Psychology Psychological Perspectives on Media Violence
Courtney Plante, Patrick K. Bender, Douglas A. Gentile
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0202


Given the ubiquity of digital media and the thousands of hours people spend consuming digital media each year, it is hardly surprising that researchers devote considerable effort to understanding media effects. Although many other aspects of media effects have been studied (e.g., advertising, educational media, etc.), the most-studied effect in the psychological literature is that of violent media. Most of these studies have focused on effects associated with the exposure to violent television shows and films. In the 1970s, researchers converged on the conclusion that violent television increased consumers’ risk for aggressive behavior, a consensus begun by the 1972 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on television violence. It is important to note that the vast majority of this research involved aggressive behavior, not violence. Although news reports and critics often use those words interchangeably, the distinction is critically important. Research typically involves aggressive behavior, defined as any action (verbal, relational, or physical) intended to harm someone who would not wish to be harmed, as well as the precursors of aggression (e.g., emotions, attitudes, thoughts). Such measures do not constitute “violence,” an extreme subtype of physical aggression that would, if successful, cause severe bodily damage or death. As such, it is important to examine the language surrounding any claim about violent media effects carefully, to avoid falling into the trap of manipulative rhetoric. With the advent of video games, the topic of media violence has once again risen to the forefront of popular discourse. Researchers and laypersons alike questioned whether the interactive nature of video games meant that violent games would affect people in a different way than traditional media. Although the consensus among most media researchers and public health officials is that the effects of violent video games are no different than for other violent media, misconceptions and misrepresentations of the research persist. Those motivated to believe that violent content effects do not exist narrowly focus on the limitations of individual studies or measures and rely on studies that themselves suffer from serious methodological limitations. However, when the literature is viewed as a whole, with an emphasis on converging evidence and methods with overlapping strengths, the literature converges on the conclusion that violent video games, like violent television, are one risk factor for aggression.

General Overviews

These articles are important for orienting the reader to the most pervasive themes in the media violence literature. Anderson and Bushman 2002 and Anderson, et al. 2003 are comprehensive introductions to the dominant theory underlying contemporary media violence research and organize much of the field around particular mechanisms or outcomes. Funk 2015 provides a review of one such mechanism, namely media desensitization effects, while Coyne 2004 reviews one outcome in particular, indirect aggression. Gentile 2011 and the 2001 U.S. Surgeon General Report are both essential for contextualizing violent game effects, the former by recognizing violent content as just one of many dimensions that can affect consumers, the latter by recognizing media violence as one risk factor among many for aggression. Rosenthal 1986, while about violent television and not violent video games, nevertheless provides an important sense of perspective on the violent media literature, arguing for the practical significance of the research despite the small effect sizes it often yields.

  • Anderson, C. A., L. Berkowitz, E. Donnerstein, et al. 2003. The Influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4.3: 81–110.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2003.pspi_1433.xE-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive overview of the mechanisms underlying media violence effects. The paper also contextualizes the research on video game violence as a continuation of the much broader, decades-spanning literature on media violence.

  • Anderson, C. A., and B. J. Bushman. 2002. Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology 53:27–51.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231E-mail Citation »

    A thorough introduction to the general aggression model, the modern aggression theory that underpins most contemporary media violence research. It systematically introduces the mechanisms driving violent content effects, grounding them in existing psychological theories.

  • Coyne, S. M. 2004. Indirect aggression on screen: A hidden problem? The Psychologist 12.17: 688–690.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief review of indirect aggression, both in media content and as a real-world outcome. An important primer for understanding that non-violent media can nevertheless contain aggressive content.

  • Funk, J. B. 2015. Children’s exposure to violent video games and desensitization to violence. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 14:387–404.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chc.2005.02.009E-mail Citation »

    A thorough review of the literature on video game desensitization effects. Integrating evidence from neuroscience, behavioral studies, and survey data, it is a microcosm for the converging evidence approach taken by media violence researchers. Also discusses findings within the risk and resilience framework discussed in the 2001 U.S. Surgeon General report.

  • Gentile, D. A. 2011. The multiple dimension of video game effects. Child Development Perspectives 5.2: 75–81.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00159.xE-mail Citation »

    A short and very readable overview of the video game effects literature. Introduces the idea that violence is just one of many possible dimensions of media content. Useful reading for moving beyond thinking about video games as inherently good or bad, and instead recognizing the interplay of content, context, and how games are played on the effects that accrue.

  • Rosenthal, R. 1986. Media violence, antisocial behavior, and the social consequences of small effects. Journal of Social Issues 42.3: 141–154.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1986.tb00247.xE-mail Citation »

    An informative, but statistics-heavy commentary about the practical significance of the small effect sizes commonly obtained in media research. While written with respect to television and film violence, its conclusions are just as applicable to video game research.

  • U.S. Surgeon General. 11 April 2001. Chapter 4: Risk factors for youth violence. In Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: United States Surgeon General.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive introduction to the risk and resilience model of violence. Places the risk posed by violent media within a broader model of violence alongside other known risk and protective factors.

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