8 min read

Are Video Games Inherently Bad or a Convenient Scapegoat?

Are video games responsible for violence? Do they make you aggressive? Are there any benefits for video games? Should I let my children play?
A couple sitting on the couch playing video games
Image by CottonBro Studio on Pexels.com

When my husband and I discussed our future hypothetical children, we discuss what we hoped they would be like and what we feared they would be.


That was one of my top fears that my children would be.

This chat came after we had been together for a few years. He had already "converted" me to video games and we spent hours playing Minecraft and other titles.

It didn't matter that I was now a gamer myself. It still felt like a dirty vice to be hidden away from everyone else. My moral failing would not be my children's own.

"Why?" he asked.

As I tried to respond and think critically about why, I only had a sputtering spew of words:

Video games cause violence.

They're childish, and they make you lazy.

I don't want my children to be incels, hiding away in their rooms with their video games.

My internal bias was spilling out of me in waves. It felt ridiculous, as I was saying it.

Here I was, a lover of violent shooter games, and I am:

  • Not violent
  • Not (particularly) childish
  • Not lazy
  • Not an incel (or femcel?)

So why did I have these strong beliefs?

Where did I "collect" all these ideas about video games?

Where did this message start?

Before video games even existed, there was already a moral panic around comic books with violent themes.

It didn't help that a psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, wrote "Seduction of the Innocent" (1954) which postulated that violent comics were a negative form of literature. He claimed that they would lead to juvenile delinquency. Even though the studies behind his claims baseless, moral panic ensued.

There was growing pressure for the comic book industry to regulate their work. In 1954, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was established and put strict regulations on what content could appear in comic books and be sold in stores.

This slashed the appearance of most violence and other mature themes. But like any good prohibition, this only caused an underground market for adult-themed comics.

The CCA slowly suffocated its own audience as more turned to the underground market. As their grip on the industry waned and eventually disappeared, comics reappeared in popularity.

Teenager playing a pinball arcade game
"These damn kids and their pinball machines!" Grandpa yelled, shaking his fist. [Image by Cottonbro Studio on pexels.com]

Post World War II, teenagers spent most of their time hanging out in places with pinball machines. Religious folk feared these machines and deemed them a "tool of the devil."

Another widespread ban on pinball machines across the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It doesn't matter what it is.

Older generations have a hard time accepting what the youth do in their spare time. Whether it is making TikTok videos, playing video games, or pinball.  

Enter Player 1

In the early and mid-1970s, arcade games made an appearance.

"Death Race" is considered the first game targeted for its violent content. It challenged players to drive a car and run over simulated gremlins for points. The game caught the attention of an Associated Press writer. She shared her concerns over the excessive violence in Death Race with the manufacturer. Her concerns gained traction with the National Safety Council. Controversial media coverage did two things:

1. Cause some arcades to return "Death Race" games in panic

2. Increase sales elsewhere


As more and more video games came on the scene, controversy around them and juvenile violence increased.

In 1992, Mortal Kombat was released. It is one of the first games to depict significant amounts of blood and gore. This caused two congressional hearings in 1993 and 1994 to discuss violence and video games. Advocacy groups, academics, and the video game industry fighting it out in Congress.

Congress pass legislation that the video game industry would need a content rating system. From that legislation, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was born in 1994.

School Shootings

The Columbine High School Massacre in 1999 reignited the debate about video games and their impact on violence. The two perpetrators were avid players of violent video games, like "Doom".

President Bill Clinton swiftly ordered an investigation into school shootings and how video games were marketed to youth. The report found that 12% of perpetrators in school shootings have shown interest in video games.

Hmm, let's think about that for a minute.

Is it just me or does 12% not seem particularly high? I wonder how many non-school shooting adolescents were interested in video games at that time? And even if it is a higher percentage of school shooters (vs non-criminals) increased in video games, correlation does not mean causation.

Simply put, based on that alone, we can't tell which one is true:

  • Do video games make you more violent?
  • Or do violent people enjoy (violent) video games?

School shootings continued to happen. People were desperate to understand what are the causes of them were. Two primary culprits were highlighted: Gun access and Video Games.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting (2012), they discovered the perpetrator had a collection of video games.

The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) blamed the video game industry for the shooting. They identify different games that focus on shooting people in schools.

How convenient for the National Rifle Association of America to blame video games when they were 'under fire' for the lax laws on gun ownership.

Even with the record number of mass shootings (468 mass shootings in 2023, as of writing this), the NRA continues to oppose any measure for restricting gun ownership.

But even if we look at the link between violence and video games, we are ignoring a glaring issue. Video games are EVERYWHERE. Children, teenagers, and adults are playing them all over the world.

But school shootings? They are happening (mostly) in America.

What the Studies Say

Okay, but what about the science? Is there a link between video games and violence?

There are A LOT of studies, which is no surprise since people have been witch-hunting video games since their inception.

Both individual studies and meta-analyses are inconclusive of the links between video games and violence. Some studies indicate they decrease violence, some say they increase it. And some studies show no difference.

I won't cover every study and overwhelm you. I picked out studies that show why the link is inconclusive. Some examples of studies:

  • In 2002, US Secret Service studied 41 individuals that had been involved in school shootings. 12% were attracted to violent video games, 24% read violent books, and 27% consumed violent films. These numbers are unusually low compared to violent media consumption in non-criminal youth.
  • In 2003, one study looked at the relationship between exposure to violence through media and real life, and desensitization (the loss of empathy and change in attitudes towards violence). This study found some association between video game violence and lowered empathy. It also noted stronger pro-violence attitudes.
  • Another 2003 study found that violent video games were associated with reduced aggression in Japanese youth.
  • Then in 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement. It stated that exposure to violent media increases feelings of hostility, thoughts about aggression, and suspicions about the motives of others. It concluded that it also demonstrates violence as a method of dealing with conflict. It reported that sexualized violence in media was linked to increased violence towards women, rape myth acceptance and anti-women attitudes. It called for a decrease in violence in all media, including video games.
    More than 230 media scholars, including psychologists, criminologists, and game design researchers, strongly criticized that statement. Their 2013 statement suggested that the APA ignored discrepant research and misrepresented scientific literature.

Even the meta-analyses were inconclusive. If we look at the three most recent meta-analyses:

  • 2015 meta-analysis: It found that video games, including violent ones, had minimal impact on children's behavior. This included violence, prosocial behavior, and mental health.
  • 2018 meta-analysis: It found that violent video game play is positively associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect. It reported a negative association between empathy for victims of violence and pro-social behavior.
  • 2020 meta-analysis of long-term outcome studies: It found no association between playing violent video games and later aggression. It also stated that better quality studies were less likely to find evidence for effect than poorer quality studies.

Are there negatives to gaming?

So if the science isn't conclusive whether gaming increases aggression, are there other negatives to gaming?

Of course!

But there are negatives with anything that's used in excess.

The biggest concern around gaming is video game addiction. If video games start to affect daily life, relationships with others, and self-care, then it becomes problematic.

I, myself, have felt the addicting powers of a video game (*Cough cough* World of WarCraft).  

However, I'm not more concerned with this hypothetical gaming addiction than a hypothetical porn addiction or sugar addiction, or food addiction. Doesn't matter what it is, addiction is harmful.

The other negative of gaming is carpel tunnel syndrome or "gamer's thumb." Vision problems are a common complaint of gamers, especially eye strain. We can easily avoid these with adequate stretching and taking breaks.  

Other critics point out that gaming can contribute to the obesity epidemic. Well yes, it could, but so does any screen time.

Moderation is key.

What about the benefits of gaming?

Contrary to my previous personal bias, gaming can be a way to build community and avoid isolation.

Many games need cooperation from players to achieve a certain task. Previous research suggests that children who play more video games tend to have better social skills, perform better academically, and build better relationships with their peers. This is likely linked to social and collaborative aspects of the games.

It can help build a bridge between the intergenerational gap. Grandparents can play with their grandkids.

Those on the Autism Spectrum may prefer using gaming as a method of connection with others if they aren't a fan of traditional communication.

Some studies suggest it has cognitive benefits, like better control over one's attention and improved spatial reasoning.

One study of 2,000 children found that those who reported playing 3 hours or more of video games did better on cognitive skills tests. These tests involved impulse control and working memory.

Other studies have found that video games increase the brain's gray matter. This is the part associated with muscle control, memories, perception, and spatial navigation.

Video games have been used in the medical field. They have been used to train people with degenerative diseases to improve their balance. They have helped ADHD adolescents with thinking skills.

They have been used to train surgeons on how to go about complicated operations. Video game-playing surgeons performed advanced procedures faster and made fewer mistakes (37% less) than non-gamers.

Wait, I'm confused. Are you saying I should or shouldn't let my children pay video games?


Two people can read this article and conclude the completely opposite ideas:

  • Science isn't conclusive yet on the issue but better safe than sorry
  • There are much bigger concerns that video games and the benefits seem worthwhile

The goal of this article isn't to make you decide either way, but to think critically about WHY you make that decision.


The debate on whether video games are inherently bad or just a convenient scapegoat is not black and white. Although video games are blamed for societal issues (like mass shootings), the studies are inconclusive. There are other studies that highlight the benefits of video games on cognitive abilities.

Since that discussion and reflecting on it, my stance on video games has flipped completely. I would like it if my children play video games (in moderation). Video games are going to be one way of connecting with my children as they get older. I plan on monitoring what games they do play and avoiding realistic and gore violence in all media consumption. Video games can provide the foundation for important discussions with children and find out their own views.  

What are your thoughts on video games?

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