In 2011-2012, 95% of Australian homes used video game devices (SMH, 2012), with Australian consumer spending $1.1 billion in 2012 on gaming devices alone (IGEA, 2013). This growing popularity of video games in Australia has meant a growth in the debate concerning the negative effects that video games can have on consumer’s mental health.
Gratification has been shown to affect the choice of video game play (Chory & Goodboy, 2011) and 43% of all video sales are violent video games (Entertainment Software Association website, 2013), so whether this is good for humanity or not was part of a controversial debate between policy makers, parents, researchers and video game producers about the effects being both harmful and beneficial, especially as 90% of
children and teens reportedly play them in the US (Anderson, Prot, McDonald & Gentile, 2012) and six of the top ten include violent content (ESA, 2008).
Moreover, this fuelled the motivation behind the large body of 250 correlational and experimental studies carried out over the past twenty years to find out if exposure to violent video games is positive or negative (King & Delfabbro, 2010), however the effects are complex and
be better understood as multiple dimensions rather than simply ‘good or bad’ (Anderson et. al, 2012).
These studies provided causal relationships between violent video game exposure and increased aggression, cognition and behaviour of game players, especially adolescents and shows exposure to violent video games lowers empathy levels (King & Delfabbro, 2010). This evidence is highly contested however, mostly by the methodological limitations questioning the validity of this link (King & Delfabbro, 2010), more frequently by those with a conflicting interest such as the Entertainment
Software Association and researchers funded by video game companies such as Texas University where a leading researcher on the subject works, Ferguson et al (2010) who are in partnership with a television station which sells videos, (Texas University website, 2013). Additionally, boys who scored low in empathy were found more likely to play violent video games (Lemmens & Bushman, 2006).
The correlation between behaviour factors and violent video games
Multiple theories have tried to establish the complex relationship between the effect of violent video games and aggression in young generation.
One theory states that the choice to play violent video games is dependent on the consumer’s personality (Chory & Goodboy, 2011).
Factors such as increased aggressive behaviour, cognition and effect, reduced empathy, and pro-social behaviour play a role in aggravating the effects of violent video games (Anderson et.al, 2012). However, the
evidence is contested due to methodological limitations (King & Delfabbro, 2010) as can be seen from the work of another group of
researchers who identified those who have a family history and psychological predisposition to violence, that influences their behaviour and reaction to playing these games researchers identifying those who have a family history and psychological predisposition to violence, would
influence their behaviour and reaction to playing these games (McLean & Griffiths, 2013, Markey & Markey, 2010, Ferguson & Kilburn, 2008,)
which places less importance of violent media in influencing violent behaviour (Ferguson et.al 2010, 2013).
We can however hypothesis that the violent media may set off a person’s predisposition to violence either genetically or developmentally.
In summary, a number of theories and variables affect the choices and attraction of a person to consume violent media (Weaver, 2011), which explains why so many people play violent video games and only a small amount carry out violent behaviours as a result.
The media gratification theory proposes that gratification seeking in humans leads to consumption of different types of media which is impacted by a person’s personality traits i.e. excitement, and this media exposure then impacts the person’s cognitive behaviours such as a rise in aggression for example (Chory & Goodboy, 2011) whose research
showed extroversion trait correlated to a need to consume violent media content in order to gratify their need for sensation and sociableness.
This theory is used by software and game developers and is exploited in gamification, which is thought to encompass addictive properties causing a desire to repeat the experience, and is also found in social media platforms (Fang & Zhao, 2010). Conflicting evidence however was reported that personality traits were not a factor of any game preferences (Collins & Freeman, 2013).
Role of Empathy
Empathy is defined as the drive to detect emotions and thoughts in other people and respond appropriately and plays an important role in social relationships (Prot et. al, 2012). Based on the above theories, one of the parallel consequences of violent video games, besides aggressive behaviour, is the decreasing of empathy towards the victims (King & Delfabbro, 2010).
Additionally, boys with low empathy were inclined to play more violent video games resulting in high aggression (Lemmens & Bushman, 2006), and this cyclical effect may contribute to the addictive nature of video games. In fact a new study has shown psychopaths switch off empathy in the brain as it is not spontaneous like most people and has severe violence disinhibiting consequences (Meffert, Gazzola, Boer, Bartels & Keysers, 2013). Yet, the proponents and beneficiaries of video games have highly contested the inverse relationship between empathy and exposure to violent video games (King & Delfabbro, 2010).
Insufficient strong correlations between violent media and empathy have yet been established due to lack of complete control on media conditions (Ramos et. al, 2013). More research to study the effects of empathy in the video gaming context is becoming a higher priority with the growing depiction of violence and could show significant influences on the usage
of violent video gaming.
In conclusion, scientific literature on social personality traits and video game preferences is to date lacking evidence in providing insight into what makes people choose certain types of video games in order to determine if the games cause a change in their personality character (Fang & Zhao, 2010), especially as many causal and correlational studies focus on the outcome of exposure to these games, one being lower levels of empathy. This might be because those who play violent video games are low in empathy trait as a starting point (Collins & Freeman, 2013), which implications of boys low in empathy and high in aggression seeking out violent media include increased aggression and lower empathy (Lemmens & Bushman, 2006) and this increasing use suggests violence may contribute to the addictive nature of video games.
Written by Karyn Krawford (Jan 2014)
Published: mental health matters magazine / summer 2013/14
Karyn has appeared a number of times in the Australian media. She is
completing her degree in Social Sciences with a specialisation in Counselling and 3 years postgraduate studies in Coaching. She delivers regular learning events to the public on the effects of digital technologies on humans and is the founder of a new Australian Cyber Addiction
Recovery Center providing treatments for those with cyber addictions.
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