Are people playing violent video games blowing off steam, or are they developing habits of violence that may play themselves out off-screen? In the wake of a wave of school shootings that have touched off debate about the roots of violence, those are more than academic questions.
The second of those questions — do video games promote violent behavior — remains a matter of fierce debate. But a new study does offer some evidence to answer the first — whether violent video games provide an outlet for negative feelings such as anger or frustration. For a large group of young adult males (average age 20), it found, frustration does make video game violence a more appealing prospect.
The study was published this week "Online First" in the journal Psychological Science.
The study also found that antisocial behavior — specifically cheating and stealing — came pretty naturally to a sizable group of the more than 200 undergraduate males participating in two experiments. When these young men had the opportunity to cheat on a test or to steal by pocketing a few quarters from a common pot — and then those opportunities were suddenly denied them — they acknowledged feeling frustrated.
Compared with two other groups — in one group, subjects took a mock-test without any subterfuge; in another, subjects were given an unimpeded opportunity to cheat — subjects in the group that had seen their opportunity to cheat and had it snatched away were more likely afterward to acknowledge feeling frustrated.
Asked whether they would like to play some video games while researchers were attending to other subjects, the frustrated cheaters and thieves were more likely to prefer violent video games than were subjects in either of the other two groups. While both other groups had similar patterns of choosing violent and nonviolent games, the frustrated bad boys made a beeline for the violent ones.
Lead author Brad Bushman of Ohio State University suggests that these findings support the conviction held by a vast preponderance of boys and young men — that violent video games are a way to manage one's mood and blow off some steam.
"Violent games allow people the chance to engage in violent behavior in the virtual world, which is attractive when one experiences frustration," said Bushman in a statement released with the study. But whether that catharsis leads to inner peace or emotions that are more roiled than when they started — that's a question for another day, he acknowledges.