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Video Games and Violence, Part 1: Risky Business

By Peter Suciu
Jul 9, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Hollywood may be all about lights, cameras and action, but the current trend in video games seems to be simply action -- followed by even more action.

Video Games and Violence, Part 1: Risky Business

That was one of the biggest takeaways from the recent E3 video game conference in Los Angeles, where Microsoft and Sony went head-to-head with an array of action-packed games that came in stark contrast to previous years' offerings, which included a mix dance games, titles with simulated musical instruments and other platforms.

This year, it was all about blasting aliens, shooting zombies and prolonged battles with tons of firepower. Violence, in other words, was not exactly in short supply.

Following a year that saw the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., among other tragedies, it's a differentiating feature that's difficult to ignore.

'We Have Not Seen a Single Study'

The debate over violent games and their impact on society is one that probably won't be solved anytime soon, but rather will only heat up in the coming years, especially as this next generation of video game consoles offers increasingly realistic graphics.

"There is the debate, which has gone on for years, whether these games increase aggression and can lead people to violence," parenting researcher David Walsh, who specializes in the impact of media on children and teens, told TechNewsWorld. "We have not seen a single direct study that shows games can lead to increased aggression."

'It Isn't Clear'

Statements like that, in turn, raise the issue of risk factors.

After all, there are millions of gamers who play these games and don't carry over violence and aggression to other people. What role do these key risk factors play?

It's at best inconclusive.

"The data is mixed, so it isn't clear whether video games are having an effect or not," suggested Patrick Markey, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Villanova University and associate editor for the Journal of Personality.

"There is considerable research that suggests games make players a little more hostile after playing," Markey told TechNewsWorld. "In our studies we found that gamers are more likely to do things that are not the nicest after playing a game, but we're not seeing the leap to real-world aggressive behavior."

Of course, that doesn't mean that what isn't found in the lab couldn't happen in real life.

Violent Games, Violent Players?

Video games follow in the footsteps of many other new media that have been subjected to scrutiny for a perceived association with real-world violence.

These questions "remind me of news coverage when Little Richard and Elvis were censored," Jennifer Mercurio, vice president and general counsel for the Entertainment Consumers Association, told TechNewsWorld.

It also is comparable to when there were concerns that "movies were becoming more violent and too realistic, thus becoming a cause for concern," she added.

Such questions, however, are apparently enduring ones.

'The Evidence Is Overwhelming'

"Contrary to a few vocal denialists, the vast majority of psychologists who study media violence effects believe that the empirical evidence is overwhelming in showing that playing violent video games is a causal risk factor for later inappropriate physical aggression," Craig Anderson, a professor in the department of psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, told TechNewsWorld.

"There is even some pretty good evidence that this also applies to physical aggression that is severe enough to be considered violent behavior," Anderson added.

Again, the issue comes down to risk factors, Walsh noted.

"This can be true too with first person shooters," Walsh explained. "Risk factors add to the probability of things happening. As each factor increases, then the probability of something happening goes up.

"It is the people who play these games who have other risk factors, such as tendency of aggressive behavior, where this carries on to real life," Walsh said.

The Impact of Realism

Meanwhile, what happens as games become increasingly lifelike? As graphical realism improves with each passing generation, that's a question that will be increasingly asked.

Today's games, moreover, aren't played on small TVs in a basement or bedroom but are often presented on large high-definition sets in the living room.

"We don't know whether there could be a leap when it comes to more realistic graphics, or whether these could have an effect," said Markey. "When past studies looked at fantasy violence in games such as Final Fantasy and more realistic violence in an early version of Call of Duty, the researchers actually found it didn't make a difference."

'We Don't Know'

In fact, "we don't see a leap each time a new console system arrived," added Markey. "The graphics probably won't make a difference, but we don't know."

It is possible, though, that they do, suggested Anderson.

"There is evidence that more realistic and more extremely graphic portrayals of violence in entertainment media -- including video games -- leads to somewhat bigger effects than cartoonish media violence," Anderson said. "Even cartoonish violent video games increase aggression in children, adolescents and young adults."

Video Games and Violence, Part 2: Follow the Money.

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing.

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