writing this article, I spent a lot of time researching real life cases where a child committed murder and their entertainment was blamed for it. This was easily the most upsetting and depressing information I've ever waded my way through, and while it ultimately didn't show much of a correlation between the child's entertainment and their actions, I did come across two cases where a child played a video game and then killed someone using a firearm.

In the first case, two kids competed for a high score in a game they both liked, and the loser responded by shooting his playmate using his hunting rifle. In the second, a boy had been left unattended while playing a video game. After he was done, he somehow found a handgun that his babysitter had brought with her, and began playing with it. Both incidents ended in fatalities, and in both cases, people rushed to blame the video games for corrupting the children. But is that really a reasonable conclusion?

Seriously folks. Store your weapons properly. Children are not mature enough to handle them responsibly, especially when they're angry. It only takes one bullet to ruin a family forever. Don't let it come from your gun.

Some insights into school shootings

School shootings were not a thing when I was growing up. We didn't need to worry about someone sneaking weapons into class, nor did we have active shooter drills. This has changed drastically in the last twenty years, and unsurprisingly, people want to understand where things went wrong.

When a school shooting happens, people immediately want to know what made the shooter different than the rest of us. Often, they'll have played violent video games, and this makes people wonder if there's a connection between their games and their actions. After all, our entertainment can influence us to some degree, so maybe the games gave someone some bad ideas.

But, when you stop and look things over, it doesn't seem like the games people played had much to do with the shootings themselves. In fact, you'll probably find that something strange is going on about how these events are reported.

According to statistics provided by the Department of Homeland Security, there have been over 1,600 school shootings in the United States since the 1970s. That's a lot of violence, but wait a moment. Does that figure sound right to you?

It doesn't to me, and it's not surprising. When most of us think of "school shootings", we think of horrible events like the Columbine Highschool Massacre, the Virginia Tech shooting, or Sandy Hook. In other words, we picture the noteworthy times teens went on a killing spree, massacring their teachers and classmates. But that's not what these 1,600 incidents are recording. According to the website, their only criteria was that a gun was fired somewhere near a school. This grossly inflates the numbers, and makes things look much worse than they really are.

Breaking it down, most of those shootings occurred when somebody escalated an argument or fight to the point were somebody drew a weapon. Several were just dumb accidents, like the time a safety instructor's gun accidentally discharged during a demonstration. A fair amount of these incidents even occurred on days when the school was closed or at night, but they were still reported as if they were another Columbine.

That's the problem with statistics; it's really easy to use them in a misleading and deceitful manner.

But, now that we know how the ~1,600 figure was calculated, we can use it in a legitimate way. Instead of using the loaded term "school shooting" to describe what this tally represents, we can call it what it is: the number of gun-related incidents that occurred near a school. Since people blame the school shootings on violent video games, let's compare the playerbases of some violent games with this 1,600 figure.

Let's start with Grand Theft Auto V. In this game, the player character lives a life of crime, the obvious example being the felony the game is literally named after. You can also commit murder, solicit prostitutes, perform "hits" for other criminals, and so on. This game has sold over 140,000,000 units. If every one of those 1,600 gun-related incidents was caused by someone who played GTAV, then that would mean only 0.01% of the people who play GTAV went on to fire a gun at school. The other 99.99% of players just continued on like normal.

How about Mortal Kombat? This is one of the games that was involved in the big video game moral panic from the 1990s, and it's still one of the most recognizable violent games out there. The most recent release, Mortal Kombat 11, is even banned in many countries due to its extremely violent content. As of October 2020, Mortal Kombat 11 has sold over 8,000,000 units. Thus, if every one of those 1,600 incidents were caused by people who played Mortal Kombat 11, then just 0.02% of the player base became murderers.

This trend continues regardless of the game you pick. No matter what violent game you choose, the statistics just don't support the claim that playing violent games makes people turn into school shooters. There are simply too many people playing these violent games to support that conclusion. Something else is behind the rising number of gun related incidents in our schools today.

But, while I did read up on the subject to create this article, I don't feel comfortable guessing what that something else might be. Every incident is unique, and every shooter has their own reasons for choosing to do what they did. Ultimately, I'm only talking about school shootings here because of how often people claim that video games are the problem. In reality, it's just not that simple.

All in all, are games harmless?

No.

Any entertainment that we consume has the potential to affect us in a negative way, and it's important to understand that. For example, as I mentioned above, games that feature a lot of swearing may encourage players to swear more often. Another example would be that games with sexual content can cause an otherwise chaste player to think about immoral things.

When it comes down to it, St. Paul had good reason for writing Philippians 4:8, and we need to heed his warning.

Now, this page only talks about the potential for video games to inspire violence, as this is a very contested issue that needed to be singled out and discussed on its own. However, this is not the only way that games can cause trouble. You can find more ways to avoid problems with games on the page entitled Simple Rules to Keep Games Fun, or you could continue on to the page about video game addiction.

The latter page talks a newer problem that tends to be limited to university students and young adults who are living on their own, so while it may not apply to your household, it would still be a good idea for concerned parents to read that page over. If nothing else, it'll help ease some worries about little kids and their gaming habits.