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

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