Desensitization and Video Games

Are you an avid gamer? I am not but many people that are very close to me are.  How would you like it if somebody close to you played video games nonstop and started acting very rude or disrespectful?  This could easily happen if somebody plays violent video games for hours.  It can’t be possible for somebody to sit in front of a TV engulfed by the on-screen action and not be affected by the the violence somehow.  Obviously they are going to have more aggressive thoughts and possibly even actions.  You might think watching a movie with a lot of violence in it also makes you more aggressive, and it can, but not even close to the level of playing video games.  This is because “learning is enhanced when people are actively rather than passively involved” (Whitaker and Bushman).  Simply watching violence in a movie is only passively involved while a video game acts as a simulator and is interactive.

Desensitization is the emotional numbing due to the exposure off harsh themes.  The two main ways people can be desensitized are by becoming less sensitive to actual violence and more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.  This can easily happen through playing violent video games because the player becomes so enthralled and is constantly learning these destructive behaviors.  Behavioral psychologists Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner studied operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is what causes a repeat of the violence in video games and how violence can occur in real life.   People repeat behaviors that are reinforced.  There are both negative and positive reinforcements.  Killing the enemy in a video game is negatively reinforced because the threat is taken away.  Killing the enemy is also positively reinforced because there are usually points awarded or an advancement of levels.

This diagram of desensitization shows that after being exposed to violent behaviors in a video game, one can eventually become numb to the violence in the game, and then in real life. The General Aggression Model is a psychological explanation for the personality and behavioral changes.

No, not all people that play these violent video games are definitely without a doubt going to be very aggressive people or murderers, but there is still a strong correlation between the two that should not go unnoticed.  In a major shooting in Norway that took place in 2011, Anders Breivik went on a shooting spree killing 77 people.  In court he admitted that he used the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  He took a “sabbatical” where he played this game for about 16 hours a day for one year.  If this isn’t clear evidence between the link of video games and violence I don’t know what is.

The Columbine shooting was also a massacre where the play of violent video games could have a very strong affect.  After investigating the two shooters, it was found that they consumed very high amounts of violent media, video games in particular.  Yes, there could be other factors that influenced the boys into the shooting rampage such as availability of guns, feeling persecuted at school, and less involved parents, but violent video games are an extremely strong proponent.

The song “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster and the People gets into the mind of a possible shooter.  The chorus, “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you better run, better run, outrun my gun.
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you better run, better run faster than my bullet” is particularly similar to the Columbine and other school shooters.

Video games show the player that aggressive behaviors are reinforced, acceptable, and successful.  But we should all know that violence is just the opposite and should never be seen as this.  Violent video games cause a mix up between the virtual, fantasy world and reality, bringing the behaviors learned in the games out into the real world.

For further discussion on the effects of violent video games, read the following link from the New York Times:

PSA on reducing play of violent video games:


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