After spending three years tracking thousands of children who played dozens of video games for hundreds of hours, an Iowa State University researcher discovered that, in essence, your grandmother was a pretty good psychologist.
“Practice makes perfect,” said Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at ISU and lead author of a new study that found children who repeatedly play violent video games are learning thought patterns that will stick with them and influence their behavior.
The ISU study, the largest of its kind on the topic, was published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics – a highly-regarded monthly peer-reviewed medical journal. Gentile said the findings indicate that playing violent games like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Call of Duty” are, in many ways, no different than learning to drive or play the piano.
“Whatever you practice over and over again, you get better at,” Gentile said. “Whatever you practice, you think more, and the more likely it is to show up in your behavior.”
The study, conducted in Singapore, followed more than 3,000 children in third, fourth, seventh and eighth grades for three years. Students answered questions about the time they spent playing video games, the violent content of the games and changes in their thoughts and behavior.
Over time, according to the study, researchers found that children who spent time playing violent video games started to think more aggressively. That didn’t necessarily manifest itself in criminally violent behavior, but it did lead to low-level aggression and hostility – perhaps bullying or using sarcasm more often.
“I’m really interested in what it is that predicts this lower level of common aggression – the teasing and verbal aggression and relational aggression and cyber bullying,” he said. “That is the day to day aggression that kids come into contact with.”
When analyzing why violent games increase aggression, Gentile said, researchers developed several explanations.
“(The children) are not actually copying the behaviors they see in the games,” he said.
But rather, the games actually are changing how the children think. For example, when someone does something that hurts them, they might assume it was on purpose rather than on accident.
“When you practice being hyper vigilant for enemies – always asking where is the next threat – you attribute hostility to others,” Gentile said.
The children also might view aggression as more acceptable than before.
“Their beliefs change, and it’s more normative and acceptable to be aggressive when provoked,” according to the research.
The children might also spend more time fantasizing about being aggressive in one way or another, Gentile said.
“And we are starting to see long-term changes,” he said.
The study also challenged old assumptions that violent video games have greater impacts on boys, younger children and those with prior aggressive tendencies. Boys did report being more physically aggressive and playing violent video games more often, Gentile said.
But, when looking simply at everyone who played the games and their ensuing behavior, there was not much evidence to support a different effect based on gender, age or aggression.
“When girls play these games, they change the same way boys do because the brain learns the same way,” Gentile said. “This is a learning effect. It’s practice making perfect.”
Gentile worked on the study with co-author Craig Anderson, ISU distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State, and Sara Prot, an ISU graduate student in psychology.
“There are lasting effects on thinking and behavior," Prot said. "You can’t say one group, because of their gender, age or culture, is protected from the effects in some special way.”
Gentile said he hopes the research motivates parents to be more involved in their children’s media use.
“I want parents to start taking the games their kids play seriously,” he said. “A lot of parents think that because it’s called a game, there are no serious affects. But games have changed a lot.”
Many of the factors that affect a child’s aggression – like poverty level or genetics – are not easy to address.
“But here is a place where parents really are much more able to control the situation,” Gentile said. “I would like people to recognize that games are fantastic teachers, kids are natural learners, and that means parents need to be involved.”