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[url='http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/06/infographic-video-game-industry-statistics/239665/'], 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].
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.
- American Psychological Association. "Violent Video Games Can Increase Aggression." April 23, 2000. http://www.apa.org/releases/videogames.html
- American Psychological Association. "APA Calls for Reduction of Violence in Interactive Media Used by Children and Adolescents." April 17, 2005. (Jan. 2, 2014) http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2005/08/video-violence.aspx
- Anderson, Craig A. "Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions. American Psychological Association. October 2003. http://www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-anderson.html
- CBSNews.com. "Can A Video Game Lead To Murder?" March 6, 2005. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/04/60minutes/main678261.shtml
- Cullen, Dave. "The Depressive and the Psychopath." Slate. April 20, 2004. (Dec. 28, 2013) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2004/04/the_depressive_and_the_psychopath.html
- Entertainment Software Rating Board. "ESRB Survey: Parental Awareness, Use & Satisfaction." May/June 2012. (Dec. 26, 2013) http://www.esrb.org/about/awareness.jsp
- Ferguson CJ, Olson CK. "Video Game Violence Use Among "Vulnerable" Populations: The Impact of Violent Games on Delinquency and Bullying Among Children with Clinically Elevated Depression or Attention Deficit Symptoms." Journal of Youth and Adolescence. August 2013. (Dec. 26, 2013) Available from: http://www.christopherjferguson.com/Clinically%20Elevated.pdf
- Gentile, Douglas A. "Pathological Video Game Use Among Youth 8-18: A National Study." Iowa State University / National Institute on Media and the Family. Sept. 22, 2008. (Dec. 28, 2013) http://www.psychology.iastate.edu/~dgentile/pdfs/Gentile_Pathological_VG_Use_in_press.pdf
- Harris, Sally. "Violent movies can inspire violent responses in real life." Science from Virginia Tech. 1999. (Dec. 28, 2013) http://www.research.vt.edu/resmag/sciencecol/media_violence.html
- Jaccarino, Mike. "'Training simulation:' Mass killers often share obsession with violent video games." Fox News. Sept. 12, 2013. (Dec. 27, 2013) http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/09/12/training-simulation-mass-killers-often-share-obsession-with-violent-video-games/
- Jackson, Nicholas. "Infographic: Video Game Industry Statistics." The Atlantic. June 3, 2011. (Dec. 26, 2013) http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/06/infographic-video-game-industry-statistics/239665/
- Jenkins, Henry. "Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked." PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html
- Johnson, Bobbie. "German gamers face jail for acts of virtual violence." The Guardian UK. Dec. 12, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2006/dec/12/news.germany
- Kalning, Kristin. "Does game violence make teens aggressive?" MSNBC.com. Dec. 8, 2006. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16099971/
- Kids Health. "How TV Affects Your Child." (Dec. 27, 2013) http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/tv_affects_child.html
- Lillebuen, Steve. "Are shows like Dexter to blame for inspiring violent crimes?" The Guardian. July 1, 2013. (Dec. 28, 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/01/dexter-final-season-tv-violence-murder
- Lynch, Kevin. "Confirmed: Grand Theft Auto 5 Breaks 6 Sales World Records." Guinness World Records. Oct. 8, 2013. (Dec. 19, 2013) http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2013/10/confirmed-grand-theft-auto-breaks-six-sales-world-records-51900/
- Markey, Patrick. "In Defence of Violent Video Games." U.S. News & World Report. April 29, 2013. (Jan. 2, 2014) http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2013/04/29/no-link-between-violent-video-games-effects-and-school-shootings
- Markey, Patrick M. and Charlotte N. Markey. "Vulnerability to violent video games: A review and integration of personality research." Review of General Psychology, Vol 14(2), Jun 2010, 82-91. doi: 10.1037/a0019000
- Molina, Brett. "ESRB: 9% of ratings for 2012 video games were Mature." USA Today. Feb. 6, 2013. (Dec. 28, 2013) http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/gaming/2013/02/06/esrb-ratings-mature-games/1893507/
- MSNBC.com. "Violent video games pulled from prison." Dec. 2, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6638482/
- The New York Times (AP). "February Video Game Sales Up 34 Percent." March 14, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Video-Game-Sales.html?ex=1363233600&en=f54480ef95c9d1b0&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
- NPD Group. "The Video Game Industry Is Adding 2-17 Year-Old Gamers At A Rate Higher Than That Age Groups Population Growth." Oct. 11, 2011. (Dec. 28, 2013) https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/pr_111011/
- NZ Herald. "Violent video games banned in jail." Nov. 9, 2006. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/6/story.cfm?c_id=6&ObjectID=10409883
- Paul, Bo. "Is it Fair to Blame Todays Negativity in Society on Musical Influence?" Entertainment Scene 360. April 29, 2008. (Dec. 27, 2013) http://www.entertainmentscene360.com/index.php/is-it-fair-to-blame-todays-negativity-in-society-on-musical-influence-29862/
- Peckham, Matt. "Researcher Says Linking Video Games to Gun Violence is a 'Classic Illusory Correlation." Time. Oct. 8, 2013. (Dec. 26, 2013) http://techland.time.com/2013/10/08/researcher-says-linking-video-games-to-gun-violence-is-a-classic-illusory-correlation/
- Radford, Benjamin. "Reality Check on Video Game Violence." LiveScience. Dec. 4, 2005. http://www.livescience.com/technology/051204_video_violence.html
- RSNA.org. "Violent Video Games Leave Teenagers Emotionally Aroused." Nov. 28, 2006. http://www.rsna.org/rsna/media/pr2006-2/violent_video_games-2.cfm
- Tewksbury, Drew. "Six Most Idiotic Attempts to Blame Musicians for Violent Events." L.A. Weekly. Jan. 13, 2011. (Dec. 26, 2013) http://blogs.laweekly.com/westcoastsound/2011/01/6_horrible_acts_of_violence_bl.php
- Walsh, David, Ph.D. "Video Game Violence and Public Policy." National Institute on Media and the Family. http://culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu/conf2001/papers/walsh.html
- Ward, Mark. Columbine Families Sue Computer Game Makers. BBC. May 1, 2001 (Dec. 31, 2013) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1295920.stm