Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

gta-iii

Grand Theft Auto III. (Photo: Rockstar Games)

Violent Video Game Play Triggers Risky Real-World Behavior for Teens

• August 04, 2014 • 5:00 AM

Grand Theft Auto III. (Photo: Rockstar Games)

A large new study links the playing of violent video games among teens with not only increased aggression, but also smoking and drinking.

As we have repeatedly noted, a whole lot of research suggests playing violent video games leads to more aggressive thoughts and behaviors. But a newly released study from Dartmouth College suggests the problems with this popular form of entertainment hardly end there.

In a study that tracked thousands of teens over time, it found strong links between playing mature-rated, risk-glorifying games and a wide range of potentially harmful behaviors, including drinking and cigarette smoking.

These results were similar for boys and girls, “and strongest for those who report heavy play of rated games, and games that involve protagonists who represent non-normative and antisocial values,” writes a research team led by Jay Hull, chair of Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

“Character-based video games provide an opportunity to practice being someone else,” the researchers note in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When those games reward risky behavior, they write, it should not be surprising that players who have had that side of their personality piqued are more likely to take chances in their offline lives.

Many young players come to identify with the anti-social characters they portray in the virtual world, and gradually adopt behaviors that align with that persona, including smoking, drinking, and, for some, risky sex.

Hull and his colleagues initially interviewed 5,019 American adolescents (average age just under 14) found in a random-digit-dial telephone survey. They were re-interviewed after eight months; again after 18 months; and again after two years, at which point their average age was nearly 18. A total of 2,718 kids stuck through the entire process.

During the initial interview, all were asked whether they played mature-rated video games. Thirty-five percent replied that they did not play games at all, while another 15 percent reported their parents did not allow them to play mature-rated games. That left 49.5 percent of the sample. Of that group, the most popular game (among a short list of three best-sellers) was Grand Theft Auto III; nearly 58 percent of the kids reported playing it.

In both that and the second interview eight months later, the kids responded to statements designed to measure their levels of sensation-seeking and rebelliousness. (For example, they were given the statement “I like to do dangerous things” and asked “Would you say it’s not like you, a little like you, a lot like you, or just like you?”)

On these and subsequent surveys, they were also asked about their use of tobacco products and alcohol, their sexual activity, and how often they physically fought with their peers.

“Higher initial levels of mature-rated, risk-glorifying video game play were associated with greater levels of aggression among multiple measures and multiple waves of data,” the researchers report. While that basically confirms the conclusions of other studies, their other results suggest these games have wider-ranging effects than realized.

For instance: “Among those who play video games, higher initial levels of mature-rated, risk-glorifying video-game play were associated with greater levels of alcohol use across multiple waves of data, and multiple measures of alcohol consumption,” they write. “Indeed, alcohol use increased exponentially over time, and the rate of increase was a function of gameplay.”

What’s more, “among those who play video games, high relative to low play of mature-rated, risk-glorifying games was associated with greater, and exponentially increasing, levels of cigarette smoking,” Hull and his colleagues report. Since no games center around, or reward, smoking, the researchers argue that—unlike aggressive behavior—this linkage can’t be explained in “behavioral stimulation terms.”

Rather, they argue, many young players come to identify with the anti-social characters they portray in the virtual world, and gradually adopt behaviors that align with that persona, including smoking, drinking, and, for some, risky sex.

It’s important to emphasize that these findings involve a specific genre of video games (albeit a very popular one). Indeed, playing other types of games—those that do not involve violence or glorify risk-taking—”would seem to confer a protective effect,” the researchers write, “insofar as participants in this category reported lower levels of a variety of deviant behaviors relative to their non-game-playing counterparts.”

The bottom line seems to be that video games are powerful teaching tools which, for teens, can exert a strong pull in either a positive or a problematic direction. It all depends on the type of game.

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 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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