DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Killing Characters: Does video game violence contribute to aggressive and desensitized behavior?


Violence in Video Games

           Violence in video games has been the focus of much controversy as the world of gaming has progressed. It has been asserted that video game violence is directly linked to the display of aggressive behavior, and also to a desensitization toward real graphic violence, such as the images or ideals of war, rape, and death (Wolock 53; Hartmann 94). Video games allow dissociation from the images and themes displayed, and justify their virtual actions with the idea they are just that: virtual. Since the violent behaviors performed in videos games do not have an actual impact in the real world, they should not matter. Your enemies and victims are simply fictional characters (Hartmann 94). Furthermore, the Halo franchise, adds another distancing layer to this concept by posing the enemy as an alien race, allowing players to justify that they are gunning down virtual aliens, and saving the human race in the process.

           It has also been argued that violence in video games contributes to aggressive behavior exhibited by people, particularly in children and young adults (Wolock, Weber, Hartmann). Most studies conducted have attempted to prove the idea that violent games do indeed impact behavior, but there are some that conclude the effect on behavior is minimal. Some researchers find that periodic gameplay actually enhances brain development in young gamers (Dotinga, Bavelier).

            Violence in video games can be subjective, in that what people see as violent is not the same for everyone. For video games, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) devised a scale to categorize the maturity of the content of games (“ESRB Ratings Guide”). Everyone (E), content presumably suited for all ages, contains minimal violence and/or comic behavior and language. Teen (T) recommends that only players who are thirteen and older play the game. T-rated games contain crude humor, some violence and blood, and infrequent use of strong language. Mature (M) games, suited for people age seventeen and older, contain graphic violence, sexual interactions, and strong language. There are ratings below E and above M, but they are rare compared to the three ratings stated above (“ESRB Ratings Guide”). Nonetheless, in a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “64% of E-rated games contain what authors consider to be intentional violence” (Wolock 53). That said, it is apparently difficult to objectively identify violence in video games, given the subjectivity of that violence.

            Although the data is somewhat dated, it still provides evidence that violence contributes to aggressive behavior.  A study in 1995 found that male college students who played the violent version of Mortal Kombat had a higher rating on a hostility scale and also exhibited higher blood pressures than those who played a less violent version. At the other end of the age group, second graders also showed similar results.  Those younger students demonstrated a tendency to be more aggressive toward other students immediately after playing a violent video game, compared to boys who played a non-violent game (Wolock 54).

            Wolock’s study, like many others encountered while researching this topic, does not provide hard evidence to support its claims. A study at Michigan State University utilized Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of the brain conducted while subjects were playing video games to provide empirical evidence on the effects of the violence experienced. An fMRI is different from a standard MRI in that it maps brain activity by measuring the movement of blood throughout the brain. This technology relies on the theory that cerebral blood flow directly correlates to brain activity.  The belief is that if a section of the brain is experiencing a higher rate of blood flow, that area of the brain is more active (Magnetic Resonance, “Functional Imaging” 3). This study focused on the amygdala, and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), specifically the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex (dACC), and the Rostral Anterior Cingulate Cortex (rACC). The ACC is responsible for autonomous functions such as blood flow, and the amygdala is involved our memory, decision-making, and, more importantly, our emotional reactions. The dACC is believed to be responsible for reward-based decision making (Bush 523), the rACC is connected to the amygdala in that it modulates our emotions of fear (Bissière 821).

            Researchers found that when study participants encountered a qualitatively violent situation, as determined by the researchers[1], the rACC and the amygdala experienced a suppression of activity and the dACC experienced an increase. For the amygdala graph, it shows a slight bump before the decline. This seems to demonstrate that the participants anticipated the decision they would need to make, before the violent situation arose (Weber 47, 49-51). When the situation became increasingly more violent, the parts of the participants’ brains that control decision-making and which experience fear became less active, and the section of the brain responsible for reward-based decision making became more active. The changes in the amygdala indicate fear, which supports the claims made by gamers who justify their virtual actions as the means for their virtual survival. The patterns observed are considered characteristic of aggressive behavior, supporting the theory that violent video games can lead to aggressive behavior, or in this case, brain patterns similar to those of an aggressive behavior (Weber 51).

           Although this evidence supports the claim that violent video games elicit aggressive behavior, it does not fully describe how severe the behavior may be, or if it warrants concern. The studies above also fail to provide any evidence as to whether or not the length of time a person plays the games has an effect on behavior. Some researchers believe that their colleagues on the other side of the argument worry too much about the effects of the virtual violence on gamers. Out of 217 teenage students, thirteen percent of boys had never played, and just over half of the girls had never played. Also, only eighteen of the boys and four of the girls played for more than three hours a day (Violent Video Games, Dotinga). Rather than surveying the young participants about their perceived behavior, like most studies, the researchers questioned the students’ teachers about their behavior and other tendencies. The results showed that students who play often and for a long duration seemed somewhat more likely to “display hyperactivity and to get into fights,” but did not always express themselves aggressively. Contrary to other arguments, these results showed that regular play, for less than an hour, actually seemed to help some students to be less aggressive and to be rated as “better-behaved” by their teachers (Violent Video Games, Dotinga).

           In addition, in a TED Talk given by Daphne Bavelier[2], it was revealed that avid gamers who played for a minimal duration each day tend to show enhanced brain functions compared to those who do not play action games. Some characteristics she observed in her research were enhanced eyesight, longer attention spans, faster decision-making and conflict analysis, and a better ability to multitask (Bavelier, June 2012).


Playing Halo: A Cathartic Activity

            Catharsis is the process of releasing strong emotions, usually through some form of art or media (Catharsis Definition). The word stems from the Greek word catharsis, meaning “cleansing or purging,” and has been discussed since the days of Aristotle (Catharsis Theory). Aristotle spoke of “purging” these emotions through viewing tragic plays, but the way we indulge in catharsis has changed considerably from theatrical drama to violent video games.     

           Another question in this conversation is if there is an element of desensitization in video games, allowing gamers to rationalize their violent however artificial impulses and behavior. If the people in video games are just characters, no actual lives are at stake. Similar to Call of Duty, a popular war game series, focused on American historical conflicts, is Halo, another first-person shooter game. The catch to Halo: your enemies are extraterrestrials, and therefore expendable pieces of virtual meat. In the Call of Duty series, there are human enemies, and a distinguishable enemy, such as the combatants of the Vietnamese, Japanese, or German enemy forces. In Halo, you are not taking a human life, you’re killing an evil, invading alien, making it more easily justifiable. Some players of violent video games express feeling no remorse when committing virtual violence (It’s Okay to Shoot a Character, Hartmann 94). Halo still utilizes graphic violence and language in order to convey its messages pertaining to war and its violent narrative. When I was younger, I admittedly fell victim to this belief, telling my father, an Iraqi War veteran, that I was killing aliens so it wasn’t as bad as other war games. Not surprisingly, the Call of Duty series has moved to a narrative of destroying robots. The newest edition of the game poses the human race as a band of rebels versus the machines, taking away the human-on-human aspect of bloody conflicts in our history, and further allowing dissociation from the violent acts contained therein.

          The game Halo puts you in the shoes of the best-of-the-best, genetically-modified super soldier, appropriately named “Master Chief.” Throughout the series, the gamer is tasked with stopping the oncoming, and conveniently constant, onslaught of several invading alien races. If a character’s actions are “immoral,” players are more likely to respond violently to that character (It’s Okay to Shoot a Character, Hartmann 98). “Depending on the severity of the character’s misconduct, users deem a certain punishment of the character appropriate (and even enjoyable) if it restores justice,” says Hartmann.

Halo is similar to many other violent war video games, rewarding the player with new weapons, armor, and currency after the completion of each thirty-minute mission. During gameplay, you are awarded achievements based on your actions. Some require the killing of a specific number of enemies, ranging from 50-1000 kills (Achievements – Halo). I remember a specific feature you could activate called the “Birthday Party.” When activated, the effect was to “kill [an enemy] with a headshot and see a spray of confetti, to the delight of children everywhere,” (Grunt…Party).

            This reward-based gameplay and achievement-based game structure may contribute to the rationale that players have when playing games such as Halo.



            Based on this research, it can be concluded that some people need permission to be violent. Halo, among all other violent video games, give people this permission by rewarding and encouraging their graphic, albeit virtual actions. When people experience violence in video games, their brain waves exhibit the same patterns as aggressive behavior in the real world (Weber 53).

            Throughout history, visual entertainment has evolved from live theater, to radio, to movies and television, and now video games. Cathartic activities have evolved alongside the forms of entertainment. As technology is continually implemented into our daily lives, our methods of releasing strong emotions of anger could take place a virtual world, allowing us to experience these activities without any repercussions.

As we step into the age of virtual reality, will the ability to effectively step into the boots of a soldier in war pose even more problems? Virtual reality is intended to provide the most immersive experience, short of the actual experience. Currently, we are able to distinguish between the real world and the virtual world. But with the rapid improvement of graphics and the increasing attention to detail that allows these games to become more and more real, it may not be long until the line between virtual and real starts to blur.

[1]  “The coding scheme consisted of five categories defining the ordinal play phases

as (1) passive/dead, no interactions; (2) active/safe, no imminent danger/no violent

interactions; (3) active/potential danger occurs, violent interactions expected; (4)

active/under attack, some violent interactions; and (5) active/fighting and killing,

many violent interactions. The play phases differ in the intensity of violent interactions from 1 (no interactions) to 5 (many violent interactions).” - Rene Weber , Ute Ritterfeld & Klaus Mathiak (2006) Does Playing Violent Video Games Induce Aggression? Empirical Evidence of a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study”, Media Psychology, 8:1, 39-60


[2] Professor at University of Geneva, who studies cognitive neuroscience; previously a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.