Opinion: A Complicated Relationship Exists Between Violent Video Games and Desensitization of Violen

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Mortal Kombat.

These are just three of the world’s most popular video games, played by hundreds of millions of people — most often teens and young adults. Pew Research Center found that 93% of teens play video games daily and 56% of teens spend on average 2.5 hours playing video games per day.

Based entirely on either shooting or gruesome combat between players, these three games among others are extremely violent. A study recently found that over 50% of games rated by the organization Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) were labeled with some type of violence; 90% of those games had been rated appropriate for only ages 10 and older, despite the violent content.

What Classifies As Violent?

ESRB classifies different definitions of violence for different situations. For example, “cartoon violence” is violence including cartoon-like situations where victims may remain unharmed, while “intense violence” is graphic and realistic including extreme gore and death. ESRB also gives maturity ratings to different video games because not all games are age-appropriate for all children, for example some ratings include E(everyone) and T(teen). Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Mortal Kombat were all labeled with the rating M(17+) and given labels of “blood and gore” and “intense violence.”

Titles rated M typically have suggestive themes and mature content. For example, in the game Mortal Kombat, once a player defeats his or her opponent, what’s known as a fatality occurs, in which the player can see the words “FINISH HIM,” in large red letters. The game also shows the player’s character brutally mutilating the opponent.

The History of Violent Video Games

Violent video games have been around for years. The first widely known game, Death Race, was created in 1976, with a storyline about driving around different simulated roads and running over other humans and gremlin-like creatures. Death Race drew lots of controversy due to the violence it presented, eventually resulting in the game being banned. Mortal Kombat was released later in 1993 and drew scrutiny from Congress. A Congressional hearing was held to discuss Mortal Kombat, and that resulted in the formation of ESRB to oversee rating for video games, which allowed Mortal Kombat to stay in stores.

Generation Z is More Exposed to Violent Video Games Than Any Other Generation

In these high-tech times, 4.5 billion people around the world have the ability to access a variety of media on their phones, computers, and televisions. Even though violent video games have been around for over 40 years, kids nowadays have more access to them at their fingertips. They can easily download applications on their phones and access games on the internet with their computers.

It’s also much more difficult for parents to control what their children do on their devices; this includes regulating the apps that their kids download. Before the Internet, parents would be the ones going to the store and buying video games for their kids, which would give them a chance to look over the content. However, now kids can download apps on their phones without their parents knowing and can easily watch and play violent content online through a simple google search.

It is becoming even more difficult for the government to regulate the sale of video games as well, which may also explain why children are able to access them easily now more than ever. In the past, it was easier for the government to ban video games, given that they were physical games. Games were also collectively located in video game stores, and the government was able to quickly ban them, as they did with Death Race. But with the internet, purchasing and downloading these games are all done digitally through online games and app stores, and anyone can easily upload the game.

The Impact of Violent Video Games on Children and Young Adults

Violent video games affect children and young people in numerous ways. Hundreds of studies have been conducted in this regard, and correlations have been found between excessive playing time and higher aggression, and hostility. There is also proof that violent video games desensitize players to violence.

Even though the phrase “desensitized to violence” is used often to describe the effect of violent media on people’s brains, its meaning is sometimes unclear.

By definition the word “desensitized” means “having been made less likely to feel shocked or distressed at scenes of cruelty or suffering by overexposure to such images.”

For video games, this means that people may become “numb” to the violence or not feel anything when seeing violent acts being committed in real life due to the exposure to violence from playing video games.

A study conducted by scientists from Iowa State University found that players became desensitized to violence after playing video games. They did this by comparing the heart rate and galvanic skin responses of multiple video game players when playing violent games and when watching real-life violence. They found that playing violent video games for even 20 minutes can result in players becoming “less physiologically aroused” by violence.

Another study conducted in 2019 linked excessive video game use to depression, low self-esteem, and isolation, and a study published to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that playing violent video games was directly related to violent behavior in teens.

Additionally, studies published in the Psychological Bulletin, Perspectives on Psychological Science, and the Journal of Psychiatric Research related video games to high rates of aggression and anxiety, as well as a decrease in academic performance.

Although there are studies that have found video game playing to have negative effects on mental health, other studies have found no effects or even positive mental health effects .

One long term study conducted in 2017 found that playing violent video games was not linked to desensitization of violence at all, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity levels.

Studies conducted by scientists in Britain and Singapore also found that violent video games do not affect aggressive behavior.

Research Findings About the Connection Between Mental Health and Violent Video Games Differ

Even though many studies support the belief that violent video games are harmful toward mental health, some say that they don’t affect it. So what’s the verdict?

It’s much more complicated than that. One thing common in every study was the use of the word “linked” rather than “caused.” It’s important to know the difference between causation and correlation. Correlation is when two factors are related and have a relationship, but do not necessarily cause each other, while causation is when one factor causes another.

In the case of video games, a correlation is often shown, which means that scientists can’t say video games cause aggression in players. They can only declare that playing violent video games is linked to higher aggression. Given that many factors usually affect the results of a study, it is extremely difficult to prove causation.

For example, if participants in a study about violent video games are suffering from mental illness, innate aggression issues, or family problems, their aggression levels will be affected. The only way to guarantee that playing violent video games is the only factor causing aggression in subjects is to make sure every other variable is kept the same, making it very difficult to declare that “video games cause aggression.” Proving causation often can take decades. In fact, it took over 60 years to just prove smoking causes cancer.

Despite the unclear results on the effects of playing violent video games, we know that “everything is good in moderation.” Teens can work to monitor their screen time and spend more time outside. Parents can also work to check the ESRB ratings of games and simply monitor their children’s online activities.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you play video games you consider violent? How often do you play video games? Do you think violent video games affect how you perceive violence in real life? How?

“I play video games most days of the week, due to quarantine, but at school I don’t play too much. I don’t think they really affect how I view violence because I am able to separate reality from video games. In real life, I would see a gun and probably realize what it could do and I would know guns are bad, but in a game it’s just part of the gameplay.” – Arnav Aggarwal, Rising Junior at the Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey
“I do play violent video games. For video games overall: I play at least every other day and I play violent ones around once every week. I think it definitely does affect how you perceive violence in real life; it makes you more aware of these situations, especially for ones depicting war scenes, but doesn’t necessarily make you act more violent. Others are more ‘censored’, like Fortnite, are more cartoonish than realistic, so I believe they don’t affect me as much.” – Jessica Ye, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia
“Yes, I play video games every day in quarantine at least. I don’t think it affects how I perceive violence in real life, because they are different things. One is an animated game, and the other is happening in the world, and I can see the difference.” – Kunal Verma, Rising Freshman at Fairfax High School, Centreville, Virginia
“Yes, I play violent video games for about 2 hours a day. Violent video games don’t affect how I perceive violence, because I separate them from real life in my mind, however I could see how they could affect others differently.” – Anonymous student at McLean High School, McLean, Virginia
“Yes I play a couple of times a week or whenever I have free time. It really depends on the video game because some games i’ve played accurately depict violent situations such as war and provide insight on what those situations are like while others are pretty unrealistic and only serve as entertainment.” – Johanna Lohmus, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria Virginia