Are violent video games bad for me?

Dear Alice,

I've always loved video games, but I feel like there's a lot of stuff in the media saying that video games lead to violent or sociopathic personalities. Is there any evidence to suggest that violent video games are bad for emotional health?

Dear Reader, 

You’re right—there’s a lot of debate around video games and how they affect behavior. All of this attention has led to numerous studies: simply put, there’s no evidence to suggest that a person will commit violent acts solely based on their gaming habits. Instead, the American Psychological Association (APA) has found that violent video games are more often associated with aggression and lower empathy. However, while all violence is aggressive in nature, not all aggression leads to violence. There’s also very limited research on the association between violent video games and lethal violence—that is, violence in which someone kills themself or others. The effects of violent video games on emotional health, however, depend on a variety of factors including the game, the person, and the amount of time spent playing. 

Many studies do, however, show a relationship between playing video games and aggressive behaviors. Some researchers argue that video games warp a person’s sense of what’s right and wrong, making them less aware of potential risks. Exposure to high levels of violence in video games may also lead players to become desensitized over time. Desensitization in this instance often refers to someone becoming less shocked or reactive when they witness acts of violence. While desensitization in itself isn’t inherently harmful, in this context, violence can begin to feel more normal and less alarming to players. Similarly, justifying violence in the video games and dehumanizing victims—when you no longer see a person as having human qualities—and minimizing consequences after violent acts may all contribute to players morally disengaging. 

Despite research supporting the correlation between violent video games and aggressive behavior, there’s also camp of researchers who disagree. Some people argue that any increase in aggression after playing video games noted in research is too minimal to be considered significant in real life. 

Those who critique the correlation suggest there are several other factors to consider when trying to determine the impact of video games on behavior. These include how often you play video games, why you like playing video games, who you play video games with, what kind of games you play, and how much physical activity is involved. For example: some games are more cooperative than competitive in nature, which can actually lead to more prosocial behavior (behaviors that promote positive behaviors and social bonding) as they prioritize teamwork and supporting other players. Similarly, games that allow players to move in real life can provide enjoyment and promote physical health. 

Since the jury is still out on the impact of violent video games on behavior, it might be good to switch things up from time to time. For example: are you only playing violent games, or do you sometimes play other types? Perhaps you can start rotating different genres of games. Are you playing single or multiplayer games? How do you feel about your playing habits? Have you noticed any changes in yourself that could be associated with how long you play or what types of games you play? Thinking about each of these questions may help you understand the potential effects video games have on your emotional health. Consider checking out How many hours of gaming are too many? in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information about the effects of gaming. If you feel as though you play too much, and that it's hard to cut down, quit, or that it does emotionally affect you, it may be worth speaking to a mental health professional about your concerns. 

Game on! 

Last updated Jul 07, 2023
Originally published Jul 05, 2013

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