Violence in Video Games

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Since their rise in popularity during the 1970s, the occurrence of Violence in Video Games has sparked numerous contentious debates related to the impact of normalized, virtual violence. Parents, politicians, and religious groups have made claims against violent video games, stating that their content can cause negative behavioral and/or mental effects on the player. Criticism of violent video games stems from multiple studies which indicate that video games can cause an increase in both aggressive thoughts and behaviors along with the desensitization of people to seeing aggressive behavior, and a decrease in prosocial behaviors[1].

Developers, producers, and players have advocated for these video games, arguing that video games can increase mental and intellectual capacities, along with being an effective outlet for creative expression[2]. There are also many ethical concerns regarding the regulation of video games and their usage.

These social debates have become experimental debates, and have stimulated a multitude of studies on the effects of violent video games on users.

History of Violence in Video Games

Death Race - 1976

An advertisement poster for the controversial game "Death Race"

Death Race was a driving arcade game released by Exidy in April of 1976 [3]. It is known for requiring players to stimulate hit and and run killings while behind the wheel. This was a simple racing game with an added twist of running over stick figure "Gremlins". Once a player hit one of the fleeing gremlins, a tombstone would appear and a short scream would be heard from the arcade machine [4]. Due to the structure and objective of the game, it became the first game to create controversy and be discontinued because of it. It upset the National Safety Council and led to the Congressional hearings and aiming for the gaming industries.

Custer's Revenge - 1982

Custer's Revenge is an adult video game created by Mystique for the Atari 2600 in September of 1982. The game was the first to draw mass protests and is widely considered one of the worst and most horrific video games of all time [5]. It allows the player to play as General George Custer, a famous American Civil War figure, and dodge incoming arrows and attacks. This continues until he reaches a Native American woman tied to a pole at the end of the level. Instead of rescuing the damsel in distress, Custer has sex with the woman to gain more points. Many viewers perceived this action as rape, which led to protests from both women and Native Americans for promoting sexual violence and racism [6].

Mortal Kombat - 1993

An in-game image from Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat is an arcade fighting game released by Midway in 1993. Mortal Kombat was one of the first games to portray detailed, gory human violence. It was known as one of the most gruesome and famous fighting games of all time.In this game, there are two characters that hit each other until one of them die; this keep repeating itself. Interestingly, whoever won the battle had the opportunity to prove their victory by making it bloodier therefore more violent. the game gets so descriptive that one can see a series of bones snap in detail, a character's testicles pop under the pressure of an uppercut and so forth. This game soon transitioned into home gaming systems.

Mortal Kombat along with a few more obscure games released in the early '90s became subject to such extreme scrutiny that resulted in a congressional hearing and review. Congress ridiculed the game and claimed that it was negatively affecting youth. After threatening to make a federal commission for video games during the hearing, the gaming industry decided to form a regulatory body named the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). This regulatory body is still present today in the gaming industry[7]. The ratings range from E for everybody all the way up to games that are rated M (18+) and A (21+) although the A rating is rarely used.

Mortal Kombat has had a long series with the Mortal Kombat 11 releasing on April 23rd 2019. Since its creation, Mortal Kombat has continued to expand the borders when it comes to violence and has included its signature fatality moves which feature the player completely brutalizing and executing their opponent. As graphical advancements have been made to gaming software, these finishers have become more gory and visceral, but the studio behind Mortal Kombat has opted to steer away from realism and embrace the over the top setting and theme of the game and applied that to fatalities.

LambdaMOO- 1993

LamdbaMoo is a text-based virtual reality which is an extension of MUD, a multi-user dimensions computer game released in 1990[8]. In 1993, one user under the alias Mr. Bungle forced two other players, Legba and Starsinger, to perform explicit and sexual acts[9]. Mr. Bungle was able to force these actions upon other players through the use of a voodoo doll subprogram. Mr. Bungle's attack not only affected his victim's real-life psyches but caused turmoil in the community as they struggled to determine an appropriate punishment for the attack. The attack and its aftermath are outlined in Julian Dibbell's article, "A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society."[9] It is considered one of the first virtual, or cyber, rapes on the Internet and led to defining what constitutes virtual rape, as well as numerous studies on the effects of virtual rape [10].

Phantasmagoria- 1995

Originally released in August 1995, this game contained high levels of sex, blood and violence. The game featured graphic live action animations of these acts, which made the depictions more disturbing to audiences. Of particular note, early in the game, the main character of the game is subject to a violent and atrocious rape sequence. Later that year, various retailers in the US decided to ban the game due the questionable nature of its content.

Grand Theft Auto - 1998

Grand Theft Auto was a game released in 1998 by DMA Design and BMG Interactive. This game involved a high number of crimes such as car theft, picking up sex workers, and murder. Grand Theft Auto, along with the game Doom, was among the first games to be directly cited as a reason for violence. A man in Tennessee who murdered three people claims that he was imitating the actions seen in Grand Theft Auto when he committed the crime. This occurred around the same time the two students behind the Columbine attack committed the mass murder due to their video game activity, sparking the belief that video games lead to violence. [4]. Also, there was a mass shooting in Washington, D.C. caused by an angry, mentally-ill young man who shot and killed a dozen of innocent people. The release of this game was blamed for this shooting. Interestingly enough, many people blame this game for many crimes. [11] It is argued that this game plays a role into violence as players have the opportunity to "drive through stop lights, mow over civilians, crash and die and start over, get in ridiculous gunfights and still walk away on two feet. However it is possible that rather than increasing real life violence, that the players reduced their aggression from playing this game.

The Grand Theft Auto series is now 5 games into the series and has seen critical acclaim with reviewers such as IGN giving the game a perfect score of 10/10.[12] Scores like this brought a lot of attention to this game and for this reason it sold very well. This game, however, was stark with violent realism and had thievery, gunfights, drugs, prostitution, and road rage just like some of the prior games in the series, but in this entry they were all turned up to the highest level, as the new generation of gaming at the time allowed this level game to properly run. This entry in the series also had some controversy following it, similar to the first. This time, however, the controversy followed a scene in which a character is tortured by the player controlled character and the player is given control of how to torture the victim character. This scene received criticisms for being both too graphic and violent and was one of the more controversial parts in any of the Grand Theft Auto games.[13]

Manhunt - 2003

Manhunt is a stealth-based horror game that was developed and released by Rockstar North, a subsidiary of Rockstar Games. It was released for PlayStation in 2003 and was adapted for Xbox and PC video game consumers in 2004. The game was notorious for its brutal and graphic violence, sinister tone, and psychologically unsettling plot. Players brutally murder other players using a variety of blunt force objects in order to escape a contemporary, gladiatorial lifestyle. The controversy surrounding this game peaked in 2004 when a 17-year-old boy from the United Kingdom beat his 14-year-old friend to death using a claw hammer and a knife, leaving a total of 60 different injuries. Parents and friends of the victim alleged that the murderer had been obsessed with Manhunt and pointed out similarities between the brutal killing methodology used in the game and those used by the 17-year-old.[14] The court was not able to find a connection between the perpetrator's motivation and the game. Manhunt went on to be either refused a classification or outright banned in a number of countries, including Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea [15]

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 - 2009

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 was released in November of 2009 by Activision. This game was particularly controversial and disturbing due to the 4th mission in the game titled "No Russian". In this mission, the player acts as an undercover CIA agent who infiltrates a Russian terrorist group. To prove they are committed the player must tag along as the terrorist group guns down and massacres civilians in an airport [16]. Activision has since issued a warning statement and made it possible to skip the mission after ethical backlash threatened sales of the game.

Bulletstorm - 2011

Bulletstorm was a First Person Shooter game released in 2011 by Electronic Arta. The game was involved in controversies primarily due to its "Skill Shots" system, which gives players extra rewards when they kill them enemies in more creative and gruesome ways.[17] In addition, the game was also accused of containing explicit languages during characters' dialogues and other sources of profanities.

Studies Regarding Violence in Video Games

Oxford Internet Institute Study

The Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University conducted one of the most detailed studies to date regarding video game violence and aggressive behavior. The study used data from British teens and parents as well as E.U. and U.S. ratings of game violence. The study consisted of multiple questionnaires of both the players and their parents regarding their gaming and behavioral tendencies. After much analysis and recording, Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Institute, stated that "Despite interest in the topic by parents and policymakers, the research has not demonstrated that there is cause for concern" [18]. This study is one of the most definitive studies regarding the topic and claims that there is no correlation between aggressive behavior and video games. Additionally, the study claims that many past studies on the topic had significant research bias which could be the reasoning for the discrepancy in results. Although there is no correlation to aggressive behavior, the study does concede that players are more prone to talking, competitiveness, and trolling [18]

Dartmouth Study

This study, conducted by Jay Hull (a Dartmouth Psychological and Brain Science Professor) sought to link aggressive behavior and "deviant" actions (sex, smoking, drinking, etc...) to violent video game usage by analyzing 24 other studies with over 17,000 participants. In order to avoid previous studies' criticisms, Hull and his team made sure to strictly measure acts of overt, physical aggression. Additionally, the team made sure to include data on multiple different variables predictive of aggressive behavior. The research conducted by the team indicated the antithesis of the Oxford study, claiming that "violent video game play is associated with subsequent increases in physical aggression" [19]. The researchers further broke down the results by race and found white children to be the most vulnerable to increased levels of physical aggression, with Asian children showing some effect and Hispanic children showing no change in aggressive behavior.[19].

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization recently added “gaming disorder” to its list of mental health conditions because it is defined as problematic as it interferes significantly in other areas of people’s lives.In order for one to have this disorder they must meet three characteristics: (1) if a person loses control over their gaming habits (2) if they start to prioritize gaming over many interests or activities (3) if they continue playing despite clear negative consequences. Some are suggesting there are links between playing video games and violent behavior due to the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida [20]. The mass shooting resulted in 17 deaths. The shooter posted a comment on youtube that said “I’m going to be a professional school shooter”. Because of this and many other incidents, Congress will fund research into the effects that violent video games may or may not have on children and teenagers. Whereas, some can argue that some games offer benefits - potential to improve attention span and process visual information.

American Psychological Association(APA)

American Psychological Association argues that violent video games are a risk factor for aggression. In 2017, APA came to the conclusion that having exposure to violent video games had a connection with increased aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, and decreased empathy. Studies have shown that that people can view aggressive behavior and decreased behavior in helping others and feeling empathy. The studies varied in how they observed aggressive behavior in correlation to violent video games. Some of the studies looked at self-reports of hitting or pushing or some looked at peer or teacher ratings on aggressive behaviors. While other studies looked at how likely an individual was to subject others to an unpleasant exposure to hot sauce or a loud noise after playing video games. There are minimal studies on those who are under the age 10 and of minority groups. One takeaway from this is that having exposure to violent video games is just one factor to aggressive behavior. In other words, it is not the main and only reason as to why to people commit such violent crimes. It has been alleged that exposure to violent video games increases the level of aggressive behavior and leads to more lethal violence or criminal behavior. However, there is not conclusive proof or results from studies to prove that this assumption is true.

Because of their extensive research and concerns, APA Task Force on Violent Media recommends that the Entertainment Software Rating Board(ESRB)'s change their rating system to make the level of violence clearer. It was also recommended that there is further research using delinquency, violence, and criminal behavior as outcomes to determine if violent games has a connection to violence. ESRB argues that their rating system is effective and it is clear the rating level of the amount of violence in the game.

Additional Research

Research has recently shown that video games haven’t been linked to violence or aggression in adolescents. This research was based on a combination of subjective and objective data to measure teen aggression and violence in games. This was compared to previous research on teenagers who self-reported their own experiences; parents and carers shared information to reflect the level of aggression they sensed from their children. Based on this comparison, it has proven that there is no link between violent video games and teenage aggression.

One can argue that violent video games trigger aggression but that’s it. There is a study that is trying to determine if slaughtering zombies can lead to aggression from teenagers when they no longer are playing these type of games. There is proof that violent video games can cause a slight increase in physical aggression among adolescents and preteens. The debate hasn’t settled yet as researchers disagree on the scientific findings. Some studies show that these type of games lead to increases in aggression while others show no connection between the two. After looking into 24 studies and narrowing it down to focus only on violent video games and overt physical aggression, this analysis proved that children who played violent video games did become more aggressive over time but the changes in behavior wasn’t significant. In fact, these behavioral changes were minor but it’s good information to take into consideration for this debate.

Considering Both Sides of Social Violence

Another unheard of and disregarded kind of violence that video games exude is their social violence as it pertains to social and gender roles. In an article written by Karen Dill and Kathryn Thrill called Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions, it is shown that more than 83% of the male characters are illustrated as extremely muscular, tall, and hairy with deep voices (Dill and Thrill, 2007). They carry heavy weapons and are the heroes of the damsels in distress. They are tasked with finding the girl and reaping the benefits of some king or person in charge. What is interesting is that the male characters are never the ones being saved. They are always the savers and protectors. Men are the ones saving the day and winning the girl. For women, more than 60% are distressed beings who are in constant need of saving (Dill and Thrill, 2007). Their bodies are drawn as very curvy and voluptuous with large breasts and wide hips. Females are sexualized and depicted as more objectively than actually. Dill and Thrill bring up the fact that children (or all people for that matter) then create images in their heads of what men and women should look like and what they should do. A survey they conducted within this article found that teenagers confirm and are in agreeance that these same gender roles and portrayals are held even by “non-gamers” outside of the video game world (Dill and Thrill, 2007). Therefore, such menial objects or tools like video games stem certain notions of life that may or may not be true. Not all women are physically bodacious and helpless and not all men are well-built and heroic. Video games help create these illusions and, thus, stereotypes outside of the television. This is violent because of the mental and emotional abuse that this causes based off of social norms. [21]

On the flipside though, video games may be helpful in showing men and women as free and capable characters. In Peggy Emmerink’s article called The Relationship between Endorsement of the Sexual Double Standard and Sexual Cognitions and Emotions, Emmerink provides the audience with the fact that pushing this idea of female modesty and constant male prowess can have a negative impact on the sexual and mental health of males and females due to the lack of “…autonomy, body esteem, and approach/avoidance motives of sex” (Emmerink, 2016). In these video games, the men are big and powerful and the women are stimulating and protected. Sometimes men and women need to have examples of beings who are different from them to be able to see that that same image and persona is possible for them. Limiting a person based off of their gender can cause them to limit themselves in other areas of life. There is no one image of men or women and saying or acting as though there is only worsens the idea that independence and imagination are nearly impossible. Emmerick says very clearly that “…sexual cognitions and emotions deserve explicit attention in sex-positive and gender-transformative sexuality education” (Emmerink, 2016). This means that everyone deserves a glimpse into the possibilities sexual and personal abilities and characteristics. While video games can create and unrealistic view of men and women, they can also help promote healthier and more tangible and happier imaginations of sex, gender roles, and life as a whole. Regardless of sexual or mental impact though, video games contribute to this creation of stereotyping based off of social standards and customs. Social violence in video games specifically is key in understanding insecurities, a distortion of reality, and the contribution to gender roles and biases.[22]

Brown v EMA

Case Details

The Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), essentially companies who produce and sell video games, took the state of California to court after a new California law stated that forced these companies to label their games as violent when sold to people under the age of 18. The EMA argued that the proposed law was unconstitutional as it would break both the first and fourteenth amendments. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where a final ruling was made that the new law would not be passed in California as it was not based on concrete evidence. [23]

Case Outcome and Aftermath

After losing in a 7-2 decision, California was not successful in passing the law for stricter regulations surrounding violent video game production and sale. The Justices who decided against the new law seemed to agree that there was not clear enough evidence that video games were the case of aggression or that they were any more causal than other forms of entertainment (such as television shows and movies). This lead the Justices to believe that the gaming community was being specifically marginalized which would be a breach of the first amendment. [23].

Ultimately, what came of this case was a major victory for the video game industry. This ruling gave other states a clear suggestion that they should not try implementing similar laws, as they would be shut down immediately. Further, it raised praise for the video game industry as being one of the best at controlling who gets their hands on sensitive or inappropriate content. "Retailers prevented 87% of underage purchases", and video games have some of the best warning labels. [23].


While violence in video games has been a hot topic in the United States, Brazil has recently entered the discourse as well. Federal Deputy Junior Bozzella has proposed a new bill that would make violent video games a crime. If a person “for their own account or for others, develops, imports, sells, transfers, lends, makes available or leases applications or electronic games that incite violence and crime,” they could face three to six months in jail. There are studies that make a correlation between video games and the violent actions of people and some that suggest that there is no connection. This will greatly affect the video game industry in Brazil, which is already an expensive market. [24]

Ethical Implications

Promotion of values

Violent games are not morally neutral due to their graphic and controversial content. By society's standards violence is not a norm. The argument is that violence in video games promotes aggression and violence in the real world. Games which promote violence, such as Manhunt, encourage the player to kill in increasingly gruesome ways in order to earn a better rating.[25] Players are required to distinguish the difference between acceptable values and unacceptable values between the real world and a video game. These individuals who play violent video games are left to conduct their own ethical reasoning. An experiment by Nicholas Carnagey and Craig Anderson, concluded that, regardless of whether the game rewards or punishes violence, playing a violent video game increases violence and aggression as opposed to playing a nonviolent video game.[26] The game itself does not engage in moral actions or bear moral responsibility.[27] By taking the approach of embedded values, the games have moral consequences and should thus be analyzed ethically.[27]

Virtue Ethics

This topic regarding violence in video game continues to raise significant ethical questions and concerns. Virtue ethics, in particular, are very significant in this debate. One piece that brings up important claims regarding ethics and technology is Susan Vallor's "Social Networking Technology and the Virtues". Although Vallor discusses social networking in this article, the main takeaways are still very relevant to violence in video games. Vallor explains that the virtues and vices we encounter with technology will not only affect thoughts but also actions. [28]. Vallor believes that this claim has significant merit and if this claim is true, then "technology significantly alters the nature and patterns of activities that people regularly perform [28]. This statement correlates with the findings from the Dartmouth study that claims that video games do in fact cause increased aggression. This claim also supports some of the extreme anti-violent video game advocates who believe that video games are directly correlated to the increase in violent shootings [29]. In this case, one may argue that the virtues that violent video games are promoting do have significant ethical implications because of the increase in violent behavior and actions.

Regulations & Ethics

Because there is no definitive answer as to what the effects of video games have on players, regulations and restrictions have created significant ethical concerns. Example, in 2010 when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill to restrict the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. This bill was taken to the Supreme Court and didn't pass because of a claim that video game developers have the right to free expression and banning the sale of video games to minors would be similar to banning movies, books, or violent news reports [30]. This reflects the ethical dilemma that is created in regards to violent games. One should consider that these games may have a negative impact on players and increasing their violent tendencies globally. However, regulating video games could potentially infringe on one's freedom of speech and expression. This decision of suppressing free speech vs. promoting violent actions increases the difficulty for policymakers to take action. People still demand regulation of video games due to ethical issues, however, it hasn't been successful.

See Also

External Sites

Call of Duty
Dartmouth University
Electronic Software Ratings Board
Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar)
Mortal Kombat
Oxford Internet Institute


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