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Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris (L) and Dylan Klebold were avid video game players. Is there a link between playing video games and committing violent acts? See more video game system pictures.

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Do violent video games lead to real violence?

On April 20, 1999, two seniors walked into their Colorado high school carrying assault rifles, and they opened fire. They shot dozens of people, killing 12 students and one teacher, and the nation was floored. School shootings had happened before, but this was a new scope of carnage, and in the ensuing search for answers it came out the shooters had spent a lot of time playing violent video games [source: Ward].

Since then, in the wake of each new, senseless massacre, the entertainment proclivities of the shooters are one of the first things reported by the press. The 20-year-old who killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012 played violent video games. So did the 24-year-old who shot dozens of people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that same year [source: Jaccarino].

Perhaps that reporting is for good reason: An estimated 97 percent of America's young people are playing video games, with many of the most popular ones featuring violent content [sources: Markey, NPD]. And by a 2008 estimate, they're playing them for an average of 13.2 hours per week [source:Gentile]. On top of the obvious generation-gap questions (what happened to riding bikes around the neighborhood?), we now face more ominous ones. What appears to some to be a connection between violent game play and actual violence has many wondering about the effects of immersive violence on young minds.

Video games as we now know them have really only existed since the mid-1970s, so there's nowhere near the amount of empirical evidence for or against their violent effects than there is surrounding, say, television violence (and even those effects remain a source of controversy). But the rise in dramatically violent shootings by teenaged gamers is bolstering the side of the argument that says video game violence translates in some way to the real world.

An Apparent Connection

Video games and killers have been connected in the media since the 1990s. In 1997, 16-year-old Evan Ramsey brought a shotgun to his Alaska high school and shot four people, killing two. He played a lot of the sci-fi horror game "Doom," in which you have to shoot a character many times before he dies. Ramsey later explained he was surprised to find that rule did not apply in real life [source: Jaccarino].

Also in 1997, a 14-year-old killed multiple people at his high school in Paducah, Ky. He'd played a lot of "Doom," too, along with the fight-to-the-death game "Mortal Kombat," two favorites of the Columbine teens, as well [source:Jaccarino]. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people at a summer camp in Norway 2011, said he trained for his attack using the war game "Call of Duty," one also favored by Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary[source: Jaccarino].

An even more direct case happened in 2006. Alabama teen Devin Moore was arrested on suspicion of car theft. The police officers easily brought him into the station and had started booking him when Moore suddenly attacked one police officer, stole his gun, shot him and another officer, and then fled down the hall and shot a 911 dispatcher in the head. He then grabbed a set of car keys on his way out the back door, got in a police car and drove away. Moore, who had no criminal history, had reportedly been playing a lot of "Grand Theft Auto" before the killings [source: CBS News]. In "Grand Theft Auto," players steal cars and kill cops.

In many ways, it's the same argument we've heard for decades about violence on TV, and science has come to a general consensus that under certain conditions, TV does have some effect on kids' behavior. For instance, there's evidence linking high exposure to TV sex with younger involvement in sexual activity; and kids who watch more than five hours of TV every day are more likely to smoke cigarettes [source: Kids Health]. Some believe video games are even more likely to affect behavior because they're immersive. People don't just watch video games; they interact with them. The games are also repetitive and based on a rewards system, primary components of classical conditioning, a proven psychological concept in which behavioral learning takes place as a result of rewarding (or punishing) particular behaviors [source: Jaccarino].

Many of these claims seem logical, but proof of a link between virtual and actual violence is tough to come by. A handful of studies, though, have produced some interesting results.

Freedom of Speech

After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, the wife of a murdered teacher sued publishers of violent video games known to be in the perpetrators' collections. The judge threw the lawsuit out, deciding the games' content did not rise to level of "incitement of violence" (an exception to the right of free speech) because the publishers could not have anticipated what happened at the school. The First Amendment, then, protects the companies' right to distribute games, regardless of content [source: Ward].

Video Violence: Evidence of a Link

Entertainment media have always made good scapegoats for negative behaviors among young people. In the 1950s, lots of people blamed comic books for kids acting badly [source: CBS News]. In the 1960s, rock 'n' roll made kids do drugs [source: Paul]. In the '80s, heavy-metal music was causing teens to commit suicide [source: Tewksbury]. The 1999 Columbine massacre, with its unprecedented number of victims, might have ushered in the official age of "blame the video games."

There is some evidence to support a relationship between playing violent video games and behaving violently. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology had college students play video games and then engage in a competition that ended with the winner punishing the loser with a loud audio blast. The students who had played a violent video game punished their opponents for longer than the students who played a nonviolent game [source: American Psychological Association].

A meta-analysis reported in the journal Psychological Science in 2001 noted several common conclusions among previous video-game studies, notably reports of a "fight or flight" response in children playing video games. Their heart rates and blood pressures increased, and their adrenal glands released adrenaline. Real-life violence triggers the same physiological responses. The analysis concluded that the studies "clearly support the hypothesis that exposure to violent video games poses a public-health threat to children and youths."

Other physical links were revealed in a 2006 study at the Indiana University School of Medicine, this time regarding brain activity. Researchers looked at the brains of 44 kids immediately after they played video games. Half of them played a nonviolent game, and half played a violent game. The brain scans of the violent-game group showed increased activity in the amygdala, which stimulates emotions, and decreased activity in the prefrontal lobe, which regulates inhibition, self-control and concentration. These increases didn't show up on the scans of the nonviolent-game group.

Whatever the factors, the evidence for some kind of connection is compelling. Today's "school shooters" certainly do seem to share a love of violent video games. But, as Villanova University psychology professor Patrick Markey explained in U.S. News & World Report in April 2013, 97 percent of adolescents play video games. "It could similarly be argued that bread consumption predicts school shootings, because most school shooters likely consumed a bread product within 24 hours before their violent attacks."

Men fight to the death in the violent PlayStation 3 game, The Last of Us, at a Sony press conference on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles in 2012.

David McNew/Getty Images

Video Violence: Arguments Against the "Evidence"

In science, correlation doesn't imply causation. Changes in brain activity, for instance, don't necessarily lead to changes in behavior. Even an obvious relationship between virtual aggression and real-life aggression, like acting out the specific behaviors portrayed in "Grand Theft Auto," isn't necessarily one of cause and effect. It may be that real-life violent psychopaths enjoy being virtual violent psychopaths, and they choose games based on that preference [source: Lillebuen].

In fact, there are considerable deficiencies in studies connecting violent game play with violent (or, more accurately, aggressive) behavior, including a failure to contextualize and a general inconsistency among results [source: Ferguson].

For instance, a 2010 study published in the "Review of General Psychology," reviewed past studies that reported ties between violent games and violent responses. The researchers found the subjects most deeply affected by violent game play were those who exhibited personality traits indicative of psychoticism, which include lack of empathy, nonconformity and impulsiveness. People who fit this model are predisposed to see violence as an appropriate response to social conflict [sources: Markey, Harris].

National trends, which rely on much larger sample sizes than do lab studies, also go against a causative relationship between video games and behavior: While sales of violent games are increasing (and games themselves are getting more violent), violent crime rates in the United States are going down [source: LiveScience]. In 2013, crime rates in the 10 biggest U.S. cities were the lowest in four decades [source: Zadronsy].

And one 2013 study, published in the "Journal of Youth and Adolescence," found the behaviors of "at risk" kids to be unaffected by playing violent video games. "At risk," in this case, meant they exhibited symptoms of attention-deficit disorder or depression, conditions widely believed to increase vulnerability to the potentially negative effects of video game violence. The researchers looked at the behaviors of 377 such U.S. children, examining both their game-playing habits (violence levels, time spent playing) and their negative social habits (getting into fights, bullying, cutting class), and found no link between the two. In fact, in a small number of children with attention-deficit symptoms, playing violent video games actually seemed to correlate with slight reductions in bullying [source: Ferguson].

In an open letter to the American Psychological Association (APA) published in 2013, a group of more than 200 psychology experts petitioned the APA to re-examine its resolution that "all violence be reduced in video games and interactive media marketed to children and youth" [source: APA]. As people of science, they explained, they simply could not support an official position based on what they considered dramatically insufficient evidence. As of early 2014, an APA task force was still looking into the matter.

Scientific proof aside, you won't find many people in favor of children (or adults, for that matter) playing pretend murder for hours a day. Most retailers refuse to sell violent "rated M" (mature) games to kids under 17, and every console on the market has built-in parental controls [sources: ESRB, Jackson]. It's likely we'll never know whether virtual violence begets actual violence. Imagine the ethical concerns in designing a study that could definitively prove that. In the meantime, video game sales increase: "Grand Theft Auto 5" broke a Guinness World Record in 2013 for "highest revenue generated by an entertainment product in 24 hours" [source: Lynch].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: Do violent video games lead to real violence?

I intentionally limited the scope of this article to the objective – science, research, proof, real-life events. It's worth noting, though, that parenting styles come up in the discussion, too. Most parents, for instance, know which games their children are playing and were involved in the original purchases. If you'd like to find out more about effective parenting in the age of virtual murder, have a look at Dr. Phil's article "Children and Violent Video Games" here: http://www.drphil.com/articles/article/297. It offers some proactive, reasonable approaches to the issue.

Sources

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