Whether video game violence promotes real-life violence is a topic of regular and often passionate debate.
A recent small US clinical trial adds a little more evidence to the armoury of those who fear it does.
Brad Bushman and Justin Chang from Ohio State University asked 246 children aged eight to 12 to play, in pairs, one of three versions of the popular game Minecraft. One child played, while the other watched.
Minecraft is not a particularly violent game. It contains no blood and gore and does not automatically involve guns; they are included by purchasing unofficial third-party bits of software, known as “mods”.
However, Bushman and Chang set things up so a third of the players were able to kill monsters with guns and another third with swords. The third group played without weapons or monsters.
After 20 minutes of Minecraft, the children were asked to play with other toys in another room in which there was a cabinet containing two concealed disabled handguns.
Nearly all – 220 of them – found a gun while playing, but there was a difference in how they responded.
Nearly 62% of the 76 children who played the video game with gun violence touched a handgun, compared with 57% of the 74 who engaged in sword violence and just 44% of the 70 who played the nonviolent version.
In addition, the researchers report, children exposed to violent versions of the video game were more likely to engage in the dangerous behaviour of pulling the trigger while pointing the firearm at themselves or their partner.
However, other variables also were predictors of children’s greater handgun use, including trait aggressiveness, attitude toward guns, parental estimate of the child’s interest in guns, and previous exposure to violent media.
Self-reported consumption of violent media was a risk for total trigger pulls and trigger pulls at self or partner.
“Compared with exposure to sword violence, exposure to gun violence produced larger effects in time spent holding a handgun and possibly pulling the trigger at oneself or others, suggesting that exposure to gun violence is different than exposure to other types of violence,” the researchers write in the journal JAMA Network Open.
“This may be because media violence with a gun more easily translates onto handling and shooting a real gun compared with other types of violence.
“Effects were not larger for video game players than for watchers, suggesting that modelling may be the underlying mechanism for the observed effects.”
Bushman and Chang note that there are other possible risk factors for gun use that their study did not examine, including developmental risk factors, low IQ score, living in a high-crime neighbourhood, emotion regulation difficulties, impulsiveness and risk-taking tendencies.
In a commentary in the same journal, psychiatrists Cheryl King and Cynthia Ewell Foster suggest that while they “cannot extrapolate from these study results” to suggest playing such video games for a short time has a long-term effect on violent behaviour or firearm-related paediatric injuries, “the children’s greater tendency to handle firearms, even in the short term, is cause for concern”.
“The short-term precipitating effects identified by Chang and Bushman also have implications for our understanding of intentional violence toward others,” they write.
“A child or adolescent who actively engages with a video game with firearm violence may have a lower threshold for using a firearm against another person when experiencing strong negative emotions and a precipitating event.”
King and Foster are members of the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium at the University of Michigan.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.