Video violence fuels teen aggression: studies

February 19, 2004
St. Catharines Standard
By Don Fraser and Peter Downs

Neither teen has thrown a punch in an actual fight. But Niagara Falls buddies Mark Matechuk and Josh Malekzadeh regularly slaughter dozens of virtual victims a week when they play extremely violent video games.

"I play a lot of violent video games. They’re the only good ones," Matechuk said Wednesday night, sitting on a bench at the Pen Centre in St. Catharines.

Matechuk, 17, and Malekzadeh, 16, each registered a few kills moments earlier while testing a new shooting game at an electronics store.

"The violent videos are fun, but I would never think of doing any of that stuff in real life," said Matechuk.

The sheer gore and carnage in current violent video games might shock those who haven’t played them. Bullets rip apart bodies, bystanders are run over by speeding cars and women are sometimes assaulted.

So does playing these brutal video games damage the young people who are using them?

Four new studies published in the Journal of Adolescence say they do.

The violent games lead them to perform poorly in school, argue with teachers, condone aggression and get into physical fights with their peers, say the studies.

"These findings are not surprising, they’re not new," said Margaret Jordan, chief psychologist with the District School Board of Niagara.

"They’re not too different from what was found with watching violence on television, with reading violent comic books."

Video games, however, are "quick-action", said Jordan.

With passive influences such as violent comic books and TV, the images have to “process through your thinking and aren’t immediately connected with an action.

"But with video games, you’re pushing a little lever to make things happen, so you’re making it very automatic."

In one of the recent studies, more than 600 Minnesota students in Grades 8 and 9 were asked about the video games they played, their school grades and whether they’d been in fights.

It found teenagers who have non-aggressive personalities but play a lot of violent video games are almost 10 times as likely to get into a physical fight than teens who don’t play the games.

That study concluded that children who play more violent video games see the world as a more hostile place -- they get into more arguments with teachers, are more likely to be involved in fights and get poor grades.

On average, they spend nine hours a week playing the games, the research said, with boys playing more than girls.

Another study in the journal surveyed Grade 8 students in Germany and said those who like violent video games are more likely to condone physical aggression.

Still another showed that even brief exposure to a violent video game -- Doom, in this case -- can lead people to associate themselves with aggressive traits and actions.

The increased incidence of obesity and lower physical fitness caused by being sedentary is another issue related to excessive video game playing, added Jordan.

Kevin Cameron is the director of Lethbridge-based Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response. It collaborates with RCMP’s behavioural sciences unit to train Canadian school districts about threat-risk assessment.

"We’re seeing (the connection to video-game violence) applied in real situations as we’re involved in so many threat-risk assessment cases across the country", said Cameron.

"We refer to a lot of our higher-risk kids as empty vessels", he said. "A lot of these kids at higher risk for violence are poorly connected to parents or healthy adults", he said.

"And they’re spending a tremendous amount of time filling themselves up with things that are not useful."

Young people who were really troubled were "filling themselves up with violent video games." These video games helped them to further their violent fantasies and violent acting out, said Cameron.

Even worse, by being glued to the screen and having one’s physiology elevated regularly, young people can "literally get addicted," he said.

Still, the overuse of violent video games is something both teens and parents can control, said Jordan, especially when it’s clear the games are having a bad effect.

Many factors affect the behaviour of young people, not just nasty video games themselves, she said.

Some young people can be inclined to be aggressive and compulsive and they’ll "pick up even more on it."

"Other kids can keep it in a normal range -- both in the quantity they use it and how they connect it to other behaviour," said Jordan. "It’s individualized."

It’s important to understand the reasons young people choose to play violent games, she added. "Is there not a babysitter available? Is there not an alternate activity available?"

Both Matechuk and Malekzadeh said the two or three hours a week they each spend blowing people away in video games is harmless entertainment.

"It’s a way of doing stuff you could never really do," said Malekzadeh.

The Grade 11 student at Saint Michael Secondary School said playing violent games doesn’t make him feel aggressive toward others.

"The kids that are violent, they think it’s from video games. But maybe that’s just the way they were raised," he said.