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In Video Games, Not All Mayhem Is Created Equal


Video games are enormously popular, and most of them contain some form of violence. It has been well established that playing violent video games increases aggression in players. But what exactly is the connection? Do the games raise aggression through violent thoughts, violent feelings (hostility), or simply through heightened arousal?

Is there a difference in behavior when violence is rewarded in a video game (e.g., by praise or through a higher score) versus when violence is punished?

New research by Iowa State University researchers Nicholas L. Carnagey and Craig A. Anderson shows that rewarded violence in video games increases hostility and aggressive thinking and behavior. Violent behavior punished in the context of a video game increases hostility to the same degree, but affects aggressive thoughts and behavior less.

The new findings are reported in “The Effects of Reward and Punishment in Violent Video Games on Aggressive Affect, Cognition, and Behavior,” an article in the November issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments measuring video-game effects on different aggression-related variables (feelings of hostility, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive behavior). In each experiment, participants played one of three versions of a race-car video game: (a) a version in which all violence was rewarded, (b) a version in which all violence was punished, and (c) a nonviolent version.

Participants who played either the violence-rewarding game or the violence-punishing game were found to be higher in feelings of hostility than participants who played the nonviolent video game. But the findings were somewhat different for aggressive thoughts and behavior. Participants who played the violence-rewarding game displayed significantly more aggressive thoughts and aggressive behavior than those who played the violence-punishing game or nonviolent video game. There was no significant difference in either aggressive thoughts or aggressive behavior between participants who played the violence-punishing game and the nonviolent game.

Their studies confirm that rewarded violence in a video game increases feelings of hostility, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive behavior. But the similar results between the aggressive-behavior study and the aggressive-thought study suggest that some violent video games increase aggressive behavior primarily by making aggressive thoughts (as opposed to feelings) more available in the player. A possible reason that aggressive thoughts and aggressive behavior were similar for the violence-punished game and the nonviolent game is that violence-punished participants engaged in relatively few violent gameplay acts.

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Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public’s interest.


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