FRIDAY, Aug. 19, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Violent video games with protagonists that hunt, maim and kill are linked to at least short-term aggressive behaviors in children, according to the first large-scale review of studies on the subject.
While the effects of these highly realistic games over the longer term remain unclear, the impact on kids' attitudes toward violence is worrisome, researchers say.
"Children and adolescents are becoming desensitized to this very violent content, so it doesn't surprise them -- and they expect to see -- blood squirting out of someone when they are shot," said co-researcher Kevin Kieffer, an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Leo University in San Antonio, Fla.
He and co-researcher Jessica Nicoll, also of Saint Leo, presented their findings Friday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
The study should add fuel to a debate on the appropriateness of the most violent computer games for use by American children.
"There have been a number of court cases -- including one we cited in this paper, in Indianapolis -- which have struck down the legality of banning video game sales to youth," Kieffer said.
According to Kieffer, the judge in that 2001 suit "found no compelling evidence" from any particular study that violent video games caused an increase in child aggression that could lead to real violence.
Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the industry, called the new review "little more than a rehash of old papers repackaged as 'new findings.' "
"In truth," he added, "it is neither new nor comprehensive. It is simply a highly selective review of previous research, much of which has been challenged as either weak, unpersuasive, and flawed by independent sources."
Lowenstein believes the reviewers ignored studies that contradicted their "preconceived views," and called the APA's focus on the paper "predictable given APA's longstanding support of proposals to regulate video games."
Kieffer described his and Nicoll's work as an attempt to review the literature on the subject for recurrent "themes" that might provide more convincing evidence, either pro or con, regarding violent video games' links to aggression.
They looked at 16 studies that focused on video game use and aggression in children under 18 years of age, all published between 1985 and 2004.
Kieffer said three distinct trends emerged.
"First, we noticed in these studies that individuals who are subjected to violent media and video games tend to act more violent in the short-term," he said.
For example, one study of more than 600 eighth- and ninth-graders, published in 2004, found that kids with high levels of video game play also had "a greater number of arguments with authority figures such as teachers and were also more likely to be involved in physical altercations with other students," according to the researchers.
In another study, published in 2002, children who were first given either violent or nonviolent video games to play with were subsequently presented with a "retaliation" activity where they could punish opponents by "blasting" them with a loud noisemaker.
"Participants who had played the violent game displayed more aggression against their opponents in the retaliation portion of the study than participants who played the nonviolent game," the authors of this latest study noted. Another study found that children who indulged in violent video game-playing were less "helpful" to other children during play.
While these findings support links between violent video game use and short-term aggression, Kieffer said it is too soon to know whether these effects will linger. "What's lacking is longitudinal data to suggest that they become more violent over time," he said.
But Kimberly Thompson, a Harvard University researcher specializing in these types of issues, said that data isn't likely to arrive anytime soon.
"What's really amazing is that we aren't doing those [long-term] studies," she said. "We don't have the funds to do them." She agreed that the real sticking point in the debate over video games is whether short-term effects translate into truly violent behavior over time. "That's what people are arguing about."
Kieffer said strong gender differences also emerged in the research.
"Boys tend to play these games much more often than girls," Kieffer said. He and Nicoll offered up two theories as to why this might be so: First, it may simply be more socially acceptable for boys to play video games. Another explanation is linked to the "subordinate role women [characters] often take in these video games," leaving girls little to identify with as they play the game, he said.
Finally, there's the chicken-and-egg problem of whether kids who might be more naturally aggressive are drawn to these types of games, or whether it's the gaming itself that is encouraging aggression.
"We have seen a lot of studies documenting that individuals with what we call 'low self-concept,' and people that are going through difficult times, can act out their aggressive fantasies through these games," Kieffer said. "I think there's a lot more research that needs to be done examining this."
According to Thompson, who founded the Kids Risk Project at Harvard, video games differ from more passive mediums, such as comic books, in one important way.
"They are interactive," she said. "When you play a video game you get feedback, you're rewarded." In fact, her investigation into a wide range of popular, teen-rated games found that "players were being rewarded for committing acts of violence. So basically, violence becomes just a part of how you move on in the game."
Parents who are concerned that their child is spending too much time staring into a video game screen do have options, Kieffer said.
"Parents need to go out of their way to involve youth in other activities," said Kieffer, who is also a counseling psychologist. Too often, he said, parents use gaming as a way of keeping kids occupied. "It's easy to say 'I'm going to plug you into your Gameboy or video game player -- go have a good time for a couple of hours so I can do what I need to do.'"
He hopes parents will "be more in touch [with kids] and spend that quality time getting their children involved in other activities."
He called recent legislative efforts to rate video games by their violent content "a step in the right direction," but added that, ultimately, "kids are always going to get their hands on these games" if they want them.
"The real issue is to set up a relationship with your children, a relationship where you can fully discuss these issues," Kieffer said. "It all boils down to communication, which a lot of families lack these days."
"We do know that when it comes to kids and games, learning happens," Thompson said. "So you really have to ask, just what is it they are learning?"
For more on research into video games and their effects on kids, head to the American Psychological Association.