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Do virtual punches lead to real ones? (Part 1/2)

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Little do people know that when they start playing some online Monopoly to distract themselves from the existential dread of Quarantine™, they are unwittingly cultivating aggressive thoughts and attitudes until they are so full of these bloodthirsty compulsions that the only way to satiate their murderous desires is via a genocidal rampage – or so the media would have you believe.

The role of video games in facilitating violence has been a recurringly contentious topic, with incidents such as mass shootings adding further fuel to the fire. As demand grows for an explanation for these events, the most convenient and publicised scapegoat has become video games.

At a glance, the “video games cause violence” theory seems plausible – but is it true, or simply another myth propagated by the media? In consulting the most recent literature, the shorthand answer is that it is only partially true.

Examining the Literature

The issue with most studies in this area is that there is a mixed bag of results. Some suggest that video games do indeed encourage aggressive behaviours, whilst others find insignificant links between the two. Some even observe reductions in violent crime following the release of aggressive video games – on the basis that they may act to occupy the time and attention of young males [1-2]. The source of these discrepancies lies within certain systematic flaws present in the studies’ methodology: confounding variables, publication biases and use of unstandardized measures.

A very recent study free of many of these limitations used a sample of 3024 youths to examine the relationships between aggressive game play, aggression and prosocial outcomes in a 2-year period [2]. It found unsubstantial links between violent video game exposure and aggressive outcomes across the 2-years, with clinically significant aggression requiring an individual to play M-rated video games at least 27 hours a day, which calls for a bit more than your average gamer.

These results are consistent with prior longitudinal studies, i.e. studies that follow a group of people over a period of time. They dispute the claim that violent video games predict aggressive outcomes and instead support the notion that video game exposure does not seem to be a risk factor for youth aggression, at the very most only producing miniscule increases in aggressive behaviour [3-5]. However, even this study has its limitations, the most prominent being the inability to draw causal inferences, with only correlational effects derived from the findings.

The source of the controversy surrounding this debate, however, lies in meta-analyses. They have produced conflicting results and contradictory conclusions, aggravating the uncertainty regarding the relationship between violence and aggressive gaming.

Meta-analyses are useful tools in the scientific arsenal since the utility of collating and reanalysing data from multiple studies allows for more concrete inferences to be made. However, a relatively recent meta-analysis of several meta-analyses (a meta-meta-analysis, if you will) utilised a novel approach to rectify previous issues and actually discovered that in a vast majority of settings, violent video games did indeed increase aggressive behaviour, however the effects were very minimal and clinically insignificant [6], echoing the findings of previously discussed studies.

Therefore, it seems that the impact of video games has been grossly exaggerated by the media, with a bevy of evidence suggesting that the alleged effects are so marginal that it is highly unlikely for any major incident to occur solely as a consequence of playing video games. Unless that major incident is loneliness, that is.


The answer to the “video-games-cause-violence” kerfuffle remains tentative, with definitive conclusions yet to be drawn from scientific research in the area. However, the difficulty in demonstrating a significant relationship suggests that violent episodes are not entirely predicated on video game usage, if at all, and that patterns of aggressive behaviour are far more nuanced than a singular cause. Current data does indicate a significant disconnect between aggressive video game exposure and aggressive outcomes, with most studies recommending a greater focus on targeting known risk factors, such as poor impulse control and dysfunctional family environments, as more practical endeavours than fuelling a seemingly futile crusade against video games. That’s right, no more kids through coffee tables.

By perpetuating the myth that violent video games are the principal cause of aggressive behaviour, we further misinformation and invest in inane efforts. This mindset detracts from the main issue at hand and deprives valuable resources from addressing actual risk factors, while also disillusioning people to so-called reputable sources of information. The only real benefit from this pernicious campaign is that more individuals are beginning to question the validity of these unsubstantiated claims, and in the process are hopefully familiarising themselves with the same evidence-based scientific literature that the media loves to smash as if it were a PlayStation controller.

Written by: Joshua Pham

Check out our infographic on the topic:


[1] Markey PM, Markey CN, French JE. Violent video games and real-world violence: rhetoric versus data. Psychol Pop Media Cult [Internet]. 2015 Oct [cited 2019 Aug 14];4(4);277-295. Available from: DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000030

[2] Ferguson CJ, Wang, JCK. Aggressive video games are not a risk factor for future aggression in youth: a longitudinal study. J Youth Adolesc [Internet]. 2019 July [cited 2019 Aug 14];48(8);1439-1451. Available from: DOI: 10.1007/s10964-019-01069-0

[3] Breuer J, Vogelgesang J, Quandt T, Festl R. Violent video games and physical aggression: evidence for a selection effect among adolescents. Psychol Pop Media Cult [Internet]. 2015 Feb [cited 2019 Aug 14];4(4);305-328. Available from: DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000035

[4] Lobel A, Engels RCME, Stone LL, Burk WJ, Granic I. Video gaming and children’s psychosocial wellbeing: a longitudinal study. J Youth Adolesc [Internet]. 2017 Apr [cited 2019 Aug 14];46(4);884-897. Available from: DOI: 10.1007/s10964-017-0646-z

[5] Salisch M, Vogelgesang J, Kristen A, Oppl C. Preference for violent electronic games and aggressive behaviour among children: the beginning of the downward spiral? J Media Psychol [Internet]. 2011 Sep [cited 2019 Aug 14];14(3);233-258. Available from: DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2011.596468

[6] Mathur MB, VanderWeele TJ. Finding common ground in meta-analysis “wars” on violent video games. Perspect Psychol Sci [Internet]. 2019 June [cited 2019 Aug 14];14(4);705-708. Available from: DOI: 10.1177/1745691619850104

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