Violent games have been controversial since they first started coming out — and will likely continue to be controversial in the future. Many kids (and adults) love them, but parents are understandably concerned. However, the relationship between violent video games and actual crime is not that straightforward.
It is a widespread concern that violent video games promote aggression, reduce pro-social behaviour, increase impulsivity
and interfere with cognition as well as mood in its players,” write Simone Kuhn and colleagues in a 2017 study on the link between video games and aggression.
Kuhn and colleagues compared participants who played the violent video game Grand Theft Auto V, the non-violent video game The Sims 3, or no game at all for 2 months on a daily basis. They then compared the three groups and found no significant changes in aggression between any of the groups.
But it gets even more interesting. The release of violent video games may even temporarily decrease crime rates.
GTA fights crime?
Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is the “poster child” of violent video games due to its prominent and controversial themes of violence, crime, and anti-social behavior. The game allows players to engage in a wide range of violent activities, such as shooting, carjacking, and robbery, in a virtual open-world environment. The game is also one of the most popular video games in history, making it a good study candidate.
Marinus Beerthuizen and colleagues from the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) in The Netherlands wanted to see whether GTA releases have an impact on the crime rate.
Specifically, the study aimed to investigate the impact of the release of the video game Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) on registered juvenile crime rates in the Netherlands. The authors explored particularly whether GTAV has a “voluntary incapacitating effect” on criminal behavior among young males aged 12-18 and 18-25.
The researchers collected data on registered offences committed by males in the two age groups. The “active player base” was modelled based on the daily peak of concurrent players. This served as a proxy for the number of people actively playing the game.
The researchers then correlated the active player base of GTAV with the number of registered offences. This allowed the researchers to examine trends over time and assess the impact of the game’s release on crime rates.
“The effect of the release of GTAV was negatively associated with the number of registered offences in both age categories, while controlling for covariates (for example, day of the week),” the researchers conclude.
Violent games and complex social impacts
This study is all the more interesting because it fits very well with different research which found that the release of violent movies temporarily decreases violent crime.
The proposed mechanism for this is that more people stay inside, and especially potential criminals stay inside. This suggests that a similar crime-decreasing effect happens for other types of violent media. As Ethan Mollick, Professor of Management at Wharton, explained on Twitter, this means that “the yearly CoD releases are actually good for the world, sorry to say.”
The GTA study does have limitations, however. For starters, it only looked at figures from the Netherlands, which may not be representative for the entire planet. In addition, not all offences might have been reported and included in the study. The presented levels of crime “are not reflective or inclusive of all crime by male minors and young adults,” the researchers themselves concede. Nonetheless, the negative association found with the primary operationalization can be considered robust, the researchers say.
But that doesn’t mean that all video games have a good impact.
The real killer is Pokemon Go
If you’re looking for a game to point a finger at, Pokemon Go is probably the best one. Not because it increases the crime rate, but rather because it causes accidents.
In Pokemon Go, you use your phone to find, capture, and fight Pokemon in real locations. When the game was released in 2015, it led to a frenzy of people walking into all sorts of places without paying attention. A 2018 study found that in just 148 days after its release, Pokemon Go led to 145,000 car accidents, injured 30,000 people, and killed 256. The overall reported damages ranged in the billions (up to $7.3 billion).
So the connection between video games and societal harm is not as straightforward or intuitive as you might expect.
For parents and policymakers alike, the takeaway should be that video games are not a monolithic entity with universally good or bad effects. They are complex tools that can bring about a variety of outcomes, depending on a myriad of factors including the context in which they’re played, the demographics of the players, and even the specific type of game in question.
Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to evolve and occupy an ever-larger role in our cultural landscape and the need for comprehensive, nuanced research grows ever more urgent. Only through such research can we hope to understand the true impact of video games on society — an understanding that is crucial for making informed decisions in an increasingly digital world.