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UPDATED: Supreme court decision reversing CA ban on selling violent video games to children: What does the research tell us as to the effects?

June 28, 2011

The Supreme Court weighed in (June 27th, 2011)  on the right of states (most prominently California) to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. My interest, particularly in relation to posts on GrecoAmerican, is not with the first amendment rights pertaining to the issue, but on what we know regarding the actual effects of playing violent video games on children’s development. I am in the process of reviewing all the latest empirical, peer-reviewed studies on the topic and will be posting my analysis and commentary soon. As a father of 2 sons who will soon be of the age where attraction to such things begins to seriously manifest itself, I also have a personal interest. 

For Reference, here is the link to the majority Supreme Court Decision:

 And to Justice Breyer’s Dissenting Opinion:


Took me a bit longer than expected, but here is my review and conclusion:

Studies Reviewed:
I examined 5 empirical, peer-reviewed scientific studies examining the effects of violent video games on adolescent children’s (10 to 15 yrs of age). I limited the search to studies conducted in the last 3 years as the sophistication and graphical realism of such games has increased dramatically since these issues were first seriously examined over 10 years ago. I also wanted to capture diverse samples, in terms of gender and nationality.

Review of Results:
The results were clear and consistent. Exposure to violent video games, more so playing than observing, led to greater physical aggression, and greater tolerance of violence and aggression in general.  The results held for samples as diverse as those from the U.S. and Japan (Craig et al., 2008) the Netherlands (Polman, de Castro, & van Aken, 2008) and Germany (Moller & Krahe, 2009) indicating that the underlying causal mechanisms are not cultural or moderated by the particular amount of environmental violent exposure. In other words, the results held in countries with very low actual violence (e.g., Japan) as well as for those with above average interpersonal violence (e.g. the United States).  The findings were also clearly directional.  For example, in a longitudinal (across time) study with samples in the U.S. and Japan, exposure to violent video games at the beginning of the year, predicted greater violence at the end of the year.  In fact this long term association held up to 30 months out in one study.  The association did not work in the other direction however, dismissing one early hypothesis that it is  aggressive kids who were most enticed by or attracted to violent video games, and that therefore the causal association was spurious. In other words, some (video game manufacturers) had argued that violent video games do not cause aggression, it’s just that aggressive kids are more likely to play them.  That does not seem to be the driving force behind the associations found in the research. In fact, a German study showed that greater aggression itself, was not directly associated with greater violent game playing later on.  And more generally, the longitudinal studies clearly show that there is a temporal precedence at work such that it is the violent game play that leads to aggression and not vice-versa.  The role of gender is less clear.  Some studies have shown that the effects occur regardless of gender, even if less so for female adolescents.  However, other studies have shown that the association between violent game play and aggression simply does not hold for females.  The results were also consistent regardless of whether the studies asked participants to rate their own violent video game play or were randomly assigned to violent video game playing vs. non-violent game conditions (i.e., a true experiment).  Finally, the magnitude of the effects across these studies were typically in the moderate range.  To put that into perspective, the strength of these associations are in the range of how well SAT scores predict freshman year GPA, which is to say pretty well.

Summary:  In some respects, all of the above is moot.  The Supreme Court’s decision last June was based upon legal arguments tied to the First Amendment and whether or not state’s could ban the sale of these games to children, and not the scientific evidence as to whether or not such games have negative effects on children’s development.  However, children, including adolescents, have consistently been regarded as a protected class, and when issues of physical harm have been made clear, e.g. tobacco and alcohol consumption, laws have been enacted and have passed legal muster.  I suppose, it therefore comes down to what we consider important as a society and what level of harm, psychological, physical or otherwise we are willing to expose our children to before we take the choice out of the hands of the individual or company.

Personal Conclusion: My personal opinion, as informed by the research, is that these type of video games so clearly cause potential harm to children and increase the risk of an outcome that all civil societies spend significant resources to lessen (specifically interpersonal violence), that it seems to be an acceptable burden on companies to restrict the sales of these games to minors.  Remember, what was called for by the states was not an outright ban, simply an age restriction.  At present, restrictions based on obscenity are in place preventing a 15 yr old from seeing things like full frontal nudity and depictions of sex, however, they can walk into any Big Box retailer and buy a game that photo-realistically shows someone being dismembered, or shot through the head, or beat to death, or run over by a car.  And perhaps even more disturbingly, it is usually the player themselves that directs these actions.

*The full citations of the studies referenced above is available in the References section of GrecoAmerican.

  1. Michael permalink

    Really, I sent you a message on Twitter, but I’m getting very tired of people comparing video games to pornography. You’re making broad, sweeping generalizations about an entire medium you haven’t given any indication that you know anything about, and comparing pornography to an artistic medium with literary plot devices, themes, motifs, narratives, extensive artwork and voice acting, dialogue, and relevant messages. Video gaming is legally recognized by the federal government (and now the SUpreme Court) as a legitimate art form, and comparing it to a controlled substance severely undermines your own argument.

    Yes, minors can *legally* purchase an M rated game just as they can legally enter an R rated movie or purchase an explicit CD. The most recent statistics by the FTC has labeled the video game’s private, voluntary ESRB as the “gold standard” of self regulation, with testers being denied access to M rated games 87% of the time – which is much higher than movie or CD failures. California’s response? FTC data from the year 2000. Very nice.

    And what about the amicus brief signed by 82 social scientists and media researchers stating clearly and unambiguously that video game studies that theorize a correlation (which is not causation) between video games and violence have admitted flaws? They address most of the studies point-by-point including the Anderson study, which Sotomayor noted during oral arguments. She mentioned that Anderson admitted video games cause the same aggression spike as Bugs Bunny, a point to which Leland Yee seems curious oblivious to.

    Here’s some reading material on the subject. Enjoy:

    • Hi Michael, I appreciate your posting. Although getting unique vistors is great, and I enjoy seeing spikes in readership with new postings, I get too few comments, questions, retorts, etc, so I really enjoy it when somone takes the time. So onto your comment. I will try my best to address each point you make in order, and chances are it’s probably going to be almost as long as my original blog posting!

      1) As to making sweeping generalizations. The merit of the generalization should not be judged by how expansive or encompassing it is, but rather by the evidence in its support. If that support is lacking , fine, criticize away, but simply calling something sweeping doesn’t get us anywhere.

      1) I never compared violent video games to pornography. In fact, I never used that term. I did use the term obscenity, but that is a much more general standard and the definition of pornography tends to shift quite a bit depending on some rather subjective standards region to region. Furthermore, I did not compare violent video games to a controlled substance either. Neither alcohol nor tobacco are under the U.S. Gov’s schedule of controlled substances (I-IV) as far as I can tell. Perhaps I did not make the point well enough, but my intention was to use an analogy comparing something that is legal but restricted for minors. I did not advocate for, nor call for the legal abolition of video games of any kind, nor would I want that. My argument may be undermined by something I said, but not by claims I did not make.
      2) I never argued that video games, violent or otherwise, are not artistic expressions. In fact, I clearly stated that I was not going to try to argue the merits of the Supreme Court decision (as many legal scholars of both left, right and centrist orientations have done by the way). I have played video games that were incredible experiences, as creative as any other art form, and in many ways much more immersive. That’s not what I was arguing. There have been many books and movies also ruled obscence in the past that are now considered works of art. So again, not my issue nor my concern. As to the legality, again so? Saying something is legal does not exempt it from scientific criticism, nor arguments regarding its effects, nor the judgments of later generations to make it illegal once the evidence deemed it necessary. I am sure you are well aware of our history in the U.S., as well every other country’s, of bestowing acts, practices, and products legal status only to later make them illegal or restricted once the evidence as their detrimental effects became clear.
      3) I think the voluntary ESRB rating is great as information goes. If you see this reply and are so inclined, I’d actually like to see the FTC report/evidence for this 87% compliance rate. The FTC is not a scientific body, nor is its primary mission the protection of child consumers. The FTC’s primary responsibilities are to prevent unfair business practices and deceptive advertising, so I am a little skeptical, but I am happy to see evidence if you can provide a specific citation I can access.
      4) I do not base my personal conclusion, emphasis on personal and clearly labeled that way in my posting, one only a few studies. Nor did I “cherry pick” the studies I referenced or read. I used search criteria to establish the key words, year of publication, from a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and that the study had to be empirical in methdology. By the time I was finished with my review I had looked at over 20 studies, including several meta-analyses that combined the results of dozens of other studies on top of that. The research linking violent video games to childhood aggression goes back over a decade. And most reseachers were not surprised by findings given the threoretical frameworks already in play. The research linking the viewing of violence through a video medium and subsequent aggression goes back even further. In fact, a good place to start is with the giant in the field of social learning theory, Albert Bandura. Furthermore, all of the issues you raise have been addressed. Studies have not only shown a correlation between the two, but VERY muich a causal connection, a claim you can absolutely validly make when you employ a study with random assignment to conditions and longitudinal follow-up. The issue of correlation not being causation is one that snap-shot or cross-sectional studies are vulernable to. Longitudinal studies that employ random assignment + control groups, are generally safe from that critique
      5) What about the amicus brief signed by 82 social scientists? Ok, I had nor have any doubts that there are contrary opinions in the field, but if one accepts that basic premise of the scientific method and of empiricism in general, which as a social scientist myself (I have a Ph.D. in child development and specialize in adolescence) I do, then we look at the preponderence of the scholarly evidence, and there is most certainly a consensus on this issue among most experts. Climate change is a good example. There is most certainly a strong consensus that it is real and man-made, yet there are some scientists with strong bona fides who take a contrary view. Fine. But the historical trend is clear. There are many more scientists who used to be climate change change skeptics who now think it is real than the other way around. Given the trajectory of the evidence regarding violent video games and aggression, I see a similar trend. But science moves slowly and there is still work to be done, so if the weight of the evidence shifts and we start seeing more studies that do not find a link, and fewer that do, I will change my opinion, which is what the scientific method is all about. But if it’s a numbers game, which is what you turn it into when you specify 82 as a number that I am assuming you think is sizable, then its no argument at all. There are hundreds of researchers who believe there is a link.

      I will check out the pdf you linked to. I am always open to contrary opinions. And on a personal note, I know a LOT about these type of video games. I spent many hours, probably too many, playing first person shooters on my roomate’s gaming rig in college. But I was 19 then, and like to think that I was in a much different place in my cognitive, emotional, and self-regulatory faculties than a 13 yr old would be. And as a father, I also allow my two young sons to play video games which I decide are age appropriate. I mention this only to be clear I am not opposed to video games on principle. I care only about the specific effects, not moral arguments on way or another.

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