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How Violent Video Games Lead to Aggressive Behaviours

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There is much debate as to whether violent video games (VVG) do or do not lead to aggressive or violent behaviours (AVB). VVG are games that represent violence as the only or best solution in resolving conflict. Aggression refers to feelings of anger or violence, without necessarily acting on the feelings. Violence refers to the use of physical force with the intent of injuring someone or something. Conflict stems from two camps of beliefs; one that VVG do not lead to AVB, due to its temporal effects and other third-party variables. The other, that children learn AVB through VVG, and that the nature of the game itself increases aggression temporarily and perhaps in later years. In this essay, I will be arguing that VVG do lead to AVB.

One argument that VVG do not lead to AVB is the idea that VVG only shows a short-term increase in aggressive thoughts and feelings after playing VVG, but that it does not rise to levels of AVB. The study conducted by Polman, Castro and Aken (2008) aimed to test differential effects of playing versus watching VVG on real-life aggressive behaviours. They hypothesised that playing a VVG would lead to higher levels of aggression than watching a VVG, or playing a non-VVG. Participants were a total of 28 boys and 28 girls, aged 10 to 13 years old. Participants were randomly and approximately equally distributed across game conditions of active violent (played a VVG), passive violent (watched VVG being played on a television), active non-violent (played a non-VVG). The VVG was a street fighting game, which depicted blood when players punched each other. The non-VVG was a racing game. Both games were rated as equally competitive. Each condition lasted for approximately 10 minutes. After which, participants engaged in two free play sessions after exposure to the condition. Other children then completed a questionnaire whereby they named participants who displayed certain forms of physical, verbal or relational aggressive behaviour, such as hitting, fighting or teasing someone. Children were asked to evaluate the intentions for the aggressive acts, and acts were only coded as aggressive if children evaluated them as deliberately hostile. Peer nomination as a measure of aggression was a strength of the study, as it reflected higher accuracies of the aggressive behaviours. They found that playing VVG led to higher levels of aggression, in comparison to merely watching VVG among boys only. However, boys were similarly aggressive in both active and passive violent conditions and the non-violent condition. Hence, boys, regardless of exposure to violent or non-violent media, were all as likely to display aggressive behaviours. It was also found that the effects of VVG on aggressive behaviours were temporal, and aggressive behaviour was much weaker within an hour. These findings are supported by Ferguson (2015), in that playing VVG in early years accounts for less than one percent of the variance for aggression in later years. Hence, it can be interpreted that VVG only increased AVB temporarily. Moreover, the violent and non-violent groups both produced similar levels of aggressive behaviours. Adachi and Willoughby (2011) proposed the idea that competitiveness, rather than violence, may be the factor affecting aggression in VVG. He found no significant difference in aggressiveness among participants who played either a violent or non-violent game of equal competitiveness, supporting the findings from this study. Hence, it may be concluded from this study that VVG does not lead to AVB.

However, limitations of this study raises doubt as to the validity of the study. Firstly, almost all boys in the study played a lot of VVG in real life, and behaved aggressively after which. According to the Social Developmental Theory, social behaviours are controlled by scripts which are developed through experience or observation (Meyers, 2002). Through frequent exposure to VVG, children develop aggressive scripts. Hence, exposure to playing may have activated a pre-existing aggressive scripts, which heightened their likelihood of behaving aggressively. Moreover, it was not taken into consideration that some children may have experienced provocative situations. An extra hour of free play was conducted for the sake of this study. This may have resulted in more opportunities for provocative situations to arise than usual, resulting in more children displaying aggressive behaviours. Also, the effect of VVG on behaviour may be undetectable with the small sample size, explaining why no statistical difference for girls, and no significant difference in aggressive behaviours among violent and non-violent conditions were found among boys. The gaps from this study leaves room for the argument that VVG do lead to AVB.

Meyers (2002) conducted a study on 144 boys aged eight to twelve to examine the differential and combined effects of exposure to violent television content and VVG on development. It was hypothesised that exposure to either violent content would lead to increased aggression, that there would be more aggression demonstrated in the VVG condition than the television condition, and being exposed to both forms of media would result in higher aggressive behaviours. Participants were randomly allocated into one of the six conditions – VVG, non-VVG, violent television content, non-violent television content, or a combination of either violent or non-violent conditions. The violent content was a wrestling game or match, and the non-violent content was a basketball game or match. In the wrestling condition, violence, like kicking or punching, was prevalent, encouraged and rewarded. In basketball, violence was discouraged and penalised. Participants were exposed to the condition for 15 minutes. Aggression among participants were assessed using three measures – a word-stem completion task, on a Normative Beliefs About Aggression Scale (NOBAGS); and aggressive or non-aggressive interaction with a Bobo doll. Using different measures of aggression allowed for measurement and comparison on specific effects of VVG on individuals, namely priming, endorsement of aggressive behaviours and modelling of behaviours respectively, making this a strength of the study. The word-stem completion task and NOBAGS were administered by an experimenter. For the Bobo doll measure, participants were left alone for one minute and given a choice to play with the Bobo doll, or read a National Geographic Kids magazine. It was found that participants in either violent conditions endorsed higher levels of aggressive behaviours than those in non-violent conditions. For example, they were more likely to form an aggressive word such as “Gun” rather than “Fun”, more likely to respond that “It’s perfectly OK” to hit someone if they said something mean, and more likely to hit, kick or throw the Bobo doll. Older boys produced higher levels of aggressive behaviour generally, and responded with more aggressive words on the word-stem task. Unlike the study before, this study suggests that VVG does lead to AVB, as participants in either violent conditions performed significantly more aggressively than participants in the control condition.

However, the Bobo doll measure of aggression may be unreliable, limiting the findings of the study. Younger participants may just be more interested in playing with the doll and less in reading a magazine, and older participants may have felt that they were “too old” to play with the Bobo doll. Hence, the Bobo doll measure may represent a perception of appropriate toys, rather than aggression.

The findings from this study was inconsistent with findings from Adachi and Willoughby (2011) with regards to competition leading to aggression, instead of VVG. It may then be suggested that younger children mimic behaviours that they observe, as participants in this study were younger than participants in the previous study. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory supports this finding, in that children learn social behaviours through direct experience and observing models. They develop beliefs about social norms and acceptable behaviour based on experiences, modelling behaviours which are rewarded, rather than behaviours that are punished. In VVG, AVB are usually rewarded and encouraged, usually through earning points. When children learn that AVB are rewarded and go unpunished, they may then choose aggressive solutions during conflicts or even daily activities. VVG expose players to modelling, reinforcement and rehearsal of behaviours, enhancing learning for children (Meyers, 2002). Hence, Social Learning Theory explains how children learn AVB through mimicking the behaviours in VVG. Studies has also suggested other reasons as to why VVG lead to AVB. One is the choice of background music. Zhang and Gao (2014) found that high-excitement music, usually incorporated in VVG, evoked more aggression in participants than low-excitement music. Another is the amount of blood in a VVG. Popular VVG usually revolve around themes of shooting or fighting, and depicts blood vividly. Harris (2007) found that participants in the maximum and medium blood conditions of a VVG had a significant increase in hostility and aggression than participants in low or absent blood conditions. Hence, elements of VVG, such as background music or amount of blood, can be seen as directly impacting AVB as exposure to either was found to increase AVB.

In relation to the argument of the short-term effects of VVG on AVB, research on participants aged 12 to 16 years old found that an uncontrolled pattern of video games, rather than just playing VVG, was associated with increased AVB. Addiction can cause this uncontrollable pattern of VVG play, and children are generally more susceptible to addiction as they have not developed a mature level of mentality and self-control (Usman & Inam, 2013). There are many elements that make a VVG addictive. Firstly, the strong competition in the VVG market forces developers to introduce latest techniques when developing VVG. This includes high quality graphics, human-machine interaction and artificial intelligence. Next, VVG are especially more addictive due to reward systems in the games. For example, players that unlock new levels or achieve high scores usually get rewarded with new weapons or more “power”. Popular VVG are created using a fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement, promoting habit maintenance. These factors make VVG more attractive, encouraging players to stay in the game for longer times, which may possibly lead to addiction (Usman & Inam, 2013). This may result in an uncontrolled pattern of video game play, leading to AVB in the long run.

In conclusion, the argument that VVG do not lead to AVB is weak. VVG provides a platform for learning AVB through repeated exposure and reward, according to the Social Learning Theory. Moreover, elements of VVG itself, such as background music and depiction of blood, has been shown to make people more aggressive. Furthermore, VVG are purposely designed to be highly addictive, making it more likely for children, who yet to have developed maturity, to be more susceptible to addiction. In the short run, VVG are more likely to produce AVB. Addiction or uncontrolled pattern of VVG can lead to AVB in later years as well. Lastly, it is undeniable that if not for VVG, majority of the children would not be exposed to and interact with such high levels of violent or aggressive behaviours, such as shooting, killing or hurting others in general. There are still limitations in data, though, findings are often conflicting and it is difficult to conclusively state that VVG do or do not lead to violent behaviour. However, even if effects are temporal or weak, it is difficult to argue that VVG do not bring about any negative impacts at all. More studies should be done in the future, with tighter controls on third-party variables so as to produce more accurate evidence for the debate.

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