Study Finds No Evidence That More Violent, Difficult Video Games Spur Aggression

Video game controller on a vivid green background

Global video game revenues top more than $140 billion every year and e-sports are becoming just as competitive (and potentially lucrative) as other professional sports. Some of the most popular video games — including Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto, Rainbow Six Siege, Red Dead Redemption, Overwatch, Counter-Strike,and Call of Duty — feature violence of some kind, but the question still stands: Does violent in-game behavior have an impact on real-world behavior?

Some psychological studies have suggested that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior, on the basis of experiments that compared the behavior of participants who played violent games with those who played nonviolent games. But critics say the findings fail to account for other possible factors, including differences in the mechanics of violent and nonviolent games.

To more directly answer the question, Joseph Hilgard of Illinois State University and colleagues altered a single game to examine the unique influence of two aspects of game play: content and difficulty. The findings, published in Psychological Science, provide no evidence that either violent or difficult content intensifies players’ aggression toward others.

For the study, Hilgard and colleagues created four versions of the video game Doom II. The more violent versions contained enemy graphics and sounds borrowed from Brutal Doom, a game mod designed to make everything more extreme — participants were tasked with defeating aliens, which resulted in the enemies exploding in gory fashion. The less violent versions contained sillier-looking alien enemies drawn from Chex Quest; rather than killing the aliens, participants were tasked with sending them home with their “zorcher.”

In the difficult versions of the game, the enemies fought back and participants had to restart the level if they received too many hits. In the easy versions, the enemies simply walked slowly instead of directly attacking the player.

Although the content and overall objective varied across the four versions, the game play remained the same.

When the participants, all college-aged men, came to the lab, they completed a 5-minute writing assignment in which they described their views on abortion; they then received and rated another participant’s essay (in reality, a fake essay chosen because it opposed the participants’ stated beliefs). 

Following the writing task, the participants played one of the versions of the video game for 15 minutes, after which they read the feedback they had received on their own essay. The feedback, which was designed to provoke an emotional response, was the same for each participant, featuring low ratings and the comment “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”

The researchers then measured participants’ aggression by having them engage in an exercise that supposedly examined decision making under distraction. As part of the exercise, participants chose how long their partner had to keep his hand in the water while performing the task.

Data from 275 participants showed no indication that playing the more violent or more difficult versions of the game influenced the amount of time participants assigned their partner to be exposed to the cold water. In other words, neither game violence nor difficulty resulted in increased aggressive behavior toward an antagonistic partner.

The researchers also examined another factor long suspected as an indicator of male aggression — the ratio of index finger length and ring finger length. Scientists have theorized that a low ratio reflects increased testosterone exposure in utero and is associated with aggressive behavior. But Hilgard and his team also found no relationship between this ratio and aggression.

Additional Bayesian analyses indicated that a model assuming no relationship between game characteristics and aggression was the model best supported by the data.

“Results indicate that when game stimuli are carefully controlled, the effects of 15 min of violent and difficult game play on aggressive behavior may be small and indistinguishable from zero. This suggests that the effects of brief violent-video-game play on aggressive outcomes may be smaller and less robust than the published research literature would indicate,” Hilgard and colleagues write.

The researchers mention several factors that should be investigated further, including the fact that many participants in the original sample reported awareness of the study aims and were therefore excluded from analyses. This awareness could be due, at least in part, to the two-step debriefing process the researchers used — establishing standardized practices in deception and debriefing could address this issue in future research, they say.

“Researchers may need to reevaluate whether violent-video-game manipulations are useful for revealing the causes and mechanisms of aggression. Further research will also be necessary to determine whether, and under which conditions, competitive or frustrating game play causes aggression,” Hilgard and colleagues conclude.


Hilgard, J., Engelhardt, C. R., Rouder, J. N., Segert, I. L., & Bartholow, B. D. (2019). Null effects of game violence, game difficulty, and 2D:4D digit ratio on aggressive behavior. Psychological Science, 30, 606–616.  


While interesting, the short. Of time during which the participants engaged in this experiment is no reflection of what a much longer time in these intense games mightreflect in behavior. Tualatin, a research is based upon short term effects as opposed to the longitudinal effects which is much more significant for making any profound conclusions.
Dr. Seidel l

The phrase should have been” too often”. I apologize poor dictation

It’s hard to imagine a more silly experiment than this. 15 minutes gameplay to produce an ‘effect’?

Forget the requirement to play a game; just reading this report invites one to use the study authors’ own hoped-for response from some gameplayers:
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”

The topic is a truly serious and important one. But this kind of study is mere frippery compared to what really needs to be investigated here.

In the end it all comes down to investigating a kind of dose-response relationship between playing certain kinds of games and cognitive-behavioral changes. Let alone the factor of sensitization and magnitude/kind of stylized violence in games. That’s really difficult.

There is a kind of embarrassing simplicity in how these current authors are approaching the entire topic.

A point made recently by Chris Ferguson..
Ferguson, C.J. (2019). Embrace the unknown. The Psychologist (, March, , 46-49.

Several studies have come out that show no link between short-term experiments and aggression. These are used widely as evidence that it’s ok to raise boys playing violent videogames. APS -sponsored publications should point to a lifetime of violent media in the younger cohorts, with hundreds of killings per day. From the Bandura research to the mirror neurons, it is obvious that we have mechanisms for imitating adaptively whatever we witness enough times.

Although I agree with the results you should have done it with a more recent game to better dictate the affects current games have on our children.

While I agree with the verdict, the test only proves short term effect and not the correlation with young people who play violent video games hours a day for almost their whole life.

I can tell from experience that competitive play or “ranked” play is vary stressful and can cause brief aggression. I my self have “raged” from a vary stress filled game because I have made a bad choice. In these time I have broken controllers and such.

I agree with it all.

So I agree with this but I am still curiouse of what types of affects would be if children or an adult in our now a day age of video games for PC, PS4 and, X box, and the new cool and hip games (sorry my kids told be hips the thing now for the kids so im trying not to sound to old again im sorry) that kids like to play like for instance my son he loves to play borderlands the new edition and i have seen some of the game play and its a pretty violent and explicet game, and I see how he plays that game and he gets up set and not violent but just loud and then i see him play minecraft with his buddys and his sister and still kinda the same reaction when he fails or dosent understand a part in the game. So I guess what I am really asking here is what would the now a day data and information be like if you were to do a experiment over the different types of stations and the cool and hip games the kids now a days play. For I am a conssernd parent who would appreciate to get a WAY better understanding of what the affects are on my children.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.