VIDEO GAME VIOLENCE AND OFFLINE AGGRESSION
Christopher L. Groves and Craig A. Anderson
Technological progress over the past several decades has revolutionized human life and
interaction. Media are no longer consumed solely through the family-shared television or
radio. Instead, tablets, smart phones, home computers, and video game consoles are each
capable of providing an unprecedented access to television shows, movies, and video games.
Indeed, the data support the notion that media use is quite high. According to Rideout et al.
(2010), youth spend approximately seven and a half hours per day consuming some form of
media. Such high consumption quickly inspires questions about what psychological effects
will result from the access brought by the digital age.
Media use often allows viewers and players to engage with rich stories that contain
characters, themes, lessons, and portrayals that make lasting impressions. It would be naïve to
think that viewers merely observe media passively without relating to the content in
meaningful ways. Viewers identify with characters and learn from their mistakes and
successes. For this reason, research has often focused on major content themes within media
and on their effects on subsequent behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and more. Unsurprisingly, one
of the most prevalent themes in modern media is violence. No group is immune to this
exposure. In a survey by Worth et al. (2008), 71% of 14-year olds in the United States and
even 35% of 10-year olds reported viewing at least one extremely violent movie. For children
living in homes without rules regarding violent content, this percentage rose to 87%.
Groves, C. L., & Anderson, C. A. (2015). Video Game Violence and Offline
Aggression. In E. Aboujaoude & V. Starcevic (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age:
Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp. 86-105). New York: Oxford University Press.
Similarly, Gentile (2008) found that over 90% of video games rated as appropriate for
children age 10 and older contained violence.
Since Albert Bandura’s (1965) classic bobo doll study, the foundations of observation
theory have provided a convincing theoretical framework through which the effects of violent
media use are understood. In this study, children who observed a model aggressing toward a
toy bobo doll were found to spontaneously replicate this aggressive behavior. However,
numerous theoretical advances have revealed that the relationship between viewing violence
and subsequent aggressive behavior is a complex one in which numerous psychological
processes are at work, processes that can be well understood with the use of modern social-
cognitive theories. This chapter will focus on the relationship between exposure to video
game violence and aggressive behavior.
AGGRESSION AND VIOLENT MEDIA
The study of violent media often focuses on aggressive behavior as an outcome. Before
proceeding, it is important to consider how researchers define aggression. Aggression is
commonly defined as “any behavior directed toward another individual that is carried out
with the proximate (immediate) intent to cause harm. In addition, the perpetrator must believe
that the behavior will harm the target, and that the target is motivated to avoid the behavior”
(Anderson and Bushman, 2002, p. 28). Violence, on the other hand, is considered an extreme
form of aggression (Anderson and Bushman, 2002). In research contexts, the presence of
media violence is often characterized by the presence of aggressive content – that is,
characters harming others who wish to avoid such harm. Interestingly, in one experimental
study by Anderson et al. (2007), individuals playing video games with lower-level aggressive
content (no gory violence) demonstrated increases in aggressive behavior that were at least as
large as those shown by participants who played a more graphically violent game. Because
the findings of this study suggest that there is little or no difference between the effects of
lower- and higher-level aggressive media content and because most published studies have
not distinguished between such types of content, we will not make that distinction throughout
this chapter and will use the terms aggression and violence interchangeably.
Several content analyses have concluded that a large proportion of the contemporary
mass media contains violence (e.g., Yokata and Thompson, 2000; Thompson and Haninger,
2001; Thompson et al., 2006; Linder and Gentile, 2009). Furthermore, hundreds of studies
have been conducted on the effects of violent television programs and video games (Wartella
and Reeves, 1985; Paik and Comstock, 1994; Bushman and Huesmann, 2006; Anderson et
al., 2010). The consistent finding, accepted by a wide array of scientific societies, is that
violent media use can be a risk factor for increases in aggressive behavior and a host of
aggression-related variables (American Psychological Association, 2005; American Academy
of Pediatrics, 2009; International Society for Research on Aggression, 2012; Society for the
Psychological Study of Social Issues, 2014). This link has been observed across gender, age
groups, and cultures (e.g., Anderson et al., 2003, 2010).
Importantly, the effects of violent media have been demonstrated across a variety of
aggression measures. One commonly used measure of aggression is Taylor’s Competitive
Reaction Time Task (TCRTT). This task involves participants competing against an
ostensible other participant in reaction time trials (the participant wins a trial by clicking a
box faster than his or her opponent). Prior to each trial, the participants select an aversive
noise volume (60-105 dB) and/or duration (0.5-5 seconds) to administer to their opponent if
they beat the opponent on that trial. Several studies from different labs using different
versions of the TCRTT have demonstrated that brief violent video game play leads
participants to administer more punitive noise blasts than those who played an equally
exciting nonviolent game (e.g., Bushman and Gibson, 2011; Engelhardt et al., 2011;
Anderson et al., 2004).
In another aggression measure, the “hot sauce paradigm,” researchers explain to
participants that they are taking part in a two-part study. The first part involves media use; in
the second part, participants select foods for another person to eat. They are informed that
the person dislikes spicy food but are given the opportunity to administer an amount of hot
sauce that this person must eat. In studies utilizing this paradigm, violent video game play
consistently leads to increases in the amount of hot sauce administered to the other person
(e.g., Barlett et al., 2009). Other studies have examined the effects of violent media on verbal
aggression such as insulting another person (Parke et al., 1977; Krcmar and Farrar, 2009); on
children’s aggressiveness during a period of free play or at school (Silvern and Williamson,
1987; Anderson et al., 2007); and even on the frequency of committing seriously violent or
delinquent behaviors as an adolescent or adult (e.g., Huesmann et al., 2003; Boxer et al.,
2009; O’Brien and Moceri, 2009; DeLisi et al., 2012).
As already mentioned, the effect of violent media content is very robust and has been
demonstrated across many studies. Research has therefore begun to shift to studying the
psychological processes that may give rise to this effect. Currently, the General Aggression
Model (GAM; Anderson and Bushman, 2002; Anderson and Carnagey, in press) is the most
comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding violent media effects. This model
integrates a host of overlapping theories of human aggression, including social-cognitive,
personality, and biological factors. It has been applied to understanding the observed
increases in aggression resulting from a number of stimuli including temperature change,
provocation, and pain, and ranging from relatively minor forms of aggression to major
psychopathologies involving violence (Gilbert and Daffern, 2011).
Figure 1 about here
The General Aggression Model describes both short- and long-term processes
involved in the development and maintenance of aggressive behavior patterns. The single
episode begins with two forms of input: the person and the situation. Contained within the
person are all characteristics of the individual that carry across situations. These include
biological dispositions (e.g., testosterone levels, genetic propensities toward aggressiveness)
and personality characteristics (e.g., general hostility, perceiving others’ ambiguous behavior
as aggressive, trait aggression, and attitudes and beliefs that support or inhibit aggressive
responses). The second form of input is the situation itself. This factor includes all elements
within an immediate social encounter that can influence aggression – facilitative ones such as
provocation, warm temperatures, or violent media use, and inhibitory ones such as being in a
church or receiving a compliment. Importantly, both the person and situation variables can
also include protective (or inhibiting) factors that affect aggression. For example, aggression
is inhibited when individuals find themselves in a setting where aggressive responses are seen
as especially inappropriate (e.g., a funeral). Similarly, person factors such as having low
testosterone or being female are protective against aggression. In fact, aggression is often best
understood within a risk and resilience approach in which risk and protective factors interact
to produce aggressive (or non-aggressive) responses (Gentile and Bushman, 2012).
Within the GAM, the person and situation factors influence the internal states, which
refer to the person’s affect, cognitions, and arousal. For example, when provoked (e.g.,
bumped in a hallway), individuals often experience increases in aggressive affect (e.g.,
anger), aggressive cognitions (e.g., aggressive fantasizing), and arousal (e.g., increased heart
rate). These internal states are highly interactive and may reinforce or inhibit one another. For
example, following provocation, individuals may interpret the provocation as unjustified,
which can then lead to increases in anger and arousal.
These internal states feed into decision-making processes whereby the individual
appraises the situation. The initial appraisal is usually very fast, effortless, and automatic, and
may be made without conscious awareness. After an initial appraisal is made, the individual
decides whether it is sufficient. If it is, an impulsive behavioral response occurs (e.g., a verbal
insult). If the initial appraisal is deemed unsatisfying and if the individual possesses sufficient
time and cognitive resources, reappraisal occurs, in which the individual considers alternative
explanations of the initial harmful event and alternative behavioral options (Barlett and
Anderson, 2011). When a behavioral option is considered appropriate, a thoughtful action (or
inaction) occurs. It is important to note that reappraisal does not guarantee a non-aggressive
response. For example, an initial appraisal may be relatively benign (e.g., harm was
unintended), but reappraisal may lead to a decision that the initial harm was intended, which
in turn leads to an aggressive response.
When the behavioral response is selected and enacted, the ongoing situation is
influenced and feeds back into the situational input during the next episode (see Figure 1). In
other words, the GAM presents a type of behavioral feedback loop in which the situational
and individual variables interact, affecting internal states and decision-making processes
before a behavior is enacted, which then affects the situation. The newly changed situation
feeds back into the situational input variable and initiates a new cycle. Furthermore, with
repeated cycles, long-term learning processes are also affected. For example, if an aggressive
response “works,” the person is rewarded for the whole decision-making process that led to
the aggressive response, leading to changes in beliefs, expectations, and so on. This is in
agreement with social learning and social-cognitive theories.
This cyclical process helps us better understand the violence escalation cycle (Figure
2). Within this cycle, two individuals or two groups (such as high school cliques, political
parties, or even nations) engage in increasingly aggressive responses following provocation.
An initial, triggering event is perceived by the acting party as unintentional, justified, and
relatively mild. However, the second party perceives this action as intentional, unjustified,
and harmful and retaliates in a way that it believes is justified. The first party perceives this as
an unjustified over-retaliation and reacts in a way it believes is justified retaliation. Thus, the
cycle begins anew, and each act of retaliation is more serious than the preceding bout of
violence. These aggressive behaviors continue to escalate until one party is no longer able to
retaliate or a successful intervention occurs (Anderson et al., 2008).
Figure 2 about here
Because the broad nature of the GAM allows its application across an entire range of
human aggression phenomena, it serves as a solid theoretical foundation for understanding
media violence effects. The text below describes some of the more specific theories within
the GAM that can help explain aggressive outcomes following violent media use.
A major influential theory that contributes to the explanatory power of the GAM is the
cognitive neo-association theory proposed by Berkowitz (1990, 1993). This theory posits that
aggression occurs when individuals experience aversive events, which leads to negative
affect, which in turn primes a host of aggression-related knowledge structures. Perhaps one of
the most valuable aspects of this theory is its knowledge structure approach to an
understanding of how aggression-related cues increase aggression.
According to this approach, cognitive concepts, emotions, and behavioral scripts are
interconnected in memory (Collins and Loftus, 1975), forming a web of associations that are
used to process information and assist in making decisions about optimal behavioral
outcomes in any given situation. The theory states that activation of a given concept will
automatically activate related concepts in memory. For example, the word “murder” will
strongly activate concepts such as “kill,” “attack,” or “gun” but will likely not activate
unrelated concepts such as “banana.” When we are exposed to images of violence, violence-
related concepts are subsequently activated, and this effectively primes the mind to utilize
This theory has received empirical support from numerous psychological studies. A
direct way to test it is to examine the accessibility of aggressive thoughts following violent
video game play. One popular method is to offer an opportunity to complete fragmented
words that produce aggression-related or aggression-unrelated words. For example, the word
fragment “ki_ _” can be completed to produce the word “kill” or “kind,” and individuals with
greater accessibility to aggressive thoughts are more likely to complete this fragment to
produce the word “kill.” Several studies have demonstrated this increased accessibility
following violent video game play (e.g., Carnagey and Anderson, 2005; Barlett and
In another study, participants were asked to play one of three versions of the same
game. The games were identical except that one had a violent content. In one version, players
shot at enemy soldiers; in another, they watered flowers; and in the final version, they clicked
shapes. Following game play, participants completed an association task. The results showed
that participants who had played the violent version were more likely to associate aggression-
related terms with their self-concept (Bluemke et al., 2010). Other studies have measured
aggressive thought accessibility using dramatically different methods but produced similar
results. These include increases in amount of violent content provided in a story completion
task (Anderson et al., 2003), increased speed of aggressive word recognition (Bösche, 2010),
increases in rating aggressive and ambiguous word pairs as similar (Bushman and Anderson,
2002), and even increases in negative attitudes toward Arab and Muslim populations after
playing a game that included terrorist themes (Saleem and Anderson, 2013).
As mentioned, these effects are thought to invoke fundamental learning processes.
Therefore, the same processes that account for the harmful effects of violent games should be
at play when playing video games increases positive behaviors. For example, playing video
games with prosocial content seems to reduce the accessibility of aggressive thoughts
(Greitemeyer and Osswald, 2009) and studies have demonstrated that playing prosocial video
games increases prosocial behavior (Gentile et al., 2009; Prot et al., 2014).
The cognitive processes described above are at least partially responsible for the
behavioral outcomes that have been observed (Anderson and Dill, 2000; Carnagey and
Anderson, 2005; Barlett and Anderson, 2013). Indeed, a recent longitudinal study found that
the aggression-enhancing effect of violent video game play was wholly mediated by changes
in aggressive thinking patterns (Gentile et al., 2014). Findings such as these indicate that the
positive and negative effects of video game play are two sides of the same coin, i.e., that
aggressive and helping behaviors that result from related content exposure seem to be
mediated by the same underlying learning processes.
Related to the concept of knowledge structure development and priming, “script theory”
(Huesmann, 1988) states that individuals organize much information in a way that helps
guide behavior within specific social contexts, much as a theatrical script guides actors’
behaviors. When in a restaurant, for example, individuals are fully aware of the socially
appropriate behaviors associated with the place. Patrons enter the establishment and wait to
be seated, they order drinks, then food, pay, leave a tip, and leave. Script theory elucidates the
ways in which seemingly disconnected knowledge structures (e.g., those related to aggressive
thoughts) are organized to guide behavior.
For example, violent media often portray violent actions in ways that consistently
reward aggression. Normal real-world negative consequences in such television shows and
movies are underrepresented. According to such scripts, action movie heroes rarely
experience, first hand, the collateral damage associated with their actions. In video games,
this is extended further by rewarding players with points, in-game currency, or virtual items
for killing enemies. Such portrayals make aggressive actions appear more rewarding and less
damaging than in reality. A parallel that one can draw is with aggressive fantasizing, which
often involves rehearsing mental imagery in which violent actions are rewarded. Indeed,
television violence has been associated with aggressive fantasizing in males (Viemerö and
Paajanen, 1992). In addition, individuals who imagine themselves acting as the violent
characters they view are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior (Leyens and Picus, 1973;
Konijn et al., 2007). Other research indicates that for those exposed to high levels of
violence, aggressive fantasizing is associated with increases in aggressive behavior (Smith et
al., 2009). In line with this research, people exposed to high levels of media violence are
more likely to interpret ambiguous situations in a hostile manner (Anderson et al., 2007;
Möller and Krahé, 2009). For example, individuals exposed to media with a highly violent
content were more likely to believe that a person in a fictional scenario who bumped
someone while taking a drink was doing so intentionally (Möller and Krahé, 2009). In this
case, individuals are, in a sense, filling out the missing details of a situation by utilizing the
aggressive scripts developed as a result of violent media use.
Violent media are naturally exciting (Zillmann, 1971; Anderson et al., 2004) – this is one
reason why many of us enjoy such content in the first place. Unsurprisingly, increases in the
severity of media violence are associated with increases in arousal. For example, research has
found that seeing blood in video games is associated with increases in heart rate (Barlett et
al., 2008). Similarly, auditory cues such as screaming victims, also produce arousal, as
measured by increases in the galvanic skin response (Jeong et al., 2012). Further, more
visually realistic games also produce increases in arousal, as measured by blood pressure,
body temperature, and skin conductance (Ivory and Kalyanaraman, 2007; Barlett and
Individuals who become aroused do not experience an immediate return to baseline
when the arousing stimulus is removed. Instead, such arousal is carried into future situations
and can affect the subsequent behavior. When individuals encounter a provoking situation
following an arousing event, their residual arousal may be attributed to the provoking
situation, instead of the previously arousing event. This effectively enhances aggressive
reactions in a process known as “excitation transfer” (Zillman, 1971, 1972). Therefore, when
individuals consume violent media, whether passively (as in television and movies) or
actively (as in video games), they may become more aggressive in situations that occur
immediately afterwards, because the arousal produced by such media may be transferred to
these situations. For this reason, the best studies of media violence and aggressive behavior
control for arousal either by including equally arousing violent and nonviolent games or by
assessing and statistically controlling for arousal (e.g., Anderson et al., 2004).
Desensitization to violence
When individuals are repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus, they may habituate to that
stimulus, that is, it fails to influence them to the same degree as when first presented. This
habituation process occurs when individuals are repeatedly exposed to violent imagery and
affects emotional reactions and empathy for the victims (Funk et al., 2004). The typical
anxiety-related responses to violent imagery are important in inhibiting aggression. However,
when the normally aversive reactions that individuals have to images or thoughts of violence
are diminished, inhibitory effects are no longer present, aggressive thoughts and behaviors
increase (Bartholow et al., 2005, 2006; Engelhardt et al., 2011; Krahé et al., 2011), and
helping behavior decreases (Bushman and Anderson, 2009).
Critically, this desensitization effect may lead individuals to perceive real life violence
as more acceptable following violent media use (Mullin and Linz, 1995). In other words, the
desensitization toward violence is not limited to other forms of fictional violence. In a study
by Carnagey et al. (2007), individuals randomly assigned to play a violent video game were
less physiologically aroused by subsequent viewing of real-life violence than nonviolent
game control players. Other studies found that viewing sexually violent films led individuals
to experience less empathy for the victims of such violence and attribute more blame to them
(Mullin and Linz, 1995; Dexter et al., 1997). Further, it was reported that high exposure to
media violence produced brain activity normally associated with the processing of emotional
information and preparation for aggressive behavior (Kronenberger et al., 2005; Mathews et
al., 2005; Weber et al., 2006; Hummer et al., 2010; Strenziok et al., 2010; Bailey et al., 2011).
The desensitization process has been found both in brief, short-term contexts, as well
as in studies of long-term effects. For example, habitual violent video game players
demonstrated reduced brain activity normally associated with exposure to aversive stimuli
and violent imagery (Bartholow et al., 2006). Similarly, long-term violent media use has been
positively associated with favorable attitudes toward violence and negatively associated with
empathy with victims (e.g., Funk et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 2010; Prot et al., 2014). Both
effects can be seen as resulting from the reduced emotional and physiological responses to
Aggressive beliefs and attitudes
Media violence may also influence propensities toward aggression through changes in the
way individuals perceive behaviors of others and interpret social information (Crick and
Dodge, 1994; Dodge, 2011). For example, a major determinant of whether one is to respond
aggressively is his or her interpretation of ambiguous behaviors and stimuli. Thus, individuals
who tend to interpret an ambiguous situation (e.g., a bump in the hallway) in hostile terms
(e.g., believing that a bump in the hallway was intentional) are more likely to respond
aggressively (Orobido de Castro et al., 2002). This tendency, known as the hostile attribution
bias, is greater among frequent violent media users (Möller and Krahé, 2009) and has been
demonstrated in the short-term experiments (Kirsh, 1998; Bushman and Anderson, 2002) as
well as longitudinal studies (Anderson et al., 2007; Möller and Krahé, 2009). The
longitudinal studies have found that violent media use increased hostile attribution biases
which, in turn, increased aggression.
Media violence can also influence other beliefs that individuals have about people and
the world around them, including beliefs about appropriate ways of reacting to others (Funk
et al., 2004; Bushman and Huesmann, 2006). For example, in a longitudinal study by Möller
and Krahé (2009), participants read a brief vignette in which a confrontation was described
between them and another same-sex peer. Participants were provided with a list of possible
reactions to this scenario and rated how appropriate each response was. Individuals who
engaged with violent video games at baseline were more likely to endorse more aggressive
responses subsequently, and this in turn predicted increases in aggression. This finding
suggests that violent video games can produce changes in individuals’ beliefs about what
constitutes normal reactions to confrontation, i.e., that aggressive responses are appropriate
Recent research has suggested that screen media exposure might also increase violence
through its effects on attention, executive control, and impulsivity. For example, in one
longitudinal study, the amount of exposure to television at ages 1 and 3 predicted attention
problems at age 7 (Christakis et al., 2004). Indeed, research linking hours of watching
television by young children to later attention disorders led the American Academy of
Pediatrics to recommend that children under 3 years of age not view any screen media at all.
In recent years, some reports have claimed that playing fast-paced violent games can
improve attention (e.g., Green and Bavelier, 2006). But what the research actually shows is
that playing such games, which requires players to quickly notice and respond to visual
changes throughout the screen, is associated with better visuospatial skills. That is, players of
violent games practice attending and responding to rapid changes on a computer screen and
get better at such visuospatial tasks. Indeed, several experimental studies suggest that as few
as 10 hours of training in such games can significantly improve visuospatial skills
(Subrahmanyam and Greenfield, 1994; Green and Bavelier, 2006; Achtman et al., 2008;
Basak et al., 2008; Boot et al., 2008; Green et al., 2010), though some studies have failed to
replicate this finding.
There is a distinction to be made between attention paid to visual stimuli that are
inherently attracting attention and attention necessary to perform basic cognitive tasks. The
latter is impaired in individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
impulsivity, or executive control problems. It is possible, but remains to be proven, that the
attentional sensitivity to peripheral stimuli that violent games seem to improve may be
distracting and interfere with successful maintenance of focused attention on stimuli or
thought processes that are not inherently attention-grabbing. For example, video game
players are often required to attend to multiple peripheral stimuli, and the fidgeting child
nearby may automatically draw their attention and distract them from a reading task. Indeed,
several studies have reported a correlation between video game play and attention problems
(e.g., Mistry et al., 2007; Bioulac et al., 2008; Gentile, 2009; Bailey et al., 2010, 2011), with
some longitudinal studies providing stronger causal evidence (Swing et al., 2010; Gentile et
Of critical relevance to this chapter, the amount of screen media exposure – especially
exposure to violent media (television and video games) – is associated with high levels of
impulsive aggression through its effects on attention (Swing and Anderson, in press).
Importantly, this effect was found even after statistically controlling for increases in
aggression as a result of screen media’s effects on aggressive cognition and affect (Swing and
Anderson, in press). In other words, the effects of screen media on attention and the
subsequent effects on aggression seem unique and independent of the other processes
described above (Swing and Anderson, in press).
DEBATE ON VIOLENT MEDIA EFFECTS
Despite the wealth of evidence in support of an effect of violent media on aggression-related
outcomes, such evidence often goes underreported in news media (Bushman and Anderson,
2001). Consequently, many in the public believe that the “jury is still out” on the influence of
violent media. Furthermore, a small group of researchers have been claiming that there is no
effect of violent media on aggression-related outcomes (Ferguson et al., 2008; Ferguson and
Kilburn, 2009, 2010; Ferguson and Savage, 2012; Elson and Ferguson, 2013; Ferguson,
2013; Ferguson and Dyck, 2013). Most of the concerns cited by these critics are
methodological in nature, and we will highlight some of the more prominent criticisms
mentioned in the literature and how they have been addressed.
One criticism is that violent media research induces participants to respond desirably in order
to please researchers. Thus, research participants presumably understand the purpose of a
given study and behave aggressively following violent video game play (or violent television
viewing) in order to provide support to the researchers’ hypotheses (Ferguson, 2013;
Ferguson and Dyck, 2013). While this criticism has potential to invalidate findings, it is
common practice to assess participants’ understanding of the research and exclude
individuals who are aware of the study hypothesis from data analyses (e.g., Bartholow and
Anderson, 2002; Anderson et al., 2004; Konjin et al., 2007; Anderson and Carnagey, 2009;
Gentile et al., 2009). Further, there is good reason to believe that even if they know the study
hypothesis, participants may be more likely to change their behavior to disprove the
hypothesis given that aggression is a socially undesirable behavior. Indeed, empirical
research dedicated to addressing this possibility seems to confirm this notion, as
demonstrated by a study in which aggressive behavior in video game players was reduced
when the measure of aggression was too transparent (Bender et al., 2013). In other words,
these individuals seemed motivated to disconfirm, not prove, the hypotheses of the
Frustration and arousal
Another criticism is that variables such as frustration and arousal confound effects of the
violent media. According to Ferguson and Savage (2012), “Studies where experimental
subjects are exposed to violence, and control subjects are exposed to something calm or
boring, may report statistically significant differences between groups due to the differences
in excitement or arousal elicited by the material rather than the violent content itself” (p.
131). This criticism can only apply to the short-term effects of violent media. As already
noted, several longitudinal studies demonstrate a long-term effect of violent media on
aggressive tendencies. Direct tests also demonstrate that the effect of violent content occurs
independently of frustration. For example, in one study (Williams, 2009) individuals were
randomly assigned to play one of several games in which frustration and violent content were
manipulated. While frustration was found to increase aggression, so too was violent content,
and thus frustration cannot solely account for aggression-related outcomes seen in other
research. In still other studies, arousal is one of the most commonly controlled variables,
either statistically, or through the pilot testing of video games in which equally arousing
games are selected and compared (e.g., Anderson et al., 2004; Arriaga et al., 2008; Anderson
and Carnagey, 2009). Indeed, starting with Anderson and Dill (2000), many experimental
studies of violent video game effects have controlled for a host of potential confounds (e.g.,
frustration, difficulty, enjoyment, competitiveness) and still found the hypothesized effects
(e.g., Arriaga et al., 2008, Barlett et al., 2008; Anderson and Carnagey, 2009; Williams,
It has also been suggested that effects of exposure to violent media may be “better explained
as a byproduct of ‘third’ variables, such as exposure to family violence and innate violence
motivation” (Ferguson et al., 2008, p. 2). In other words, violent media do not increase
aggression; instead, aggressive children and adults are attracted to violent media. This
“attraction hypothesis” has received considerable empirical attention, but two main types of
research have refuted it. First, experimental studies in which participants are randomly
assigned to play a violent or a nonviolent video game control for individual differences in
levels of aggressiveness. As shown in several such studies, violent game play causes
significant increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, and
desensitization/lack of empathy (Anderson et al., 2010). Second, longitudinal studies have
controlled for initial levels of aggressiveness in order to rule out attraction effects (e.g.,
Ostrov et al., 2006; Anderson et al., 2007, 2008; Möller and Krahé, 2009; Gentile et al., 2011,
2014), yet their results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to violent media is a
risk factor for aggression.
Measures of aggression are invalid and not standardized
This criticism is targeted primarily (but not solely) at the use of Taylor’s Competitive
Reaction Time Task (TCRTT) as a measure of aggressive behavior. The measure has been
described above, in the section on aggression and violent media. According to Ferguson
(2013), measures such as the TCRTT “do not measure aggression, but vaguely approximate it
in some way” and “children (and adults) wishing to be aggressive do not chase after their
targets with . . . headphones with which to administer bursts of white noise” (p. 6). However,
measures similar to the TCRTT have been found to demonstrate high levels of validity and to
be closely associated with relevant variables, including alcohol consumption, self-reported
physical aggression, and even the genetic markers linked with aggression (Giancola and
Measures such as the TCRTT have also been criticized on the grounds that aggression
can be coded in multiple ways (e.g., through the number of high blasts, consideration of
intensity or duration indices only, or an average intensity and duration). Such variability and
lack of standardization may allow researchers to choose the coding method that suits their
particular hypothesis (Ferguson, 2013). This criticism suggests that studies using the TCRTT
should produce larger effect sizes than those that do not use it; contrary to this, the largest
meta-analysis (Anderson et al., 2010) found that use of the TCRTT actually produced slightly
smaller effect sizes. Second, in many studies multiple coding methods derived from the
TCRTT have been used, and all had a tendency to show the same effects.
There are hundreds of empirical studies dedicated to testing the effect of violent video game
play on aggression (Anderson et al., 2010). While, as a whole, this literature reveals largely
consistent effects, there are studies in which no differences in downstream effects are found
between violent and nonviolent games. Some find such contrasting findings as evidence that
the issue is still not settled as to whether violent video game play affects aggression. It is
important, however, to note that these contrary findings are largely derived from a very small
number of studies (e.g., Ferguson et al., 2008). A recent meta-analysis (Greitemeyer and
Mügge, 2014) compared the effect sizes observed in studies published by major proponents
of violent video game effects on aggression (Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman) with effect
sizes reported in studies by the opponents of these effects (Christopher Ferguson) and effects
sizes from all other relevant studies. It was found that the Anderson and Bushman studies
produced average effect sizes of 0.19, while effect sizes of the Ferguson studies averaged at
0.02. Critically, the effect sizes produced by the Anderson and Bushman studies were
comparable to those of the studies by other “neutral” researchers (0.20).
There are many possible reasons why smaller effects are observed in some studies.
For example, studies in all fields produce varying effect sizes simply based on the usual
random variation in samples. Another reason involves variations in methods and measures.
One particularly serious possibility in the video game domain is that some researchers may
fail to identify and exclude inappropriate study participants and may use methods (e.g.,
transparent aggression measures) that produce null effects. As already noted, there is also a
related issue that some video game players may be strongly motivated to disconfirm the
hypothesis that violent video game play increases aggression (Bender et al., 2013).
The ways in which media, particularly violent media, influence viewers (and now players) is
an old question, with a literature nearly as old as television. The theoretical accounts of how
and why aggressive outcomes arise following violent media consumption are relatively solid,
as they are built upon decades of research. Nevertheless, criticisms are frequently leveled at
this literature, demanding evidence criteria beyond what is expected in other areas of
psychological study. Those criticisms have been addressed, often with sound research (e.g.,
Bushman et al., 2010; Huesmann, 2010; Sacks et al., 2011). Although disagreement in
research can fuel scientific progress, undue critical discourse has the potential to undermine
the public’s ability to understand the effects of violent media. Of course, dissent should not
be stifled, and the only way forward is to conduct more research to further refine our
understanding of the issues at hand and help foster more informed consumer choices.
The authors disclose no relationships with commercial entities and professional activities that may
bias their views.
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Figure 1. Short-term processes within the General Aggression Model
Figure 2. Violence escalation cycle
A harms B
B harms A
A harms B
B harms A