Do Criminologists believe video games cause violence?

For this post, I thought it would be fun to talk about the topic of a recent seminar (of which I have four per week, one for each module) in which we looked at the (possible) connections between video gaming and violence.

The first of our two set readings was an article from 2008 by DeVane and Squire, which discussed the meanings of race and violence in GTA San Andreas. In their research, the two authors investigated how young (American) people played the game, and ultimately found that the gamers were not “passively” receiving content. Despite popular media criticism of GTA as reinforcing or creating violent, sexist or racist stereotypes, these two scholars found that gamers reacted differently to the game’s meanings, behaved very differently (some people actually stop at red lights for example!), and were aware of some of these problematic depictions being presented. The second of our set readings was a slightly drier piece in comparison, and explored a dependency model of mass media communication (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur 1976). Their piece served to demonstrate the complexity of reciprocal relationships in media consumption – in short, we can see certain effects at play such as those behind the media setting agendas for the public to consider, or the fostering of a sense of cohesion in a Durkheimian sense, but people bring their own realities to what they see.

There are various arguments proposing a connection between gaming and violence. One theory of note would be that of Social Learning – the idea that we learn from what we encounter, and so recreate what we see. A key proponent of this was Bandura (search “Bandura Bobo Doll” on YouTube) whose experiment found that children aggressively beat up a doll after witnessing adults “playing” with it in a similar way. Do we recreate what we see in games without question? A very different approach to finding a connection could come from the concept of systemic violence – the idea that objective violence exists all around us, rendered invisible by socio-economic structures (think poverty, environmental crime, sexism etc.). Through such a lens, we could see games as a form of symbolic violence – not only can they contain sexist, racist or violent imagery, but (even) less visibly they can also entrench the neoliberal pursuit of wealth above all else. Does playing GTA or something like Second Life make you lust after material goods not found in the real world? Through the “strain theory” of crime, playing such games could tempt us with visions of better or more exciting lives than we lead, and so prompts us to turn to crime to try and gain material wealth. Even if we don’t actually become criminals, there could be indirect effects such as damaged wellbeing. Do we get depressed when we have to leave fun virtual worlds and get back to work? In the future will we stay in doors hooked up to VR because it’s more fun than the real world?

Of course there are strong counter-arguments to this view. When I asked how many Sims players in the room had done something sadistic to their virtual people, it turns out the majority had, despite none of us being violent criminals! There is then a point that we are able to separate real and virtual, without our behaviour overspilling. If anything games could provide an outlet for frustration. The flip-side to this is that those people who play violent games and go on to commit violence were not influenced by the games – instead, they chose those violent games to match their pre-existing interests. Research tends to find little evidence for a link between gaming and crime – instead, violence has been shown to decrease in areas with higher numbers of game stores (though of course no. of stores could be indicative of more wealthy areas etc). Multiplayer games might even foster a sense of tribalism lost in modern cultures, with this neo-tribalism fulfilling an important need to belong. Returning to more general arguments against games, it’s worth remembering that the term “video games” covers everything from Euro Truck Simulator to Call of Duty, and so it’s simplistic to claim gaming equals violence. The media can fail to pick up on this, and we might question how well both media and previous academic work understood the culture (e.g. modding culture or international competitiveness). Another point is that games, such as GTA (written by the Scottish company Rockstar Games) can be heavily satirical – though does this require faith in the masses’ intelligence or critical thinking skills to engage beyond the surface level?

All in all, this was a very interesting week – and hopefully demonstrates, in colour, the wide-ranging objects of study for the Criminology student.

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Second year Criminology undergraduate with a strong "get involved in everything" philosophy, and proud member of Derwent College.