Menus Subscribe Search
grand-theft-auto-v

Grand Theft Auto V. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROCKSTAR GAMES)

You Call That Aggressive? Not Compared to ‘Grand Theft Auto’!

• September 18, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Grand Theft Auto V. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROCKSTAR GAMES)

New research suggests playing violent video games desensitizes people as to what constitutes inappropriately aggressive behavior.

Early Tuesday morning, a Londoner bought one of the first available copies of the highly anticipated, just-released Grand Theft Auto V—and was mugged on his way home. While the K word (hint: It rhymes with “pharma”) immediately comes to mind, it’s impossible to know if the assailant who made off with the game—which, The New York Times reports, begins “with an extended bout of cop killing”—was a personal fan of the crime-heavy series, or simply a thug planning to sell it on the black market.

But over the past few years, a whole lot of research has found a link between playing violent video games and aggressive thoughts and behaviors. Although there are contrarians, most researchers in this field are convinced that these games have an impact on users’ brains—and when the games are violent, that impact is negative.

Precisely why sitting at a console and smiting virtual enemies should translate into real-life aggressiveness (as opposed to, say, being cathartic) has never been definitively established. In a timely new paper, one of the leading researchers in this field—psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck in Austria—presents evidence of one likely mechanism.

Playing violent video games has also been shown to increase both the tendency to dehumanize opponents and “the normative acceptance of physical aggression.”

“Performing intense acts of violence during video game play appears to serve as a standard that influences comparative evaluation,” he writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In other words, after shooting gangsters or terrorists and watching the blood burst from their gaping wounds, simply bullying or shoving someone feels ridiculously tame. It barely even registers as aggressive behavior.

So it’s not that players become more aggressive (although that dynamic may occur with some). It’s more that they lose their perspective regarding what constitutes unacceptable aggression.

Greitemeyer describes two experiments that provide evidence for this thesis. The first featured 82 young adults (with a mean age of 22), who spent 15 minutes playing either a violent video game (Counterstrike or Trooper Assassin) or a non-violent one (Super Bubbles or Penguin).

They were then given a list of behaviors. For each, they were asked to rate, on a one-to-nine scale, “to what extent this behavior can be characterized as being aggressive.” Some reacted to statements describing their own behavior (“I shove or push others”), while others evaluated actions taken by another person (“Someone shoves or pushes others”).

The results: Participants who played a violent video game perceived the first-person actions as less aggressive, compared to those who played a non-violent game. However, the type of game did not impact their views of other people’s aggression; those scores were similar for people who played both violent and benign games.

“It may be that one’s video game behavior only serves as a reference point for judging one’s own subsequent behavior,” Greitemeyer writes.

The second experiment replicated the results of the first. It found that after playing a violent video game, participants were more willing to put intense hot sauce on the tongue of someone participating in a taste test.

In both experiments, “acts such as taking others’ things by force, or making insulting comments, were perceived as less aggressive after participants played a violent (compared to a neutral) video game,” Greitemeyer notes. “This biased perception of what behaviors count as aggressive in turn tends to account for increased aggressive behavior after violent video game play. Individuals often experience violent impulses, but refrain from acting on them. However, when viewing the impulse as relatively harmless, they are less willing to stifle their aggressive impulses.”

Greitemeyer notes that playing violent video games has also been shown to increase both the tendency to dehumanize opponents and “the normative acceptance of physical aggression.” So there are multiple psychological factors at play here.

But these new results may help explain the disconnect between the research finding playing violent games leads to more aggression, and the insistence of so many players that it does no such thing. In essence, it says that the players’ protestations reflect their desensitization to what constitutes unacceptable behavior.

From the gamers’ perspective, they’re not doing anything wrong. But that perspective has been shaped by their recent experiences in the virtual world.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.