Psychology Video Games and Violent Content
Alena Rogojina, El-Lim Kim, Andreas Miles-Novelo, Douglas A. Gentile
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0315


Scientific inquiry into the effects of violent video games emerged in the 1980s as a focused area of media violence research. Early studies on media-based effects examined how individuals observed media content and learned attitudes and behaviors depicted in the media. Pioneering studies on video game violence adapted a similar research framework. However, a marked difference between video games and other forms of media (e.g., television, movies, music) is that the former requires the user to be an active participant—exploring the world, controlling the avatar, making choices, and earning rewards. This greater level of involvement theoretically should facilitate greater learning. As video games became more popular, technologically advanced, and immersive, research into their effects grew and evolved. Although the often fast-paced nature of violent video games seems to have a positive effect on players’ cognitive abilities, such as distraction filtering, the violent content also negatively affects social and emotional outcomes, such as increased aggressive cognitions and behaviors. Such negative outcomes may be particularly salient in early adolescence. This article provides a review of the theoretical foundations of, and early findings in, the field of violent video game effects research and a listing of relevant up-to-date empirical studies as well as a broader overview of the field through relevant reviews and meta-analyses.

Theoretical Foundations

Violent video game research is rooted in several psychological theories. The Bioecological Model of Human Development presented in Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006 illustrates how individuals are influenced by forces both proximally near (e.g., the family unit) and more distant (e.g., social norms). Bandura 1976 and Abelson 1981 address how individuals learn and model behavior through observing others’ actions. Anderson, et al. 1998 finds that exposure to weapon imagery leads to cognitive priming of more accessible aggressive cognitions. Anderson and Bushman 2002 introduces the General Aggression Model (GAM), a meta-model of aggression that describes the interaction of both individual-based and situation-based factors. The author of Kirsh 2003 applies principles of developmental psychology to the General Aggression Model. More recently, Gentile and Gentile 2021 provides the meta-theoretical General Learning Model in the context of video games, discussing how the video games interact with several human learning mechanisms to affect both short-term and long-term learning outcomes.

  • Abelson, R. P. 1981. Psychological status of the script concept. American Psychologist 36.7: 715–729.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.36.7.715

    Script theory states that through observing and interacting with various life situations, individuals knowingly and unknowingly acquire “scripts” that guide their interpretations of later events and subsequent behaviors.

  • Anderson, C. A., A. J. Benjamin Jr., and B. D. Bartholow. 1998. Does the gun pull the trigger? Automatic priming effects of weapon pictures and weapon names. Psychological Science 9.4: 308–314.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00061

    This article discusses script theory in the context of exposure to weapon imagery, as one would be in a video game. They found that aggressive cognitions were made more accessible through exposure to weapons.

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

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231

    The General Aggression Model is used to describe the way person-derived factors (e.g., gender, age, attitudes) and situation-derived factors (e.g., provocation, social and environmental influences, video games) influence one’s internal state and prompt an internal reappraisal process. These, in turn, affect one’s aggressive attitudes and behaviors.

  • Bandura, A. 1976. Social learning theory. New York: Prentice-Hall.

    Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that individuals learn about social roles, attitudes, and behaviors either through direct social experience or through observing others (e.g., media characters). When an observed attitude or behavior is rewarded rather than punished, the observer is more likely to perceive it as socially desirable and be inclined to repeat it.

  • Bronfenbrenner, U., and P. A. Morris. 2006. The bioecological model of human development. In Handbook of child psychology. 6th ed. Edited by W. Damon and R. M. Lerner, 793–828. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470147658.CHPSY0114

    Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model provides a nested framework for describing the various systems that influence an individual’s cognitions, affect, and behavior. Closest to the individual is the microsystem: family, school, and the workplace. The mesosystem connects these aspects. Institutions that have a broader reach, like local politics and mass media, comprise the exosystem. The macrosystem holds societal norms. The systems are affected by each other and by time.

  • Gentile, D. A., and J. R. Gentile. 2021. Learning from video games (and everything else): The General Learning Model. Edited by Susan Clayton. Elements in Applied Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The meta-theoretical General Learning Model describes how multiple learning mechanisms work in parallel and sequentially to effect changes at multiple psychological levels, both in the short term and in the long term. This book describes how video games are particularly good at interacting with these learning mechanisms.

  • Kirsh, S. J. 2003. The effects of violent video games on adolescents: The overlooked influence of development. Aggression and Violent Behavior 8.4: 377–389.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1359-1789(02)00056-3

    This article discusses the General Aggression Model in the context of early, middle, and late adolescence. Due to biological (e.g., natural increases in physiological arousal and aggression) and cognitive (e.g., comparatively poorer decision making) differences, violent video games should have a greater effect in early rather than middle and late adolescence. It is also important to view violent video game exposure alongside other risk factors.

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