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Video Game Violence

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Video Game Violence

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold launched an assault on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, murdering 13 and wounding 23 before turning the guns on themselves. Although it is impossible to know exactly what caused these teens to attack their own classmates and teachers, a number of factors probably were involved. One possible contributing factor is violent video games. Harris and Klebold enjoyed playing the bloody, shoot-'em-up video game Doom, a game licensed by the U.S. military to train soldiers to effectively kill. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks Internet hate groups, found in its archives a copy of Harris' web site with a version of Doom that he had customized. In his version there are two shooters, each with extra weapons and unlimited ammunition, and the other people in the game can't fight back. For a class project, Harris and Klebold made a videotape that was similar to their customized version of Doom. In the video, Harris and Klebold dress in trench coats, carry guns, and kill school athletes. They acted out their videotaped performance in real life less than a year later. An investigator associated with the Wiesenthal Center said Harris and Klebold were "playing out their game in God mode" ( p. 32).

Entertainment media affects our lives. What behaviors children and adults consider appropriate comes, in part, from the lessons we learn from television and the movies (Huesmann & Miller, 1994). There are good theoretical reasons to expect that violent video games will have similar, and possibly larger, effects on aggression. The empirical literature on the effects of exposure to video game violence is sparse, however, in part because of its relatively recent emergence in modern U.S. society. About 25 years ago, when video games first appeared, popular games were simple and apparently harmless. In the 1970s, Atari introduced a game called Pong that was a simple video version of the game ping pong. In the 1980s, arcade games like Pac-Man became dominant. In Pac-Man, a yellow orb with a mouth raced around the screen chomping up ghosts and goblins. At this point, some eyebrows were raised questioning whether young people should play such "violent" games. In the 1990s the face of video games changed dramatically. The most popular video game of 1993 was Mortal Kombat (Elmer-Dewitt, 1993). This game features realistically rendered humanoid characters engaging in battle. As the name of the game implies, the goal of the player in Mortal Kombat is to kill any opponent he faces. Unfortunately, such violent games now dominate the market. Dietz (1998)sampled 33 popular Sega and Nintendo games and found that nearly 80% of the games were violent in nature. Interestingly, she also found that 21% of these games portrayed violence towards women.

The research to date on video game effects is sparse and weak in a number of ways. One reviewer and many video game creators have encouraged the belief that "video game playing may be a useful means of coping with pent-up and aggressive energies" (Emes, 1997, p. 413). In brief, what is needed is basic theory-guided research on the effects of playing violent video games. Such research would also contribute to the field's understanding of media violence effects in general. During the last several decades, electronic interactive games have emerged as one of the most popular forms of entertainment, particularly among adolescents. In 1998, revenues totaled $6.3 billion in the United States. 1 Ninety percent (90%) of U.S. households with children have rented or owned a video or computer game, 2 and young people spend an average of 20 minutes per day playing video games. 3 Video games are the second most popular form of entertainment after television. 4

Although research has pointed to the constructive uses of video games in such fields as education and medicine, 5 there are trends in game playing that some observers find disturbing. A 1998 survey revealed that 80% of the video games preferred by young people contain violent or aggressive content; 6 of these, 21% depict violence against women. 7 A survey of 900 fourth graders disclosed similar results: 50% of the respondents chose games with fantasy or human violence as their favorites. 8

Researchers have raised concerns about the potential link between playing violent video games and subsequent aggressive behavior. A number of studies have shown such effects, with younger children being particularly susceptible to influence. 9 In fact, recent studies show that after playing a violent video game children can become desensitized to violence 10 or act hostile to others. 11

While research on video games and aggressive behavior must be considered preliminary, it may be reasonably inferred from the more than 1,000 reports and studies on television violence that video game violence may also contribute to aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence. The interactive nature of video games may increase the likelihood of learning aggressive behavior,

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