While a host of research into the effects of violent games on children have focused on whether or not the exposure makes the kids more aggressive themselves, a new study published in the Journal of Children and Media took a different tack. In a survey of 166 Boston, MA, and southern New Hampshire schoolchildren, Simmons College professors Edward T. Vieira and Marina Krcmar examined the relationship between violent games and kids' attitudes toward violence.
The pair surveyed the kids (aged 7 to 15) about their favorite games and how many hours they played a week and then asked them questions to gauge their ability to sympathize with others, to see things from a different person's perspective, and whether they saw violence as an appropriate response in situations where it would be deemed justified (violence in retaliation to harm done or for protection) or unjustified. Among the games deemed violent and listed as kids' favorites were Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Counter-Strike, Mortal Kombat: Deception, and World of Warcraft.
"To make a judgment about violence, at least two skills are necessary," the paper explains. "First, a child must be able to imagine the point-of-view of both parties in the aggressive conflict. Second, he/she should be able to feel some sympathy or imagine some sympathy towards each party. Only at this point can a moral judgment be appropriately made."
The researchers found that children with more exposure to violent games were less able to sympathize with others. The study also found that violent-game players tended to have different perceptions on whether justified violent acts were permissible, though there was no discernable association for unjustified violent acts.
"Those who play more violent video games perceive violence in the name of retaliation and self-protection as more justified, much like the view of violence presented in video games," according to the paper.
Interestingly, children with less ability to sympathize were more likely to accept unjustified violence but showed no significant deviation when it came to acceptance of justified violence.
When asked about that finding, Vieira told GameSpot, "Exposure to violent video games is directly associated with justified violence. Therefore, there are cases where violence is justified such as self-defense or defending loved ones. One might have a 'normal' ability to empathize, for example, and see some types of violence as acceptable. We could apply this to societal issues such as capital punishment and wars.
"On the other hand, the study suggests that children who are heavy violent gamers are associated with less perspective-taking (empathy ability), and less perspective-taking predicts gratuitous violence (unjustified) as acceptable. This appears to make sense, because it suggests that there is no 'reason' for the violence; it is done for its own sake or some emotional motive. It intimates that the unjustified condition requires other factors such as perspective-taking. Therefore, the unjustified condition does involve gaming exposure, but gaming exposure mediated by the cognitive ability to perspective-take."
The paper notes a few limitations of the research, including the small sample size. Additionally, the researchers pointed to a previous study that suggested the amount of time spent gaming may have negative effects even apart from violent content, so it's difficult to say whether the type of content or the amount of exposure is more impactful. Tying into that was the study's method of calculating game violence, which was based solely on Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings. The professors suggested that basing such a metric on other ratings systems instead of ESRB categories may be a more effective way of gauging the level of violence.