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Violent Video Games: An Easy Target & Scapegoat

By Kat Rivers

Image courtesy of BagoGames on Flickr

Every time we face a new societal fault—incidents of mass violence, increasing suicide and mental illness rates—we have a natural tendency to ask “why?” Why is this happening? At its best, our curiosity literally gets us to the moon and back. At its worst—typically when we mix our curiosity with fear—our curiosity gets us quick judgements, harsh stereotypes, scapegoating, and moral panics.

Gun violence is a serious issue in the United States. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit organization that seeks to understand the causes and solutions to gun violence, 100 people a day in the U.S. are killed or injured by guns. In addition to this, the gun homicide rate in the U.S. is 25 times higher than the rates in other high income countries. With every mass shooting, we feel the desperate need to ask “why?”  

The need to ask why is understandable; the idea of being yet another victim is a terrifying prospect. Researchers, politicians, parents, and everyday people are trying to find out why mass shootings are becoming all too common.  

Maybe it’s Godlessness. Maybe it’s TV. Maybe it’s porn. Maybe it’s video games.

Video games are an easy target for blame. Video games are a high energy, interactive medium through which people can be constantly bombarded by often violent imagery and gun violence. But has the research conclusively declared that violent video games make people more violent? Have studies shown that violent video games are the cause of real world gun violence? In a word, no. To see why, let’s look at the best available evidence. 

Image courtesy of NIH on Flickr

Starting from a purely neuroscientific approach, René Weber and colleagues (2006) examined whether playing video games activated the brain areas associated with aggression. (For the neuroscientifically inclined, this study used brain areas identified by Davidson et. Al (2000) which identified a link between aggression and brain areas such as the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)). In their study, participants played a violent video game for an hour while inside a fMRI machine. The researchers found that while people played violent video games, the players’ brain activity mirrored the brain activity of people with criminal and aggressive history, but the authors could not and did not conclude anything about the lasting effects of playing violent games since participants were never re-scanned after their video game session. 

Based on these findings, can we conclude that playing violent video games results in aggression? That is a tempting conclusion, but hold your horses. Making such a conclusion would be a logical fallacy—a logical error—called “affirming the consequent.” One cannot conclude that criminals and video game players both display aggression when limited to this evidence.

Proving that the violent video game players were aggressive requires first demonstrating that these brain areas are sufficient for or constitute aggressive behavior. However, prior evidence at best only demonstrates that the patterns of amygdala and ACC activity are correlated with aggression. To show that those brain areas are sufficient for aggression, you must find evidence for the claim: if the amygdala and ACC show unique patterns of activation, then a person is aggressive. This is a much more difficult undertaking, but a necessary one to accurately claim that this study demonstrates aggression in video game players.  

This study also does not go far enough for us to draw ethical conclusions. The important concern for policymakers, parents, teachers, and citizens is whether violent video games have a negative impact on the actual behaviors of people in the real world, which is where melding neuroscientific and behavioral analysis might help.  

Christopher R. Engelhardt and colleagues (2011) examined whether desensitization to media violence predicts whether someone will behave aggressively. Researchers, politicians, parents, and the public worry that video games, above other forms of media, desensitize people to violence, which they believe will make people more likely to act violently. 

To determine whether game players were desensitized to violence, half of the participants Englehardt’s study played violent video games while the other half played non-violent video games, all for an hour. The games they played were games that already existed and that the researchers determined to be violent and nonviolent: “The violent games were Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Hitman: Contracts, Killzone, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The nonviolent games were Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, MVP Baseball 2004, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, and Sonic Plus Mega Collection” (Englehardt et al. 2011, p. 1034).

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
After playing, the participants looked at violent and non-violent photographs while hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which records electrical activity in the brain through nodes attached to the scalp. The researchers found that the brains of those who had played violent video games—shooter and horror games—exhibited less brain activity while looking at the violent images than the brains of players who played the non-violent games. This led the researchers to conclude that the people who had played violent video games were desensitized to the violent imagery.

However, this part of the study makes a conceptual error: it mistakes overall neural desensitization for moral desensitization.  

When someone claims that violent media desensitize people to violence, they often refer to a kind of moral desensitization in which people find violence less morally reprehensible, morally disturbing, etc., which is entirely different from the “overall neural desensitization” examined in this study. As in Weber’s study, one would have to figure out which neural signatures relate to our moral decision making and see whether these neural decisions are dampened. For example, if we knew that a given brain network played a key role in the way we morally think of violence and a study showed that exposure to violent video games resulted in neural desensitization in this particular brain area, only then would we on our way to showing that violent games can cause moral desensitization.  

A dampened neural response must be indicative of something, though. It could indicate that a person is less surprised or more used to seeing violent imagery, but that person could still find the imagery morally disturbing even if they were accustomed to seeing such imagery. People’s brains might react less to seeing wartime violence when living in a warzone, but they can still be morally shocked and motivated to end the violence.    

By concluding that those who play violent video games are desensitized to violence, we fail to address the conceptual nuance of “desensitization.” Desensitization comes in many forms, and an overall change in brain activity is not necessarily indicative of moral desensitization. What we care about is whether exposure to violent imagery causes people to accept violence as an norm, but this study does not establish that this happens. One potential way to link moral desensitization to verifiable brain patterns is to look at whether violent video games decrease activity in areas of the brain known to play a role in empathy and moral decision making. 

Image courtesy of Englehardt et al. (2011) pg. 1036
Next, Engelhardt and colleagues (2011) looked at whether net neural desensitization predicted whether people would act more aggressively. To do so, the researchers had the participants compete against a hidden partner (which was actually a rigged computer, unbeknownst to the participants). The participants were told that the competition was to see who can press a button faster. The winner was then given the opportunity to expose the loser to an unpleasant sound and the winner could choose the loudness and duration of the noise. The researchers found that people who played violent video games were more likely to play louder sounds for longer and that those who exhibited net neural desensitization displayed more of this aggressive behavior.

The addition of this behavioral evidence is a critical step towards arguing that net neural desensitization is indicative of moral desensitization; if the people who are more desensitized are more aggressive, then it must mean that they are less morally disturbed by violence, correct?  

Not necessarily because it’s unclear whether the noise blast method is indicative of aggression. Dr. Brad Bushman from Ohio State University who is a co-author on Engelhardt’s study argues that administering noise blasts counts as aggression because it fits the widely accepted definition of aggression: any behavior intending to harm an individual who does not want to be harmed (Anderson & Bushman, 1997; McCarthy & Elson 2018). Furthermore, he argues that this method for testing aggression is valid because it is properly correlated with other things known to increase aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 1997; Bushman, 1997).  

I asked Dr. Bushman about the difference between reactive and proactive violence. Reactive violence occurs as an immediate, almost reactive response to any perceived threat. Examples of reactive violence could be as benign as a sibling hitting another sibling who was “being mean” or more tragic examples, like crimes of passion. On the other hand, “proactive violence” refers to cases of premeditated violence—violence seen in acts of terror and mass shootings. Bushman conceded that many studies on violence and video games more accurately captured cases of reactive violence rather than premeditated violence.  

However, with this said, there is mounting evidence that neither loudness nor duration of the sound actually correlate with other measures of aggression, such as personality scales of aggression (Ferguson & Rueda, 2009; Ferguson, Smith, Miller-Stratton, Fritz, & Heinrich, 2008). Thus, it is an open question whether the noise blast method is indicative of aggression. 

The best available evidence does not conclusively demonstrate that violent media leads to real-world aggression and desensitization. By taking these studies at face value, we may begin to view gamers as anarchists who embrace violence, but the evidence cannot support that picture. Even organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA) have declared the evidence does not conclusively demonstrates a decisive link between violent video games and real world violence, delinquency, and aggression like the violence seen in mass shootings (Calvert et al., 2017). Given the conceptual and methodological flaws rampant in the existing literature, no one is justified in making such strong claims. 

Why, then, does the media and general public panic about violent video games every time there is a resurgence of mass shootings? Why did Walmart pull their ads for violent video games after this most recent tragedy?  

It’s often easier to point fingers at a new technology than it is to search for underlying causes of a complex societal problem. So, instead of taking the more difficult route of finding the deep, underlying causes of gun violence, we seek the easier target. In doing so, we rely on cognitive biases, like confirmation bias. Studies demonstrate that we’re more likely to employ confirmation biases in fear-inducing situations (Remmerswaal et. al 2010, 2014; de Jong et. al 1997; Muris et. al 2014). Mass shootings are certainly fear inducing; it’s horrifying to think that you or someone you love can be the next victim of a senseless act of violence. However, when we say something like, “shootings weren’t a problem before violent video games, so violent video games must have been the cause of shootings!”, we’re actually employing confirmation bias rather than focusing on what the evidence demonstrates.  

We also blame violent video games because they’re a political scapegoat. Politicians don’t want to upset the people who give them money; when big money backs the gun industry and the politicians, they’ll find whoever or whatever else to blame.  

But the evidence isn’t as clear as politicians and others would have you think. It’s time to escape from the veils of moral panic and hasty generalizations. It’s time to address the real issues at hand, the real cause of gun violence—and it isn’t video games.


Kat Rivers earned a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of North Florida and an M.A. in Neuro-Philosophy from Georgia State University. While at Georgia State, she earned the Brains and Behavior Fellowship and wrote on topics in artificial intelligence, technology, and philosophy. She is currently pursuing a non-academic career track, where she hopes to combine her interest in writing with her interest in engaging with and educating the general public. Outside of work, as one might guess, she’s an avid gamer and loves a good book. 


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Rivers, K. (2019). Violent Video Games: An Easy Target & Scapegoat. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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