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Effects of Video Games on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors During Development

Thomas A. Kooijmans
Rochester Institute of Technology

In the past 30 years, video games have had a major impact on how people spend their leisure time. The first generation of video games were nothing more than simple geometric shapes, one or more of which could be controlled by the game player. With the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980s and Sony's Playstation in the 1990s came new generations of games, with better graphics and more capabilities. Until the recent resurgence in interest in video games in the past decade, research on the topic was minimal. The greatest recent contribution has been Anderson and Bushman's (2002) general aggression model (GAM), which explains both the development of aggression and individual differences in susceptibility to the influence of violent video games. Because of the many biological and physical changes that occur during puberty, exposure to violent games should affect the processes that operate within the GAM. In order to control the effects of video game violence, one must first understand the effect it has on the brain, including in the areas of aggression and hostility.

In the past 30 years, video games have had a major impact on how people spend their leisure time. The first generation of video games were nothing more than simple geometric shapes, one or more of which could be controlled by the game player. Each generation of games always uses the newest technologies available, leading to more impressive graphics and realism. Along with these new technologies come more realistic violent acts and situations. Also with each new generation of video games, people are spending more time and money on them. In this article the term video games will be used to define any interactive multimedia in which the human game player has control over the main "character" in a simulated game world. This can include all types of video games such as those played on arcade machines (like the Tekken series), home consoles (like Sony's Playstation), hand-held consoles (like Nintendo's Gameboy) and personal computers (like the Doom series).

The video game industry has grown by leaps and bounds since it's inception in the 1970s. One of the industry's giants, Nintendo, sold an average of three games every second from 1983 to 1995. That adds up to over one billion games. That is equal to one game for every teenager on earth, or enough games that, laid end to end, scan the entire equator two and a half times ("Nintendo sells one billionth game," 1995). An industry war has begun to see who can build the newest, fastest, most popular game.

The explosion of the video game industry in the past decade has had many people questioning the content of the games being released. The main concern is that of violence and violent acts within the games. The newest generation of games is so realistic that the line between "simulations" and video games has greatly been blurred. They are so realistic that the United States government has even released a game, entitled America's Army, to help train the next generation of military specialists. In the late 1990's a large number of high-school shootings were blamed on violent video games, the most devastating being the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. These shootings raise a valid concern that violent video games may be affecting the aggression of children and developing adolescents.

The term aggression is very general and can refer to and influence a large number of personality traits and behaviors. Connor, Steingard, Cunningham, Anderson, and Meloni (2004) defined two specific types of aggression. Reactive aggression is an angry, defensive response to a threat or frustration. An example of this would be getting revenge on someone that has done you wrong. Proactive aggression is a deliberate behavior that is controlled by external reinforcements and is usually a means of reaching a desired goal. An example of this type would be robbing a bank to get money. There have yet to be any studies that take into account these two specific types, but most studies in the past have focused on both in some way.

A Brief History of Violence in Video Games

Video games made their first appearance in the early 1970s. The first generation of games used simple shapes and had minimal interaction. The first game, Pong, attempted to simulate ping pong using two rectangle's as paddles, and a small square as the ball. The paddles could be controlled by a human player. This game displayed no violent acts or situations though. The first of popular games to be considered violent was Pac Man. This game consisted of a small circle with a mouth that tried to eat pills and destroy ghosts. Although this hardly seems violent by today's standards, it was one of the first games to involve destruction of any kind.

With the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980s and Sony's Playstation in the 1990s came new generations of games, with better graphics and more capabilities. Game developers were no longer as limited by their media, and tried to simulate reality as best as possible. New innovations in technology meant more realistic violence and gore. All these new capabilities meant developers could focus more on details also. One example is the game Soldier of Fortune, released in 2000 for the personal computer. In this game each character has 26 "kill zones," or areas that the character can be hit by a bullet (Gentile, Lynch, Linder, & Walsh, 2004). The game also employs a first-person perspective, making it seem as though the player is seeing through the eyes of the in-game character.

Past Research

Until the recent resurgence in interest in video games in the past decade, research on the topic was minimal. There were few correlations found, and several had conflicting results. There were three studies which used self report data. Dominick (1984) found that the amount of video games played had a positive correlation with one of three measures of aggression among tenth and eleventh grade boys. However, Gibb, Bailey, Lambirth, and Wilson (1983) found no relation in a larger study of 12-34 year olds. Another study found a correlation between use of arcade games and teachers' ratings of aggressiveness (Lin & Leper, 1987). Due to the conflicting results of these studies, no conclusive correlations could be drawn. Most data seemed to show a positive correlation between videogame play and aggression, yet Gibb et al.'s (1983) study showed otherwise.

There were few experimental studies done on the topic at this time also. Cooper and Mackie (1986) found fifth grade girls to be more aggressive in one of two measures when playing a violent game versus a non-violent game. This data however conflicted with Graybill's (1987) study of second though sixth graders in which he found no greater aggression when playing a violent versus non-violent game. Once again, due to the conflicting results, no conclusive evidence could be drawn to help support that aggression and videogame play are related.

Unfortunately these early studies were not much help in determining a relationship between aggression and video games. These experimenters helped to show that there was a relationship, but there was not enough evidence to prove it strongly in either direction. With the resurgence of interest in violent video games in the past decade, this has changed. This resurgence has been due to a number of factors, but the greatest of which has been the large number of high school shootings that have been blamed on violence in the public media. There were over a dozen incidents of violence, most involving death, that have been blamed on violent video games between 1997 and 2003. These ranged from beating deaths to shooting sprees to sniper shootings, and were not limited to the United States.

Until this resurgence, research on the subject of video games was highly lacking. Considering the amount of time young children and adolescents spend playing them, much more research is needed. Recent contributions have given us a much clearer understanding of the relationship between aggression and video games. They have shown that the relationship may be much more complex than originally thought. The greatest contribution in recent years has been Anderson and Bushman's (2002) general aggression model (GAM).

The General Aggression Model

The GAM attempts to explain both the development of aggression and individual differences in susceptibility to the influence of violent video games. According to the GAM, both situational and personological variables interact to affect a person's internal state (Anderson & Bushman 2002). The internal state contains cognitions (thoughts), affects (feelings) and arousals (physical). All three of these items influence each other, and each has and effect on an individual's interpretation of an aggressive act. Once the brain's interpretation is complete, decision-making processes start to occur.

The GAM also states that violent video games have both short term and long term effects. In the short tem, the games are a situational variable, causing an increase in aggressive cognitions, affects and arousal. The long term effects are just hypothesis, as insufficient research has been done to test its effect's. This is due to the fact that research on this topic is fairly new, so no longitudinal data is yet available. Anderson and Bushman (2002) hypothesized that violent video games influence behavior by promoting aggressive beliefs and attitudes, thus creating aggressive schema, aggressive behavioral scripts, and aggressive expectations. They also claim that it desensitizes individuals to aggression. This can be seen on a large scale if one looks at the progression of violence in video games over the past 20 years. When Super Mario Bros. was first released in the 1980s, it was considered a violent game. Even though the game was highly fictitious and featured a very cartoon-like look, the main character broke blocks and attempted to destroy his enemies by jumping on their heads. The Super Mario Bros series hardly seems violent by today's standards. Recent games such as Mortal Kombat feature realistic graphics and controls, but also extreme blood and gore. In this game you fight a human-like opponent in attempt to wear him down. The match is finished with a "Fatality," a move which kills your opponent in a very graphic fashion. Common "Fatalities" include burning opponents alive, cutting their heads off, and even ripping out their spinal cord using the skull. Games like this have greatly affected today's standards of a violent game.

The GAM helped to show how complicated of an issue the relationship between violence, video game, and aggression really is. Gentile et al. (2004) claim it has an additive effect. This means that those whom already are high in certain factors, mainly hostility, are much more at risk to become more aggressive due to influence by violent video games. Those subjects who are rated as low in hostility have been found to have almost no affect on their aggression levels when influenced by playing violent video games.

Formulation of the GAM greatly helps us in understanding this complex relationship between aggression and violent games. Kirsch (2003) was the first to apply the GAM specifically to adolescents. Because of the large amount of biological and physical changes that occur during puberty, exposure to violent games should affect the processes that operate within the GAM. These processes are already in place at adolescence, but during this time they are still influenced by current environments (Kirsch 2003). During adolescence there is a general increase in the aggression (Lindemann, Harakka, & Keltikangas-Jaervinen, 1997). This aggression combined with the exposure to violent media will reinforce and increase aggressive cognitions, affects and arousal. This interaction has a negative affect on the internal state, leading to increased aggression. The effects of this exposure are greater during early adolescence than middle and later adolescence. This is because the amount of physiological arousal is greatest during this time (Spear, 2000).

Considerations for Future Research

Considering the popularity of video games much more research needs to be done on this issue. Chambers and Ascione (1987) report that 100% of elementary and high school students surveyed had played video games at least once. That was more than 15 years ago. This is an obvious indicator that video games have entered the mainstream media, and that more research needs to be done on the effects of video games on adolescence. The majority of research thus far has been on the negative effects of video games, mostly due to the violence contained within. But the exact relationship is still undetermined, so research must continue. However, there are also many who hypothesize that video games can have a positive effect on youth, and believe that it is worth time and effort to explore these possibilities. Following are a few areas of research this author believes our time is best spent:


Although the majority of video games are violent in nature, there are many emerging that take an intellectual standpoint. These include puzzle games such as the wildly popular Tetris. These types of games stimulate the mind by presenting challenges and puzzles to the player rather than enemies and worlds. Many play them just to keep the mind active and alert. This type of game-play has brought about the idea that video games can be used as a form of therapy. Some of them are relaxing and soothing, and they can be specifically altered to meet an individual patient's needs. A video game can be created to help a specific type of person, whether it is to help connect certain memory cells in the brain, or just help stimulate brain activity in general. Due to the programmatic nature in which video games are created, their possibilities of creation are endless. Gardner (1991) attempted the first research on this issue. He successfully used video games as a form of psychotherapy in children. This success has stimulated much research on this issue, but mostly dealing with mentally-ill or brain-damaged patients.

Eye-Hand Coordination

Playing many of the modern video games requires some sort of skill. The player is required to do quite a bit to "win." There are many things going on in the game at once. For example, the character may be running and shooting at the same time. This requires the real-world player to keep track of the position of the character, where he/she is heading, their speed, where the gun is aiming, if the gunfire is hitting the enemy, and so on. All these factors need to be taken into account, and then the player must then coordinate the brain's interpretation and reaction with the movement in their hands and fingertips. This process requires a great deal of eye-hand coordination and visual-spatial ability to be successful. A relationship has been shown between increased videogame playing and improvements to eye-hand coordination, as well as manual dexterity, and reaction time (Drew & Waters, 1986). Some true experiments would greatly help to support this claim.


A simulation is interactive multimedia used to try to simulate some real world phenomenon. Many video games are nothing more than simulations. They are very closely related, and much research that refers to simulations could most likely apply to video games as well. The most well known simulations are flight simulators, which attempt to mimic the reality of flying a plane. All of the controls, including airspeed, wing angles, altimeter, and so on, are displayed for the player, as well as a visual representation of the world, and are updated in real time. For many years large corporations have used simulations to help train and better their employees. However, simulations have so much more possibilities. The United States government has released a game entitled America's Army, which simulates a real war-time experience. The government hopes to use it to help train the next generation of recruits.

Another use for simulations is to mimic the effects of nature. Many modern games use particle systems, thousands of tiny particles in three-dimensional space, which mimic natural phenomena such as rain, fire and smoke. Another popular use is to simulate flocking birds and schooling fish. An excellent example of this is seen in Pixar's Finding Nemo. With deeper research, these simulations can give us a better understanding of our world and our selves.


The advancement of video game research in the past decade has greatly helped our understanding of its effects on development. Unfortunately though, more research is still needed. The video game industry has grown to the proportions of the movie industry, and shows no sign of stopping. With each generation of games come more realistic graphics, more violence, bigger world, and more possibilities. In order to fully control the effect that it has on our children, we must first better understand the effect it has on the personality and behaviors, and not just in the areas of aggression and hostility. As we reach this understanding hopefully developers can create games which will help our youth, expand their minds, and shy away from the current trend of violence in video games.

Peer Commentary

Are We Talking About the Same Violence?

Joel D. Collinson
Rochester Institute of Technology

Koojimans determined that the Pac Man and Super Mario Brothers video games were violent. Although having said that, he indicated that they were not violent by today's standards. He suggested that these games be termed "violent" because they involved the obvious destruction of objects through physical means of smashing, punching, eating, and so on. Many people will remember that the Pac Man game is simply a chase-or-flight game in which the main character, Pac Man, gobbled up "pills" and avoided ghosts until it ate a special treat that would give it a temporary confidence boost to chase down the ghosts and swallow them whole. Now, if those who have played this game were asked whether it was violent, most of them would probably answer that it was a fun game where their adrenaline would reach the peak when some evil ghost caught up behind Pac Man. The question would be: how could the game be termed violent when its players exclaimed that it was an awesome and fun game?

Koojimans probably only meant to label those games violent to create a relation between video game violence and aggression. This raises a new question: what exactly is the definition of violence in video games? This could be a topic for future research, because Koojimans provided many variations to the meaning of the word violence, and each variation could be responsible for different effects on aggression or could have no effect at all. All of that confirms Koojimans' admission that the interrelation between video game violence and aggression is indeed complex.

Back to the question: How could a video game be termed violent when players exclaim that it is an awesome and fun game? The underlying reason I ask this question is to confirm the possibility that the players were already desensitized to the effects of violence in video games. There is also the possibility, however, that the video games are so much fun that the concept of violence just simply disappears from players' minds. Clearly, there could be a fine line between claiming that chasing a ghost is an indication of violence and claiming that the game is so much fun that it is not violent at all. Perception may have something to do with it. Yes, perception has a lot to do with naming which gave is labeled violent and which is not. A game could be seen as very violent for someone who comes from an earlier generation, whereas it could be seen as fun for someone like an extreme gamer. Perception could be responsible for the debate as to why some gamers become aggressive and others do not after playing a violent video game. Once again, perception could be a topic for future research.

I noted one obvious flaw in the explanation for how a violent video game could have a negative effect on gamers. The results Kooijmanns cited from studies on the effect of violence in video games on aggressiveness were correlational in nature. In other words, they did not establish a causal relation between violence and aggressiveness. It is possible that gamers play violent games because they already have personalities that are hostile or aggressive. Or it could be the other way around, in that gamers become more aggressive as they play more violent games. Consequently, it would be inappropriate to wave a gigantic flag saying that violence in video games causes aggression or hostility. Clearly, a variable that we could not measure or imagine could always be responsible for the increase in aggressive behavior. As Kooijmans said, longitudinal studies on effects of violence on aggressive behavior have not concluded, and as long that is true, there is no way to determine whether violent content in video games leads to increased aggressive behavior.

Kooijmans mentioned that exposure to violent media reinforces and increases aggressive tendencies that already exist in an adolescent. How is that possible? One could argue that adolescents discover a way to spill out their rough emotions through aggressive behavior as a mechanism to alleviate those emotions. Yet there is still the question of cause-and-effect directionality. An angry adolescent may come to like violent media with its negative effects. Violent media could reinforce and increase aggressive behavior, but it may be the anger that led the adolescent to like violent media.

The major limitation of Kooijmans' argument is the lack of demonstrated causality between violent content in video games and aggressive or hostile behavior. This limitation is deepened by confusion over the definition of violence. Other than that, Kooijmans helped ongoing research on video game violence to stand out by calling for more research.

Peer Commentary

Video Game Violence and the Emerging Psychopath

Sean P. Neubert
Rochester Institute of Technology

This paper investigated the correlations between video game exposure during puberty and aggressiveness. The primary focus of this investigation was the general aggression model (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). I will argue that aggressive and violent behavior are related to antisocial personality disorder.

Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by impulsivity and indifference to the suffering of others. Aggressive behavior is quite frequent among those with antisocial personality. There are two theories regarding the origin of these behaviors, one that claims that it has a biological basis and one that claims that it is learned socially. It is possible that such behavior is related to violent video game usage.

The general aggression model claims that violent video games desensitize people to aggression. A majority of violent video games provide as simulation dangerous stimuli, such as monsters or hostile enemies with weapons. Psychopaths often do not show the same fear response to threatening stimuli (this is a physiological or biological difference). Continually playing games in which the only positive outcome is the violent demise of enemies could positively reinforce antisocial behavior and perhaps even cause such a physiological difference over time. Some researchers have claimed that exposure to antisocial behavior can be a cause of antisocial behavior in others (Levenson, Kiehl, & Fitzpatrick, 1995). So, are the causes of these behaviors biological or learned?

Individuals high in hostility are more likely to become aggressive when exposured to violent video games, whereas individuals low in hostility are less likely to become aggressive when exposed (Gentile, Lynch, Linder, & Walsh, 2004). This may lend some insight into the differing theories on the causes of antisocial behavior. Individuals high in hostility have a biological predisposition toward antisocial behavior and, under given circumstances, will learn these behaviors.

Thomas A. Kooijmans's "Effects of Video Games on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors During Development" provides valuable insight regarding the correlation between video game violence and aggressive behavior. The author furnished an excellent overview of this topic, looking at past research and present endeavors. This is undoubtedly a socially relevant and exciting field, and future research is needed.

Peer Commentary

Positive Effects of Video Games on Development

Noah J. Stupak
Rochester Institute of Technology

The idea that video games have a detrimental effect on children who play them is widely contested. Though providing excellent coverage of these effects, Kooijmans' "Effects of Video Games on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors During Development" leaves out many of the positive aspects of video games. The paper does mention their use for therapy, hand-eye coordination training, and simulations, but it does not cover any actual developmental effects. Video games teach many skills to the developing child. Examples of these skills include problem-solving abilities, perseverence, pattern recognition, hypothesis testing, estimating skills, inductive reasoning, resource management, logistics, mapping, memory, quick thinking, and reasoned judgments (Sheff, 1994). Many of these skills are abstract and require higher-level thinking, which schools do not often teach children. By including a way to choose one's own level of difficulty in most, if not all, video games, one can tailor the degree of intricacy of the tasks in the game to meet one's own skills. After the tasks are completed at an easy level, a child will feel motivated to attempt a higher degree of difficulty. By slowly ramping up the difficulty, the child is able to accomplish goals and learn while increasing his or her self-efficacy.

Although the typical video game child is seen as a loner and anti-social, video games may very well teach the child social skills. If the parents are attentive of thier child, video games can be a good bonding activity. Most likely the child will be more proficient at the game than the parent, which allows the child to teach the parents for once. This reversal of roles allows the parent to better understand the child's skills and talents, and allows the child to learn to help others and share knowledge. In addition, many games that involve multiple players encourage children to work cooperatively to achieve their goals. The children learn to listen to the ideas of others, formulate plans together, and distribute tasks based on skills. Video games create hierarchies of skills and abilities, creating a setting that benefits the development of leadership. A child who is able to manage the tasks necessary to succeed would be more apt at leading work-groups at school. Recently, gaming online with other people has created entirely new types of vast, intricate social networks. Children consider people they have never met to be close friends. By knowing someone strictly through a game, the child learns of the person without any superficiality. By not seeing the their friends, children do not take into account race, gender, or nationality. It is a truly open friendship based on common interest.

Finally, violent video games may act as a release of pent-up aggression and frustration. There is no harm in a child's shooting another person in a video game, but there would be serious repercussions if that act was committed in real life. By allowing the child to channel his or her anger in a constructive way, video games are able to reduce the child's stress and act as a positive outlet. Children no longer throw tantrums or fight with siblings but passively act out their frustrations in a virtual world. Many parents advocate sports such as football as an aggression outlet, which is much more brutal than playing a game. In sports, children are encouraged to physically hurt someone. As Tapscott (1998) noted, "Engaging the child in an interactive experience, developing hand-eye motor skills, giving the child a sense of accomplishment, keeping the child off the streets, and just encouraging having fun are all judged by many parents to be valuable or, at worst, benign" (p. 162).

Author Response

Getting to the Next Level

Thomas A. Kooijmans
Rochester Institute of Technology

I would like to start by thanking my peers for commenting on my paper. All three made excellent points that contribute to the ideas I was trying to express in my paper. All three commented on how I was not able to determine a causal relation between aggression and video game violence. Unfortunately, all research thus far has been correlational. This is why I stated that more research and experimentation needs to be done in this field. But I hope it is not limited to aggression, as there are many other possibilities.

Collison raised some very valid concerns about the definition of violence. In the past, violence was determined simply by the destruction of objects, be they bricks, ghosts, or little mushroom men. By today's standards, however, some of this hardly seems violent. So what exactly is violence? This would require research of its own, but would help video game research tremendously. With the constant changes in society, however, this is something that is always evolving. Desensitization due to movies, the news, and video games themselves has greatly changed the way we view media violence. Collison's solution, however, does not fully take into account the magnitude of violence in today's games. As an example, look at one of the industry's top hits, the Grand Theft Auto series. The majority of people who play this game would agree that it is a "fun and awesome" game, or else it would not be selling millions of copies. But it is also one of the the most violent games of all time, allowing the player to steal cars, kill anyone in sight, and run from the police. Nevertheless, although Collison's solution may not be the best, his proposal is excellent. There needs to be a common definition of violence for research to continue properly.

Neuburt related aggression to antisocial personality disorder. Long-time exposure to any violence--be it from video games, movies, television, etc.--will cause desensitization. Neuburt showed how this can eventually lead to psychopathic tendencies. This is a common belief and is something that is highly researched with aggression and violence in video games. But once again, no research has shown any type of causal relation.

Stupak brought up some of the more positive effects that video games may have. I strongly agree that they can have a positive effect on a person's development and personality. I mentioned a few ways in which they could be used in a positive light, but Stupak mentioned many more. I believe this is where the future of psychological research in video games truly lies. With the current technology, the use of interactive multimedia, such as video games, is limitless. And the industry does not appear to be slowing down. Instead of continually battling the industry with claims of violence leading to aggression, research could be much better spent on finding ways in which we can use games to have a more positivie effect on its players.


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