Do Violent Video Games Make Kids More Aggressive?

Last week, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to overturn California’s law banning the sale of violent video games to minors, citing the First Amendment protection of free speech. For many parents, the crux of the debate hinged on whether such games are harmful to minors.

The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that violent video games “are causally related to later aggressive behavior in children and adolescents.” But, as Emily Bazelon noted in a Slate article last November, the cause-effect relationship isn’t entirely clear:

The studies can’t prove for sure that violent video games make kids more aggressive. Maybe the kids who are more aggressive are drawn more to these games. And maybe the lab-based experiments in which kids blast each other don’t have much to do with real-world findings.

Recently, I conducted my own research on the topic, using an admittedly small sample. My test case was a certain eight-year-old boy with whom I happen to live.

We’re not a particularly tech-savvy family — we don’t own Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, or even a DS. Shunning gadgets wasn’t some grand parenting plan my husband and I had. We just never got around to buying them.

But last fall, a friend introduced our son to a website called, and he was soon immersed in a computer game called Age of War. Sometimes I’d catch him at the tail-end of a game, firing a machine gun at enemy soldiers, whose limbs would fly from their bodies, blood gushing. I’d cup my mouth in horror and think back on the days when he’d sit on my lap and we’d trawl the Thomas the Tank Engine web site, spouting the names of all the trains. I had to wonder: Is this what the kids are doing these days?

I know, in comparison to games like Grand Theft Auto, Age of War is akin to Ms. Pac Man. But the violence alarmed me. When Justice Scalia compared playing violent video games to reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales in his Supreme Court decision, I was hard pressed to think of a time when a character in one of those books had his arm shot off by an assault weapon as blood spurted from the wound.

But what bothered me most about our son’s obsession with Age of War was his new-found practice of holding up an invisible machine gun and mowing us all down over dinner. The first time it happened, I stared, mouth agape, forkful of spaghetti held high, and shouted, “Drop your weapon!” He laughed and stopped. To him, it seemed, it was a big joke. But I had to wonder: Was this just natural boy aggression or was the video game causing him to go mock-postal? And could mock-postal one day become real-postal?

Thankfully, another friend introduced him to a web site called Club Penguin, a virtual world in which each participant is assigned a penguin avatar. The purpose of life at Club Penguin seems to be winning lots of coins so you can buy stuff and deck out your igloo (his includes a dance floor, a bongo pyramid, bonfires, and a full band). You also spruce up your wardrobe, go to parties, and play games with your friends — in sum, the kinds of things you might do in normal life, only it’s a lot more fun and you’re a penguin.

But the best thing about this new game is our son stopped holding up an outstretched index finger and shooting at us. I know we’re not out of the woods yet, but I’m enjoying the relative calm that came when he left the battlefield and took up interior decorating. At least for me, when it comes to the connection between video violence and aggression in children, the jury is not out.

Marquee photograph iStockphoto/Adam Filip