Metastudy: Violent video games raise aggression

A study out of Iowa of 130 research reports on more than 130,000 subjects worldwide concludes that exposure to violent video games results in more aggressive, less empathetic youths.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

This is one of those topics for which researchers seem to have an insatiable appetite, and about which readers tend to hold strong, preformed opinions one way or the other.

But a study aggregating results from 130 research reports on more than 130,000 subjects worldwide has more breadth than most of its predecessors regarding the effects of violent video games on youths (though there is, of course, already a growing chorus of skeptics).

Craig Anderson is lead author on a study that provides comprehensive analysis of previous literature about the effects of playing violent video games. Bob Elbert/Iowa State University News Service

The conclusion of the metastudy, overseen by Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University and the director of Iowa State's Center for the Study of Violence? Exposure to violent video games directly causes increased aggressive thoughts and behavior, and decreased empathy and prosocial behavior in the youths exposed to them. Anderson's team says these study conclusions hold true across geographies, cultures, and study methods.

"We can now say with utmost confidence that regardless of research method--that is experimental, correlational, or longitudinal--and regardless of the cultures tested in this study [East and West], you get the same effects: that exposure to violent video games increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior in both short-term and long-term contexts," Anderson said.

In a statement on the publication of his team's study (PDF) in the March 2010 issue of the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Bulletin, Anderson adds:

Such exposure also increases aggressive thinking and aggressive affect, and decreases prosocial behavior...These are not huge effects--not on the order of joining a gang vs. not joining a gang. But these effects are also not trivial in size. It is one risk factor for future aggression and other sort of negative outcomes. And it's a risk factor that's easy for an individual parent to deal with--at least, easier than changing most other known risk factors for aggression and violence, such as poverty or one's genetic structure.

The team compiled and analyzed results from previous literature (known in statistics jargon as meta-analytic procedures) to test how violent video games influence behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of the individuals, who range in age from elementary-school kids to college undergrads. Researchers also introduced new longitudinal data that provided further confirmation that playing violent video games is a causal risk factor for long-term harmful outcomes.

The analysis shows that violent video games affect children in both Eastern and Western cultures, in males and females, and in all age groups studied. Although there are good theoretical reasons to expect the long-term harmful effects to be higher in younger, preteen youths, there had been only weak evidence of such age effects.

For Anderson, the results could go so far as to call for policy reform: "From a public-policy standpoint, it's time to get off the question of, 'Are there real and serious effects?' That's been answered and answered repeatedly. It's now time to move on to a more constructive question like, 'How do we make it easier for parents--within the limits of culture, society and law--to provide a healthier childhood for their kids?'"