Video Games: Violent, Yes. But Do They Make Us Violent?

Psychologist Brad Bushman and public health expert Cheryl Olson weigh in on the impact of violent video games on behavior. Watch the full report on PBS NewsHour Tuesday.

I remember some years back when I first walked into a video game store with my son, feeling amazed, overwhelmed and, yes, aghast. I knew a bit about this world, of course. We’d played racing games and Madden football and his older sister had had some, smaller, interest in various games. But to see and hear and feel it all in the buzz and din of a store was something new. Mayhem was everywhere. And then came the moment when I noticed that one of the games he wanted to buy — with a gift certificate — was rated “M” for “mature.” He assured me that he’d “played it many times with friends,” and that “everyone already has it.” And so on. You can guess the rest.

As one public health expert, Cheryl Olson, told us recently: “It’s true that the Newtown, Conn., shooter apparently played violent video games. But the local kids on your soccer team, 13 year old boys who live down the street from you, they’re all playing these violent games, too.” Still, when there’s a shooting by a young person, we wonder: what part might video games and other violent media have played? Did they numb him to the reality of violence? Were they a kind of “tipping point” for an already damaged young man? Some researchers say their studies show convincing evidence of a link between video games and aggressive behavior. We watched one such study in action at Ohio State University — a young man played games, then was asked to take certain tests to measure his levels of aggression. Ohio State psychology and communications professor Brad Bushman told us he’s seen a correlation between the games and behavior. “A correlation doesn’t imply causation,” he said. “But they’re related.” Next question: What does THAT mean for parents and for policy?

Science, policy, law, culture — they’re all part of the equation in looking at video games and gun violence, and all part of our report. Along the way, I mowed down some enemy fighters (at least I think they were the enemy) in a game of “Call of Duty” and talked with website editor Stephen Totilo about the aesthetics of video games. But I also talked with children’s media advocate Jim Steyer about something we all worry about, even beyond the daily headlines: a growing culture of violence that affects each of us in some way.

Our report airs Tuesday night, part of a weeklong effort, “After Newtown,” by the NewsHour and our PBS partners. I hope you’ll join us.

If you’d like to read more about the uses and abuses of violent images in media, the Los Angeles Times ran a special series in Sunday’s edition called “The Culture of Violence.” Todd Martens examined video games in an article called “Violent video games: Pushing wrong buttons in blame game.”

PBS NewsHour has been following the discussion about gun violence and gun control policy as it unfolds across the nation and in Washington. Follow all of the stories on our special reports page, The Gun Debate.