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

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

A large new study links the playing of violent video games among teens with not only increased aggression, but also smoking and drinking.
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Grand Theft Auto III. (Photo: Rockstar Games)

Grand Theft Auto III. (Photo: Rockstar Games)

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 ofPersonality 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.

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