Anxious parents and pundits like to implicate violent video games in practically every societal ill, from drunk driving to school shootings—and though they may come across as hysterical, new research suggests they might have a point. After a four-year longitudinal study of thousands of American teenagers, a team of researchers at Dartmouth has found a strong link between playing violent, “risk-glorifying” video games and engaging in a range of so-called “deviant” behaviors: “alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, delinquency and risky sex.”
Using randomly generated phone numbers, Jay Hull, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, and his colleagues at Dartmouth identified 5,000 American adolescents willing to participate in the study. (Of the initial sample, only 35.5 percent said they didn’t play video games; another 15 percent said their parents didn’t let them play violent ones.) Hull asked the teenagers questions about their gaming habits, as well as their attitudes toward, and experiences of, drinking, smoking and “risky” sex (without condoms or with many partners). The researchers assessed the kids’ personality traits by having them rate statements like, “I like to do scary things,” “I like to do dangerous things,” and “I like to break the rules.” They asked how many times in the previous month they’d shoved someone or gotten in a fight. Hull followed up every year for the next four—and found that every “deviant” behavior they measured increased almost in direct relation to the time spent playing video games. The effect was the same for both genders, though boys were much more likely to report playing violent video games in the first place.
“I was interested in the idea that in playing these games, you identify with the characters, and as a consequence, your sense of self changes,” said Hull, over the phone. Parents fret about what movies and television their kids will be exposed to, but people forge a stronger identification with the characters by impersonating them through video games than just by watching them. “If you’re playing an anti-social character and identifying with their motives, that will warp your own sense of right and wrong in everyday life,” said Hull. “In Manhunt, you’re directed to kill people in brutal, torturous ways. You’re given chainsaws and plastic bags, and the more creative ways you come up with to kill people, the more points you get. In Grand Theft Auto, you’re a thug. You’re shooting people in the head and fighting police. You’re stealing cars. You’re breaking the law.”
Adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to this effect. “Their sense of self is fragile,” said Hull. “They’re looking for new and exciting things.”