At 11:19am Mountain Daylight Time tomorrow, thirteen years will have passed since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began their heinous attack upon the students and teachers of Columbine High School. In addition to bullying, depression, and gun control, video games that depicted heavy violence became the target of widespread media coverage. Today, Anders Behring Breivik admitted to killing eight people in Oslo, Norway using a car bomb and 69 people who were on a retreat on Utoya Island. He testified he played the video game Modern Warfare 2 to train himself as a killer. Breivik also testified he played the video game World of Warcraft very frequently, sometimes up to 16 hours per day. Once again, violent video games are becoming the subject of media coverage and public scrutiny, but does playing violent video games lead to violent behavior?
As much as we want the answer to be clear, it simply is not. Research has shown fairly consistently that playing violent video games can increase aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors during the time they are being played. However, when it comes to acting violently after the player has shut off the video game system, the research begins to get murky. While some psychologists claim to see a clear link between playing violent video games and later taking violent action against other people, others claim this link does not account for personality traits or psychological disorders. The idea behind this perspective is that a child who is oppositional to authority and has limited social resources, such as quality relationships with friends and family, is already at significant risk to behave violently. Currently, research on the effects of violent video games on the player does not consistently address the psychological health of the participants in their studies.
When parents, teachers, and clinicians ask me about violent video games, I explain that video games are first and foremost a source of entertainment, but that we find it can be used as a tool. In fact, video games in general have been shown to decrease flashbacks in people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, increase one’s ability to quickly scan an environment with their vision to make a decision, and increase an adolescent’s ability to solve problems efficiently. Along the same lines, we can use another tool, like a hammer, to drive in nails when hanging a picture, pull nails out when we’ve made a mistake, and even to create art out of metallic materials. However, a hammer could be used to inflict pain or even kill another person. The question, instead, should not be, “Does using a hammer lead to violent behavior?” Nor should the question be, “Does playing violent video games lead to violent behavior?”
When used maliciously, a hammer or a video game can be used to further one’s goal of causing harm to someone else. However, the research simply does not support the notion that a teen who has rich social support and no diagnosable mental illness will eventually commit such horrifying acts as those committed by Anders Behring Breivik, Eric Harris, or Dylan Klebold, strictly because they play violent video games. However, I continue to encourage concerned parents and teachers to seek experts in this area to determine the strength of risk factors involved in the young person’s life, and whether changes need to be made in the kinds of video games he or she is playing.
Patrick O’Connor, Psy.D. specializes in treating adolescents and young adults. Dr. O’Connor developed Comicspedia, an online tool that assists therapists and educators in finding comic books to bring into therapy and the classroom. Stay connected by visiting Southeast Psych’s Facebook page and following @SoutheastPsych on Twitter.