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

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

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.