Steve Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, says violent video games are good for children. He thinks that video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas may "function as a kind of safety valve—they let kids who would otherwise be doing violent things for the thrill of it, get out those kind of feelings sitting at home at a screen." Says Johnson: "This may have a deterrent effect on violence."

But the American Psychological Association thinks otherwise. Time spent playing violent video games "increases aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior, and angry feelings among youth." Less than a week before the Ottawa Citizen reported Johnson's remarks, the professional society for psychologists acted on 20 years of research into the effects of violent video games. After a "special committee" reviewed more than 70 studies, the organization adopted a resolution calling for the "reduction of violence in interactive media used by children and adolescents."

APA scholars cited a study of eighth- and ninth-grade teachers. The teachers said that the students who spent time playing violent video games were more hostile than other children and more likely to argue with authority figures and fellow students. And according to another study of 600 eighth- and ninth-graders, students not normally prone to aggression are nearly 10 times as likely to get into a fight after playing a violent video game.

Good teachers know three things that contribute to effective learning: active participation, rehearsing behavioral sequences rather than discrete acts, and repetition, repetition, repetition. Video games employ all three. In addition, the vast majority of the gaming scenarios (like the random killing of prostitutes) fail to show the real-life consequences of violence. Perpetrators go unpunished. In short, violent games can deaden us to the horror of violence and stimulate our native sinfulness. It shouldn't surprise us that all media shape us, which is one reason Paul exhorts us to think on things that are true, honorable, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent (Phil. 4).

Some say these are just games, and that we shouldn't take them so seriously. But in the wake of the 1998 schoolyard massacre in Jonesboro, Arkansas, military expert David Grossman showed CT readers how these games use the same operant conditioning techniques used by armies to overcome recruits' natural aversion to killing.

To be sure, there is a difference in setting—between the home (where real violence is eschewed otherwise) and the military (where the environment reinforces the violence in the video games). Still, it is not hard to see that repeated exposure to random violence can have a detrimental effect.

Others point to the violence found in traditional storytelling, wondering what the difference is. Indeed, fairy tales are often gruesome, with wolves gobbling grandmas and witches baking little children. But such fairy tales are pieces of cathartic moral fiction that help children process their fears. Biblical violence is every bit as gruesome, and it likewise helps us construct a moral universe. Goliath's severed head is not the end of a gory story. It is the beginning of a long saga in which the champion of God's people must struggle with hubris and learn humility.

We support the APA resolution that asks educators to help students apply the same critical viewing skills to violent video games that can be applied to movies and television. This might be a way for youth leaders to engage their charges. Such media literacy programs not only reduce the negative effects of watching violent programming, they reduce the amount of time children watch television. The participatory nature of video games makes this critical-viewing strategy an especially difficult challenge, but outside of a complete ban on games that employ random violence (not politically possible), this is a good first step.

Related Elsewhere:

Everything Bad is Good for You is available from and other book retailers.

The American Psychological Association has its study available online: Violent Video Games - Psychologists Help Protect Children from Harmful Effects | Psychological research confirms that violent video games can increase children's aggression, but that parents moderate the negative effects.

CT's interview with David Grossman on how today's media trains children to kill is available from the CTLibrary.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article on video games produced by Christians.

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