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Violent Video Games and Behavior Problems

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Introduction

The gaming industry is an ever growing one with scores of numerous games being released every day. A major type of these games is video games that have become increasingly popular since their introduction in the 70s. Video games are played by people of all age groups with 20% of all video game players are adolescents aged 17 and below (Entertainment Software Association, 2004). In addition, the average age for video game players is 34 years. There has been a noted increase in the number of adult video game players, who make up 32% of the video game market with 26% of these adults being over 50. Males constitute the largest gender that plays video games amounting to 60% while females take up the remaining 40%. The number of women playing video games is expected to increase especially for web based video games.

The United States reports the highest number of video game players with about 10% of adolescents being found to play video games for at least one hour per day. The average time of play for children aged eight to thirteen is 7.5 hours in a week. 13.3% of students entering college have been found to play video games for an average 6 hours per week. Video game sales have increased over the years with sales for the year 2003 standing at 239 million.

An important aspect of video games is the inclusion of violent content. In a review carried out in 2001, 49% of the 70 most sold video games contained violent content and scenes. In 41% of these games, violence was found to be necessary so as the protagonist to become victorious (Haninger & Thompson, 2004). In addition, violence was the major focus in 17% of the games reviewed. As such, violent video games have become the most accepted entertainment merchandise for teens (Federal Trade Commission, 2002). Newer versions of video games being made contain increased amounts of violent content with the addition of more realistic graphical depictions of violence. Most of these newer games involve human agents who are involved in violent activities that involve the use of weapons and result in the harm of the perceived victims.

With this increasing popularity in violent video games is an increasingly important debate on the link between violent video games and behavioral problems. This debate arises from these numerous depictions of violence in these video games through the use of graphical content that portrays violence as well as the inclusion of violent scenes and portrayal of criminal behavior in these video games. Of concern are the young children and adolescents who are exposed to these violent games who could end up adopting such aggressive behavior. A lot of criticism has been raised against violent video games as they are viewed as to increase aggressive behaviors.

Several incidences that have occurred involving the use of violence have been linked to the violent depictions portrayed in video games prompting legal challenges against companies that make these video games (Jurkowitz, 2002). Such an incident is the massacre that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999 when two students committed suicide after killing a teacher and twelve students. This massacre has been described as the fourth worst school massacre in the United States that sparked a debate on the role violent video games played within the American society. The two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were avid fans of video games including as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. For instance, Harris was known to have created several levels in the Doom video game which are famously called the Harris levels in addition to a large mod that he called Tier which he termed as his life’s work.

These concerns have resulted in various studies being carried out with the aim of establishing a link between aggressive behavior and violent video games. Below is a discussion of some of two major theories and models that have been developed linking violent video games and aggressive behavior.

The General Aggression Model

This is a model that is based on previous human aggression models. The model posits that aggression is principally acquired through activation, learning, and the application of various aggression-associated knowledge structures that have been stored in the memory. This model involves situational, biological and individual factors that usually interact in order to produce various cognitive, physiological, emotional and cognitive outcomes. Aggressive behaviors entail two basic types of input variables; individual and situational (Funk, et. al., 2006). Situational input variables include such as a recent exposure to violence, insults, frustrations and various cognitive cues such as the presence of weapons. Individual input variables include variations in personality, biological makeup and differences in attitude.

These variables interact producing aggression through three major routes; cognitive such as creation of aggressive mental schemas; physiological such the increase in the blood pressure and heart rate; affective such as expressive motor responses and hostile feelings. These interactions influence an individual’s immediate assessment of a situation whereby he or she interprets the situation as whether hostile or friendly as well as the experience of affect such as anger towards the causing agent or person (Kirsh, et. al., 2005).

Re-assessment, a conscious and thoughtful effort, may occur where the individual evaluates additional information pertaining to the situation, feasibility of the alternatives available to him or her, the different alternative behavioral reactions to the situation, as well as the consequences of performing these behavioral reactions (Slater, Henry, Swaim &Anderson, 2003). Since re-assessment is an effortful exercise, it is only performed when an individual has the necessary cognitive resources needed. Once these stages have been completed, the individual will either exhibit an aggressive behavior or non-aggressive behavior.

Violent video games have been found to increase aggressive behavior by teaching players how to aggress. This is achieved through priming aggressive cognitions, creating aggressive affective condition, and increasing arousal. Learning aggression is similar to any other learning process whereby knowledge structures of aggressive situations and behaviors develop over a period of time based on the daily observations and interactions with situations that involve the portrayal of violence. As such, each video game that depicts violence is another learning experience for video game players with accompanying knowledge structures being formed within the memory. Mental rehearsal of these knowledge structures over time makes them become more differentiated, complex, and hard to change (Wiegman & Van Schie, 2006).

As an individual becomes more exposed to violent video games, he or she gets habitually aggressive which in turn changes the types and quality of social interactions with other people. As such, these short term effects on the individual eventually exhibits a positive correlation between aggressive behavior and violent video games. The eventual automatization of these knowledge structures as coupled with social expectations and behavioral scripts lead to long term effects on the individual.

The Communibiology and Neuroscience perspective

This perspective is based on the basic idea that psychological processes that occur within the body are as a result of a variety of brain activities. As such, aggressive behaviors are a reflection of the neural brain activities that reproduce aggressive affects and cognitions. A new approach to the study of brain activity is the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology in which the quantity of blood flow within the limited brain areas is determined based on magnetic reactions of hemoglobin. Neural activity within the brain is dependent on blood flow into those brain areas. Any changes in the flow of blood in these areas results in changes in the amount of neural activity recorded in those areas.   

Several studies have used fMRI scans in the study of aggressions and have established a neural circuit in the brain that is a precursor of aggressive behavior. This circuit consists of the amygdala, the anterior cingulated cortex and the orbital frontal cortex. These three brain areas belong to the brains emotional network that is behind the creation of feelings; the depiction of emotions within the mind, and emotions; the physical side of affection (Sterzer, et. al., 2009).

Past forensic psychology studies have found that individuals with aggressive and criminal behavior have an altered activity within the neural circuitry in the emotional network that regulates emotions. These individuals were found to be typified by a reduced participation of the emotion network. The ACC plays an important function in the development of feelings through linking affective and cognitive processing hence it is an interface between emotion and cognition (Phan, et. al., 2007). The ACC is divided further into the rostral affective portion and the dorsal cognitive portion.

The dACC has been found to exhibit increased brain activity when cognitive interference activities were taking place. conversely, the rACC has been found to exhibit increased brain activity when affective information was being processed. Studies have established that imagined scenarios that involve aggressive behavior are usually linked with considerable reductions in activity within the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex where the ACC is located. There has been found diminished activity within the ACC of adolescents with aggressive behavior disorders and anti-social conduct. Moreover, differential ACC activity has linked aggressive reactions to emotional processing.

Recent fMRI scans have showed decreased brain activity in adolescents who have been exposed to violent content in video games for the last twelve months before the study was carried out. These adolescents showed declining neural activity within their frontal lobes as a result of the exposure to the violent depictions in the video games. In addition, the exposure to high amounts of video content depicting violence has been found to result in reduced brain activity in adolescent who have had no past psychopathological history (Sterzer, et. al., 2009).

It is therefore evident that violent video games result to aggressive behaviors due to the resulting reduced neural activity in the frontal lobe as indicated from fMRI scans. Aggression seems to be linked with variations in the activity of the dACC, the rACC, and the amygdala.   

Conclusion

The increase in violent video games has raised a lot of concern on the resulting aggressive behavior on the players of these games. Video games are played by people of all age groups and have become increasingly the games of choice. There has been a remarkable increase in the number of incidences that have involved violence as result of the influences of video games resulting in several legal challenges as well as studies to determine the link between violent video games and aggressive behaviors. The general aggression model hypothesizes that video games increase aggressive behavior by teaching players how to aggress. This is achieved through priming aggressive cognitions, creating aggressive affective condition, and increasing arousal. The communibiology and neuroscience perspective hypothesizes that violent video games result to aggressive behaviors due to the resulting reduced neural activity in the frontal lobe of the brain.

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