On an unsuspecting December day, tragedy tore through the small town of Newton, CT, as an armed man invaded an elementary school and took down 20 children and six adults in his wake, while injuring many others.
While the pros and cons of gun control have been deliberated in the past, it wasn’t until this massacre shocked a nation that the issue gained momentum. Politicians, interest groups and media personalities alike have been in a heated debate over what policies will reduce gun violence as well as what factors have caused such a high rate of gun-related homicides in the United States.
While some advocates urge for stricter gun control laws, others, namely the NRA, suggest arming more of the general population to protect against offenders. Other precursors to gun violence are also being examined.
The suggestion that video game violence is linked to violent behavior is one of these debated topics. It has been implied that the active nature of video games makes them unique among screen-based media. Many people assume that violent video games cause real world violence, however there is no concrete evidence of this occurrence.
In his recent Google Hangout, Vice President Joe Biden recommended more research be done to study the links between violent video games and violent behavior. More specifically, Biden stressed the distinction between aggressive and violent behavior. To postulate that Call of Duty causes a child to act more aggressively is different than to underestimate the large gap between aggressive tendencies and actual violent behavior.
Previously studies have been done to measure the relationship between media violence exposure and desensitization to violence. Desensitization is defined as “a reduction in emotion-related physiological reactivity to real violence” (Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007). The process of desensitization may occur as a result of repeated exposure and rewards to violence in video games. Desensitization is also related to lower empathy, which is critical to the process of moral evaluation.
In a study done by Funk, Baldacci, Pasold, & Baumgardner (2004), 150 fourth and fifth graders completed measures of real-life violence exposure, media violence exposure, empathy and attitudes toward violence. Regression analyses showed that only exposure to video game violence was linked to lower empathy.
Another study by Carnagey et al. (2007) showed that playing a violent video game caused people to become less physiologically aroused by real violence. Participants first played a violent or nonviolent video game for 20 minutes. Afterwards, they watched a ten-minute video containing violence while heart rate and galvanic skin response were monitored. The participants who played the violent video game showed physiological desensitization to violence, perceived in their lower heart rate and galvanic skin response.
These studies show a link between violent video games and desensitization to violence as well as an association between exposure to video game violence, lower empathy and a stronger pro-violence attitude. The entertainment media landscape today could “accurately be described as an effective systematic violence desensitization tool” (Carnagey et al. 2007).
Nonetheless, so far research has been inconclusive in establishing a cause-effect relationship between violent video games and true acts of violence. Vice President Biden urges researchers to collect more data on this matter, and to not be afraid of the results (Forbes).
Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 489-496.
Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T., & Baumgardner, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization?. Journal of adolescence, 27(1), 23-39.
Wodarz, D., & Komarova, N. L. (2013). Calculating effective gun control policies. arXiv preprint arXiv:1301.7332.