Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts,
and Unanswered Questions
by Craig A. Anderson
A. Anderson received his PhD in psychology from Stanford University
in 1980. He has been a faculty member at Rice University (1980-1988), Ohio State
University (visiting,1984-1985), and the University of Missouri-Columbia (1988-1999).
He joined Iowa State University in 1999 as Professor and Chair of the Department
of Psychology. He has received teaching awards at both the graduate and undergraduate
levels, and has been awarded "Fellow" status by the American Psychological
Society and the American Psychological Association. He is currently on the Executive
Council of the International Society for Research on Aggression. His research
on attribution theory, depression, social judgment, covariation detection, biases,
and human aggression has been published in top social, personality, and cognitive,
journals. His recent focus on violent video games has led to U.S. Senate testimony,
addresses to and consultations with numerous scientific, governmental, and public
policy groups worldwide, public policy research awards, and articles and stories
in top science news outlets. His published works can be found at his web
After 40+ years of research, one might think that debate about
media violence effects would be over. An historical examination of the research
reveals that debate concerning whether such exposure is a significant risk factor
for aggressive and violent behavior should have been over years ago (Bushman
& Anderson, 2001). Four types of media violence studies provide converging
evidence of such effects: laboratory experiments, field experiments, cross-sectional
correlation studies, and longitudinal studies (Anderson & Bushman, 2002a;
Bushman & Huesmann, 2000). But the development of a new genre—electronic
video games—reinvigorated the debate.
Two features of video games fuel renewed interest by researchers,
public policy makers, and the general public. First, the active role required
by video games is a double-edged sword. It helps educational video games be
excellent teaching tools for motivational and learning process reasons. But,
it also may make violent video games even more hazardous than violent television
or cinema. Second, the arrival of a new generation of ultraviolent video games
beginning in the early 1990s and continuing unabated to the present resulted
in large numbers of children and youths actively participating in entertainment
violence that went way beyond anything available to them on television or in
movies. Recent video games reward players for killing innocent bystanders, police,
and prostitutes, using a wide range of weapons including guns, knives, flame
throwers, swords, baseball bats, cars, hands, and feet. Some include cut scenes
(i.e., brief movie clips supposedly designed to move the story forward) of strippers.
In some, the player assumes the role of hero, whereas in others the player is
The new debate frequently generates more heat than light. Many
criticisms are simply recycled myths from earlier media violence debates, myths
that have been repeatedly debunked on theoretical and empirical grounds. Valid
weaknesses have also been identified (and often corrected) by media violence
researchers themselves. Although the violent video game literature is still
relatively new and small, we have learned a lot about their effects and have
successfully answered several key questions. So, what is myth and what do we
Myths and Facts
Myth 1. Violent video game research has yielded very mixed
Facts: Some studies have yielded nonsignificant video game effects, just as
some smoking studies failed to find a significant link to lung cancer. But when
one combines all relevant empirical studies using meta-analytic techniques,
five separate effects emerge with considerable consistency. Violent video games
are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts,
and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial (helping)
behavior. Average effect sizes for experimental studies (which help establish
causality) and correlational studies (which allow examination of serious violent
behavior) appear comparable (Anderson & Bushman, 2001).
Myth 2. The studies that find significant effects
are the weakest methodologically.
Facts: Methodologically stronger studies have yielded the largest effects (Anderson,
in press). Thus, earlier effect size estimates —based on all video game
studies— probably underestimate the actual effect sizes.
Myth 3. Laboratory experiments are irrelevant
(trivial measures, demand characteristics, lack external validity).
Facts: Arguments against laboratory experiments in behavioral sciences have
been successfully debunked many times by numerous researchers over the years.
Specific examinations of such issues in the aggression domain have consistently
found evidence of high external validity. For example, variables known to influence
real world aggression and violence have the same effects on laboratory measures
of aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 1997).
Myth 4. Field experiments are irrelevant (aggression
measures based either on direct imitation of video game behaviors (e.g., karate
kicks) or are normal play behaviors.
Facts: Some field experiments have used behaviors such as biting, pinching,
hitting, pushing, and pulling hair, behaviors that were not modeled in the game.
The fact that these aggressive behaviors occur in natural environments does
not make them "normal" play behavior, but it does increase the face
validity (and some would argue the external validity) of the measures.
Myth 5. Correlational studies are irrelevant.
Facts: The overly simplistic mantra, "Correlation is not causation,"
is useful when teaching introductory students the risks in too-readily drawing
causal conclusions from a simple empirical correlation between two measured
variables. However, correlational studies are routinely used in modern science
to test theories that are inherently causal. Whole scientific fields are based
on correlational data (e.g., astronomy). Well conducted correlational studies
provide opportunities for theory falsification. They allow examination of serious
acts of aggression that would be unethical to study in experimental contexts.
They allow for statistical controls of plausible alternative explanations.
Myth 6. There are no studies linking violent
video game play to serious aggression.
Facts: High levels of violent video game exposure have been linked to delinquency,
fighting at school and during free play periods, and violent criminal behavior
(e.g., self-reported assault, robbery).
Myth 7. Violent video games affect only a small
fraction of players.
Facts: Though there are good theoretical reasons to expect some populations
to be more susceptible to violent video game effects than others, the research
literature has not yet substantiated this. That is, there is not consistent
evidence for the claim that younger children are more negatively affected than
adolescents or young adults or that males are more affected than females. There
is some evidence that highly aggressive individuals are more affected than nonaggressive
individuals, but this finding does not consistently occur. Even nonaggressive
individuals are consistently affected by brief exposures. Further research will
likely find some significant moderators of violent video game effects, because
the much larger research literature on television violence has found such effects
and the underlying processes are the same. However, even that larger literature
has not identified a sizeable population that is totally immune to negative
effects of media violence.
Myth 8. Unrealistic video game violence is completely
safe for adolescents and older youths.
Facts: Cartoonish and fantasy violence is often perceived (incorrectly) by parents
and public policy makers as safe even for children. However, experimental studies
with college students have consistently found increased aggression after exposure
to clearly unrealistic and fantasy violent video games. Indeed, at least one
recent study found significant increases in aggression by college students after
playing E-rated (suitable for everyone) violent video games.
Myth 9. The effects of violent video games are
Facts: Meta-analyses reveal that violent video game effect sizes are larger
than the effect of second hand tobacco smoke on lung cancer, the effect of lead
exposure to I.Q. scores in children, and calcium intake on bone mass. Furthermore,
the fact that so many youths are exposed to such high levels of video game violence
further increases the societal costs of this risk factor (Rosenthal, 1986).
Myth 10. Arousal, not violent content, accounts
for video game induced increases in aggression.
Facts: Arousal cannot explain the results of most correlational studies because
the measured aggression did not occur immediately after the violent video games
were played. Furthermore, several experimental studies have controlled potential
arousal effects, and still yielded more aggression by those who played the violent
Myth 11. If violent video games cause increases
in aggression, violent crime rates in the U.S. would be increasing instead of
Facts: Three assumptions must all be true for this myth to be valid: (a) exposure
to violent media (including video games) is increasing; (b) youth violent crime
rates are decreasing; (c) video game violence is the only (or the primary) factor
contributing to societal violence. The first assumption is probably true. The
second is not true, as reported by the 2001 Report of the Surgeon General on
Youth Violence (Figure 2-7, p. 25). The third is clearly untrue. Media violence
is only one of many factors that contribute to societal violence and is certainly
not the most important one. Media violence researchers have repeatedly noted
One frequently overlooked factor in this debate is the role of scientific theory.
Pure empirical facts often have relatively little meaning and are seldom convincing.
When those same facts fit a broader theory, especially one that has been tested
in other contexts, those facts become more understandable and convincing. Recent
years have seen considerable progress in basic theoretical models of human aggression
(for recent integrations see Anderson & Bushman, 2002b; Anderson & Huesmann,
in press; Anderson & Carnagey, in press).
Most such models take a social cognitive view of human aggression,
integrating social learning theory, advances in cognitive psychology, script
theory, developmental theories, and biological influences. Using such general
models, media violence scholars now have a clear picture of how media violence
increases aggression in short and long term contexts. Immediately after exposure
to media violence, there is an increase in aggressive behavior tendencies because
of several factors. 1. Aggressive thoughts increase, which in turn increase
the likelihood that a mild or ambiguous provocation will be interpreted in a
hostile fashion. 2. Aggressive affect increases. 3. General arousal (e.g., heart
rate) increases, which tends to increase the dominant behavioral tendency. 4.
Direct imitation of recently observed aggressive behaviors sometimes occurs.
Repeated media violence exposure increases aggression across the
lifespan because of several related factors. 1. It creates more positive attitudes,
beliefs, and expectations regarding use of aggressive solutions. 2. It creates
aggressive behavioral scripts and makes them more cognitively accessible. 3.
It decreases the accessibility of nonviolent scripts. 4. It decreases the normal
negative emotional reactions to conflict, aggression, and violence.
Several major gaps remain in the violent video game literature. One especially
large gap is the lack of longitudinal studies testing the link between habitual
violent video game exposure and later aggression, while controlling for earlier
levels of aggression and other risk factors. Indeed, of the four major types
of empirical studies mentioned earlier, this is the only type missing. There
are such studies focusing on television violence but none on video games.
Another gap concerns potential differences in effect sizes of
television versus video game violence. There are theoretical reasons to believe
that violent video game effects may prove larger, primarily because of the active
and repetitive learning aspects of video games. However, this is a very difficult
question to investigate, especially with experimental designs. How does one
select violent video game and television stimuli that are matched on other dimensions?
On what dimensions should they be equivalent? Number of bodies? Amount of blood
and gore? Realism of the images? There are a couple of unpublished correlational
studies that have compared the effects of television and video game violence
on aggression, using comparable measures of violence exposure. Both yielded
results suggesting a larger effect of video game violence. But the issue is
Finally, more research is needed to: (a) refine emerging general
models of human aggression; (b) delineate the processes underlying short and
long term media violence effects; (c) broaden these models to encompass aggression
at the level of subcultures and nations. Several different research groups around
the world are working on these various issues.
Anderson, C.A. (in press). An Update on the Effects of Violent Video Games.
Journal of Adolescence.
Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (1997). External validity of “trivial”
experiments: The case of laboratory aggression. Review of General Psychology,
Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on
aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological
arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature.
Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.
Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2002a). The effects of media violence on
society. Science, 295, 2377-2378.
Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2002b). Human Aggression. Annual Review
of Psychology, 53, 27-51.
Anderson, C.A., & Carnagey, N.L. (in press). Violent evil and the general
aggression model. Chapter to appear in A. Miller (Ed.) The Social Psychology
of Good and Evil. New York: Guilford Publications.
Anderson, C.A., & Huesmann, L.R. (in press). Human Aggression: A Social-Cognitive
View. Chapter to appear in M.A. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), Handbook of Social
Psychology. London: Sage Publications.
Bushman, B.J., & Anderson, C.A. (2001). Media violence and the American
public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist,
Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2000). Effects of televised violence
on aggression. In D. Singer & J. Singer (Eds.). Handbook of children and
the media (pp. 223-254). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Rosenthal, R. (1986). Media violence, antisocial behavior, and the social consequences
of small effects. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 141-154.