Why We Care About Violence In Video Games And Shows

Dr. Delaney Ruston – “Desensitization is really useful in certain circumstances. But in the general population, it’s actually a really bad thing to be desensitized because it makes you undervalue other people’s pain.”—Douglas Gentille, PhD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence and video games and the shows that kids are watching these days. What are true outcomes related to our new violent media age, and what are myths? Many parents have recently told me that they’ve allowed their kids to play games that they wouldn’t have before COVID just because it has been such a source of connection and entertainment. 

Just yesterday, I finished creating a podcast episode of my interview with one of my favorite researchers in this area, and I am so excited about it that I decided to give you some key takeaway points from it. Douglas Gentile is a child psychologist and professor at Iowa State University and has spent over 25 years researching topics around violent video games and shows.

My hope (and ask) is that you might, right now, click here to subscribe to The Screenagers Podcast. Then you will have it on your phone or computer and later can listen alone or, better yet, with your kids and teens. No matter what age your children are, whether they play or watch anything violent, this is a great podcast for family discussions about how what we see impacts all of us. 

Before we dive into this TTT, let me say that issues around video gaming are so important that I made sure to include a lot about the topic in my new book, Parenting in The Screen Age. On Wednesday, Feb 3rd, I am hosting a Chapter Club online event centered around Video Gaming during COVID. Sign up here.  

So back to the podcast. In it, Dr. Gentile and I discuss one of his most influential studies, which was conducted over three years with 3,000 kids. Fascinating results! We also discuss the upsides and downsides of being desensitized to violence and aggression. Dr. Gentile ties in issues around desensitization to what happened at the Capitol on January 6th, making this episode particularly timely. 

Below are some edited excerpts from the podcast episode. But, keep in mind, you will hear much more in the full 18-minute podcast. You’ll hear my takes on violence, a parenting mistake Dr. Gentile made, and ways to get your kids to become more mindful about how media can impact them (clue: think younger siblings and cousins). 

From the podcast :

Doug Gentile: “We did a study with 3000 Kids followed across three years, we were looking at their violent video gameplay, and looking at their aggressive ways of thinking as well as their aggressive behaviors. And we measured three types of aggressive cognition. 

The first is called hostile attribution bias. We all know people who, when something annoying happens, like they get bumped in the hallway, they give the other person the benefit of the doubt; they just let it roll off their back. We also know people who take it very personally. This is more like that, where you have a bias for attributing hostility to other people’s actions. 

In a violent video game, you’re practicing expecting other creatures to come out and be hostile towards you. And so it turns out that the more kids play violent video games, the better they get at having a hostile attribution bias. They start seeing more aggression in more places than it actually really is out in the world. 

The second type of aggressive cognition we measured is normative beliefs about aggression. What this is, is, we all know people who think that it’s never okay to respond aggressively when provoked. And we also know people who think you should hit back harder, more likely that one that you start seeing is more acceptable to behave aggressively when provoked.” 

Later in our interview, Dr. Gentile goes on to say 

“Let’s consider this kid who’s been playing a lot of violent video games, and he gets bumped in the school hallway. He is expecting other people to be aggressive. He no longer assumes it was an accident. And he starts assuming the other person meant to do it. 

Another thing you practice in violent video games is when you see what might be an aggressive stimulus, you quickly reorient your attention toward it. So that’ll happen, right? “

The kid will quickly turn to see who bumped him. And it will call to mind something that you know he should do in response. 

Well, the thing that people do is the thing that comes to mind fastest, and what’s most available is the thing you’ve practiced the most. So if you’ve been playing lots of video games, you have practiced an aggressive response to aggressive provocation thousands and thousands of times. 

And so you can see how the odds have shifted in that school hallway, just a little bit. But, when that kid does push back or say something unkind, then the odds of this turning into full-blown fight skyrockets.  But you’re never going to connect it back to games because it doesn’t look like what you did in the game; nobody is going to equate the two, no one will connect it.

“And the problem is, we only talk about this when there’s some horrible tragedy like a mass shooting, but that’s the wrong time to talk about it because that’s not how this effect works. 

This effect is not the cause of school shooters. This effect changes the way you see the world subtly. And that just changes the odds. And that one little change in the odds has these ripples downstream, making it more likely that you’ll respond aggressively when provoked, and therefore get into more aggressive encounters.”

You will hear many more compelling points from Gentile the podcast, like his views on mass shootings and violent video games.  Also, find out if kids who played more violent games over the three years tended to have more aggressive responses in real life or not. 

And if you know anyone who has kids, I would be so appreciative if you send them this link to the Screenagers Podcast or share this post with them. 

Questions to get the conversations started:

  1. How do you feel watching certain shows? Or, playing certain games? 
  2. Can you think of any times the concept of “hostile attribution bias” has rung true? (The idea that a person is more likely to read into an ambiguous act as hostile). 
  3. What media have you seen that shows alternative ways of working through conflict — rather than just fighting? 
  4. In what ways do you think you have become desensitized to violence? For example, what is something that used to upset you but now does not? What do you see as the upsides of this and the downsides?