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Chapter in W. Warburton & D. Braunstein (Eds.) Growing Up Fast and Furious: Reviewing the Impacts of Violent and Sexualised Media on Children, (pp. 56-84). Annandale, NSW, Australia: The Federation Press.

Chapter 3

The impact of violent video games: An overview
Craig A Anderson and Wayne A Warburton
Parents often ask about the effects of violent video games on their children and teenagers. In most cases, they note that their “common sense” instinct is that too much exposure to violent video games must have some sort of negative effect on their children, but that they have read in the media that “the jury is still out” on violent media effects or that there is no convincing evidence that violent video game playing is harmful. Confusion around this conflict will often prompt them then to ask: “what does the scientific evidence really say?” In this chapter we show that the common sense view is backed up by a substantial body of recent scientific findings. Helpful and pro-social video game content has great potential for enhancing the lives of children and adolescents, but exposure to anti-social and violent video game content increases the likelihood of a range of negative outcomes, with greater exposure increasing the risk. Video games have been around for nearly 50 years. Kirsch (2010) notes the first as being Spacewar (released in 1962), a game in which two spaceships battle to the death in space. Although the graphics were very simple compared to modern games, the theme of battling to the death is one that has endured through the ensuing five decades. According to the most recent comprehensive poll by the Kaiser Foundation, American children aged 8–18 play an average of eight hours of video games per week, an increase of over 400 per cent from 1999 (Rideout, Foehr & Roberts, 2010). Playing is heaviest in the 11–14 age group, with boys outplaying girls more than 2.5 hours to 1. A recent study suggests that around 99 per cent of American boys play video games, along with 94 per cent of girls (Lenhart et al, 2008). It is common for US children and adolescents to play more than 20 hours per week 56

The impACT of violenT video gAmes: An overview

and it is not uncommon for males to play 40 hours or more per week (Bailey, West & Anderson, 2010). On average, Australian 7–18-year-olds played somewhat less than their US counterparts in 2007 (4.7 hours per week: see ACMA, 2007), but this figure could have risen substantially in recent years if Australian children have followed the steep upward trend found in the latest US studies. The types of games vary, but content analyses by Dill and colleagues (2005) show that the majority of top selling video games and children’s favourite games contain violence, and often strong violence. More recently, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 grossed ~$USD 550 million in the first five days of its 2009 release, at that time more than any other entertainment product in history (movies included). Next on the list in 2009 was Grant Theft Auto IV (GTA), with ~$USD 500 million in five days. Even more recently (a year is a long time in the video game world) Call of Duty: Black Ops grossed $USD 360 million in a single day, breaking all records (Ortutay, 2010). According to Wikipedia, the massive multiplayer online game (MMOG) World of Warcraft has more than 12 million online subscribers and thus currently grosses more than $USD 180 million per month (at $15 per month per player). GTA, which is rated M17+ in the United States and involves such activities as going on murderous rampages, having sex with prostitutes and then murdering them to retrieve the money paid, has been played by 56 per cent of United States children aged 8–18 (Rideout et al, 2010). Clearly, a large number of children and adolescents are exposed regularly to video games with high levels of violence and anti-social themes. This makes it important for parents, educators and professionals who work with children to have some knowledge of their effects. Before turning to the negative effects of violent video games however, it is important to stress that video games can have many helpful benefits. Here are just a few.

Helpful effects of video games
Pain management
Kirsch (2010) notes that various media, including video games, can be used to distract and relax children during painful medical procedures. 57

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Coordination and spatial cognition
A number of studies reveal that video games which require the placement of objects within a screen (such as Tetris) can enhance the spatial cognition abilities of players (that is, the ability to mentally arrange and rotate objects in three dimensions). Indeed, video game playing has been linked with a wide array of visual and spatial skills, primarily through practice effects (see Green & Bavelier, 2006; Okagaki & Frensch, 1994; see also Bailey et al, 2010, for a review). In one study by Gopher, Weil and Bareket (1994), the flight performance of Israeli Air Force cadets who had been trained on the Space Fortress II video game was compared with the performance of an untrained group. The trained cadets performed better in almost all aspects of flight performance and as a result the game was incorporated into the Israeli Air Force training program.

Pro-social behaviour
Although this area of study is still in its infancy, there is mounting evidence that video games which model and involve participants in prosocial, helping behaviours can lead to increases in pro-social behaviour in the short and long term. Most notably, Gentile et al (2009) found that elementary school students exposed to pro-social video games were more helpful than those exposed to violent or non-social video games. In a second longitudinal study of Japanese children in grades 5, 8 and 11, exposure to pro-social video games at the start of the study was linked with increased pro-social behaviour some months later, even when the baseline pro-social tendencies of children were statistically removed. In a final study of Singaporean secondary school students, the amount of pro-social video game play experienced was correlated with helping behaviour, cooperation, sharing and empathy. A study by Greitemeyer and Osswald (2009) found that pro-social video game playing led to a short-term reduction in the tendency to see the world as hostile and an immediate reduction in anti-social thoughts.

Education
A considerable literature reveals video games to be a powerful teaching tool (eg, Barlett et al, 2009; Murphy et al, 2002; Swing & Anderson, 58

The impACT of violenT video gAmes: An overview

2008). They have been used to teach algebra (Corbett et al, 2001), biology (Ybarrondo, 1984), photography (Abrams, 1986), and computer programming (Kahn, 1999), to teach children how to manage diabetes (Lieberman, 2001; 2006) and to teach specific skills using simulators (for example, by Qantas pilots, NASA and the Air Force). Gentile and Gentile (2008) describe the educational advantages of using video games as teaching tools. These include the power of video games to engage children and to “encourage children to persevere in acquiring and mastering a number of skills, to navigate through complex problems and changing environments, and to experiment with different identities until success is achieved” (p 127).

Exercise
There has been a recent explosion in the popularity of video games that promote physical activity and exercise (that is, “Exergames”). Games such as Wii Sports Heart Rate; Wii Fit; Wii Play; Wii FitPlus; Dance, Dance Revolution and Just Dance seem to be part of a recent trend that has seen an increase in the availability and popularity of non-violent, helpful games. Clearly, video games have considerable potential to enhance the lives of children and adolescents. Unfortunately, excessive video game playing, especially of violent video games, has the potential to impact children in a number of negative ways.

Harmful effects of video games
Video game addiction
In his moving biography, Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction, Ryan Van Cleave describes the way that a violent online game, World of Warcraft, dominated his life to such an extent that he was unable to function normally and was driven to the verge of suicide. Video game addiction is now taken so seriously by psychologists and psychiatrists that it was recently considered for inclusion in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) as a diagnosable psychiatric disorder and has been lodged in its appendix to encourage further research. It is clear that many children 59

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play video games at a “pathological” level that causes damage to family, social, school or psychological functioning (see Anderson et al, 2012). For example, it has been found that 8.5 per cent of 8–18-year-old US video game players do so at pathological levels (Gentile, 2009). Similar studies have found figures of 11.9 per cent in Europe (Grusser et al, 2007), 8.7 per cent in Singapore (Choo et al, 2010), 10.3 per cent in China (Peng & Li, 2009) and 4 per cent for 12–18-year-olds in Norway (Johansson & Götestam, 2004), with a further 15.5 per cent “at risk”. As will be seen in the ensuing sections, the amount that children play video games is very important. Those who play excessively are not only at risk of a number of negative outcomes, they are also much more likely to be playing violent games (see Krahé & Möller, 2004).

Attention deficits
There are some studies linking the amount of time children spend playing video games to attention deficits, impulsivity and hyperactivity (see Bailey et al, 2010; Swing et al, 2010). For example, Gentile (2009) found that adolescents who used video games at pathological levels were nearly three times more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder than adolescents who played at non-pathological levels. In a landmark paper, Swing and colleagues (2010) examined the effect of video game playing on attention in elementary school children. They used a longitudinal study that statistically controlled for a range of other factors that could also lead to attention problems and found that amount of time spent playing video games predicted increases in teacher assessments of attention deficits in the children 13 months later. These results suggest that the children’s level of video game playing played a causal role in their subsequent loss of attentional capacity. Anderson et al (2012) believe that on theoretical grounds some video games should have less effect on attentional problems (for example, those that require controlled thought and planning) and that those which require constant reactive behaviours from players (a common feature of many violent first person shooting games for example) may be more problematic in terms of children developing attentional difficulties. 60

The impACT of violenT video gAmes: An overview

School performance
It is well established that spending longer hours playing video games is linked with poorer school performance for both children and adolescents (Anderson et al, 2007; Chan & Rabinowitz, 2006; Chiu et al, 2004; Cordes & Miller, 2000; Gentile, 2009; Gentile et al, 2004; Sharif & Sargent, 2006). One explanation for this is a simple displacement of time – hours spent playing video games eats into time that would normally be spent studying and reading. For example, in a study of 1491 youth between 10 and 19, gamers spent 30 per cent less time reading and 34 per cent less time doing homework (Cummings & Vandewater, 2007). It is also possible, however, that children who perform more poorly at school are also more likely to “spend more time playing games, where they may feel a sense of mastery that eludes them at school” (Anderson et al, 2012). Of course, another possibility is the that excessive gaming creates attention deficits, which in turn can lead to poorer school performance.

Increased aggression
Should we be concerned about children and adolescents playing violent video games? Can this lead to aggressive behaviour? Over 98 per cent of paediatricians in the United States have considered these questions and believe that excessive violent media exposure has a negative effect on childhood aggression (Gentile et al, 2004). Similarly, there is a consensus amongst the vast majority of violent video game researchers that too much exposure to violent video games increases the likelihood of aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours, leads to desensitisation to violence and also leads to decreases in pro-social behaviours and empathy (Anderson et al, 2010; Huesmann, 2010). There are, however, a small number of researchers who dispute this evidence and it seems that the views of this small minority have had a large impact on public perceptions (Anderson & Gentile, 2008; Dill, 2009). In this section of the chapter we will broadly examine the arguments for this view and then review the scientific evidence that does find violent video game effects. In this way, we hope that readers can judge the evidence for themselves. 1. The first argument against violent video game effects is that there is little evidence linking the ...

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