Study suggests violent video games activate fight-or-flight type responses in kids

New research suggests that violent video games activate the fight-or-flight responses system in children.

The study of 136 elementary school children found that playing a violent video game led to more aggressive thoughts and to greater cortisol levels compared to an equally-exciting nonviolent video game. The violent video game also increased cardiovascular arousal among boys, but not girls.

The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Gentile: So much of what happens when we engage in some behavior is “inside the black box,” and we don’t usually have good intuitions about our own reactions. For example, people generally believe that advertising doesn’t affect them, but that is demonstrably false. The true thing is we can’t see when or how it happens. Similarly, we don’t like to believe that violent games might have an influence on our aggressive tendencies. This study was a way of looking in the black box. If violent games trigger aggression, we might see a fight or flight stress hormone response.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Games influence us, both positively and negatively, but generally without our conscious awareness or ability to control/stop it. Intuitively we know this, because if a game truly doesn’t affect us, we call it “boring.”

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There are always many more things to be studied. This is one of the first studies of its type, so it should be replicated. We don’t know how much this pattern changes with age or experience playing violent games. I could imagine (and we have hints of it from another study) that as we age and get more desensitized that we would see less of a hormonal response. This hypothesis has yet to be tested.

Regarding caveats, most of our kids were white Midwesterners, so perhaps other ethnic groups or cultures would react differently, although there is not a good theory why they would. The stress system is evolutionarily valuable for all humans, and when we see violence, it should kick in regardless of the language one speaks. This was a true randomized experiment, so we do know that the different games are what caused the differences we saw in cortisol, cardiovascular arousal, and emotional arousal.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The media often over-simplify these types of studies to suggest that the researchers are claiming violent games make people do violent things. That’s not what we are saying. We’re saying that over time, we get better at what we practice, and if we practice aggressive responding to provocations in games, that can lead to more willingness to react unkindly or aggressively when provoked in the real world.

The study, “Violent video game effects on salivary cortisol, arousal, and aggressive thoughts in children“, was also co-authored by Patrick K. Bender and Craig A. Anderson.