Games & Violence: A study in action

TV ‘supernanny’ Jo Frost returned to UK TV screens in February, with her new show ‘Extreme Parental Guidance’ on Channel 4. The first episode is of interest to us all not because of the young girl who refused to eat nothing but sugary snacks, nor because of the genuinely heartbreaking case of a twelve year old girl who refused to leave the house without piling on make up. Besides these cases, a study by Professor Doug Gentile into the possible link between videogames and violence in children was featured. Several clips of the study itself were shown, and give us a revealing insight into how at least some such studies are conducted.

For the clearest picture of the study’s intentions and conclusions, it is necessary to put it in the context of the show. At the beginning of the show, Frost tells us that one third of UK parents think that they’re doing a ‘really bad job’. She goes on to say that she doesn’t believe this to be the case, and that these parents are “not being honest about the mistakes they’re making” which, she claims, everybody makes. What the viewer is supposed to draw from this of course is not that three thirds of UK parents are doing a bad job (which would arguably be the logical conclusion to her claims), but that no blame for badly behaved children can or should be apportioned to the parents. This way of thinking is at the heart of all ‘games/cartoons/rap music/heavy metal/chips (delete as appropriate for the week) are evil’ soapbox rants. For now however, we shall concentrate on Jo Frost’s show.

So what simple mistakes are these innocent parents making? A survey conducted by the show found that 80% of respondents admitted to bribing their children with sweets. More relevant to us however, is the issue of how long their children spend playing videogames. The times quoted were invariably in the hours, and one mother even resignedly complained that her child spends eight hours a day playing.


Eight hours? That’s bad parenting. Some of us at Critical Gamer are parents, and are or will be more than happy to see our own children play videogames – but we are well aware that eight hours a day is not healthy, not even for an adult. The woman did not say how old her child was, but surely unplugging or confiscating the console/computer is not an unrealistic consideration. It brought to mind a similar story told by a mother interviewed by BBC breakfast, who lamented the fact that her son spent hours a night playing his DS instead of going to sleep. We’re not child psychologists and in all likelihood, neither are you; but the answer to that particular problem seems obvious…

Jo Frost

So the scene has been set. The programme is subtly assuring the audience (a large proportion of whom are likely to be troubled or worried parents) that there is no possibility of the parents of misbehaved children being at fault, and that external forces are instead to blame. Enter Professor Doug Gentile’s study.

The study is presented as an entirely scientific and unbiased one, headed by a qualified professional. Though Professor Gentile’s credentials are never explained, there is certainly no reason to doubt them. The aim of this study, we are told, is to test the possibility of violent videogames desensitising children to violence and dulling their ability to feel empathy.

Forty twelve year old boys were sat down at laptops with headphones and, at a signal, told to start playing the game they had been provided with. Twenty of the boys played a twelve rated ‘violent war game’ (the game footage was blurred so as to make it unidentifiable, but it was clearly an FPS), and twenty of the boys played a non – violent soccer (or, if you live somewhere in the world that isn’t America, football) game. Each boy played for exactly twenty minutes and then, at another signal, stopped playing and closed the laptop.

After this, the boys were then shown violent real – life news footage, which their parents had previously watched and approved. The boys’ heart rates were monitored before and during the footage, the theory being that if the violent game desensitises children to violence, the boys who played it would show little to no heart rate increase whilst watching the violent footage. The results seemed to bear this out; the average heart rate amongst those who played the war game was 86bpm before the footage, and 88bpm during. The averages of those who played the non – violent game however were 91bpm before the footage, and 99bpm during, a significant increase of close to 10%.

Those heart rates are averages, however, and the audience was not privy to the individual results. How many in each group experienced significant heart rate increases? What is the explanation for those who had been playing the non – violent game, and yet experienced only a minor increase? Most importantly, how does this definitively prove that videogames desensitise people – at the least, children – to violence?

Professor Doug Gentile

It was enough for Frost, who declared the results to be “quite shocking”. As the narrator ominously declared, ‘just twenty minutes’ of gaming was enough to desensitise these young boys to violence. The unspoken continuation of that thought, of course, is: imagine what extended play will do to your child.

Following this, random samples of each group were taken to be interviewed by Professor Gentile, one at a time. This was to be a test for empathy. The child would sit opposite Gentile and, on the desk between them, was a pot of pens. Gentile would ask the child about their gaming habits and, at an unexpected moment, ‘accidentally’ knock the pen pot off the desk, spilling its contents across the floor. The theory here was that those who had played the non – violent game would feel empathy for Gentile and his situation, and would help pick up the pens. Those who had been playing the violent game on the other hand, would feel no empathy; and therefore show no signs of being willing to lend Gentile a hand.

It was at this point of the study that the author’s prejudices became clear. The first child was taken from the non – violent gaming group. When the pens were knocked to the floor, Gentile stopped talking and, when the boy looked unsure about what to do, started to get up from his chair – which acted as a visual cue for the boy to get off his chair and help. Frost noticed this but, rather than question the impartiality of Gentile and his study, she simply put the boy’s decision to help down to a polite nature.

It is important to note that Gentile did not repeat this action for any other child; at least, not in any of the footage that followed. Though most other children shown decided to help, leave or ignore the pens without Gentile’s interference, there was one significant exception. One of the boys from the violent gaming group looked down at the pens as soon as they fell on the floor, and seemed set to help tidy them up. Seeing this, Professor Gentile immediately distracted him with hurried words and hand gestures, in order to draw attention away from the pens and continue the conversation. In not one instance shown in the TV programme did Gentile try to distract a subject from the non – violent group in such a way. Incidentally, there was a mix of hesitation and immediacy in the reactions from this group.

The study found that while only 40% of the violent gamers helped pick up the pens, 80% of the non – violent gamers helped. The narrator described it as “a simple and revealing test with shocking results”. We agree; but for rather different reasons. At best, it proved to be an unprofessional study; and at worst, a deliberately prejudiced one.

A powerful tool in psychoanalysis?

It should also be asked, is a pot of pens falling off a desk really the best way to test a child’s sense of empathy? Especially if the interviewer shows little to no signs of concern himself. A better event, which would not have been much more difficult to set up convincingly, would have been to have the interviewer fall off his chair and show hesitation and difficulty in getting back up. Perhaps Gentile feared that such an event would result in the overwhelming majority of both groups going to help?

Furthermore it should not have been Gentile, the author of the study with access to all the facts and expectations, who interviewed the test subjects. The interviews should have been conducted in a double blind manner; that is, not only should the children not have known what was going to happen and what reaction was expected of them, but the interviewer should have been somebody with no knowledge of the associated study (and strict instructions not to encourage or discourage the child’s help). It would be foolish to presume that all similar studies with negative conclusions make the same mistakes, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It would be equally foolish, however, to presume that none of these studies are prejudiced in this way.

When the study is over, Gentile dispels any lingering doubts about his views on the link between videogames and violence by laying his cards on the table. He mentions “other studies” which have apparently shown that those who play violent videogames are “more likely to hurt than help another kid”. He fails to mention what these studies were, how many of them there were, who conducted them, when, and how and why children were able to ‘hurt’ one another. The audience of Extreme Parental Guidance are unlikely to question such matters; after all it isn’t Doug Gentile telling them this, but Professor Doug Gentile (who also goes on to say that there is never just one cause of a child’s bad behaviour and attitude, but videogames are one and “not a small one”).

Frost herself gave some Jerry Springer style thought for the day – esque advice at the end of the section. Parents must set time limits for their children’s gaming, and pay attention to the age rating on the box. Well, um… isn’t that just common sense? Besides which, the industry has been saying exactly that to governments and the media for decades. Still, a certain type of person is more likely to listen to Jo Frost than develop some common sense, and perhaps that programme helped some children.

Channel 4 failed to respond to our request to get in contact with Frost and/or Gentile.

Just a few weeks later, the BBC’s Newsround (a regular news programme made especially for children) published the results of a survey it had commissioned. The survey regarding sleeping patterns had been sent out to various schools, and covered one thousand children aged 9 – 11. Most respondents said that they went to bed at 21:30, with approximately 25% saying that their bedtime was 22:00 or later. 50% of those questioned said that they weren’t getting enough sleep, and wanted more.

Various reasons were listed for the late bedtimes, including TV and mobile phones… but with a sad inevitability, the BBC reporting put the emphasis on videogames. Nowhere, oddly, was lax parenting mentioned as a possible reason for children not going to bed early enough. As a brief aside, we’d like to question the reliability of 50% of the children saying they wanted more sleep. Indeed, if they’re going to bed so late, it’s highly likely that at least half of them would want more sleep. Bear in mind, however, that the children received the survey at (or via) their school. Were some of them perhaps hoping that if they said they wanted more sleep, the school day would start later?

The world suffers under a culture of ‘it’s not my fault’, and the flak videogames often get from media and governments is just one symptom of it. How many times have you heard a story of an American toddler accidentally killing themselves or a sibling with their parent’s gun, or a disaffected teenager going on a killing spree with his parent’s gun… or one he bought over the counter? How and why do these things happen? It has absolutely nothing to do with the cheap, legal, and widespread availability of firearms in America – or so entirely neutral bodies such as the NRA would have you believe. I have my gun, I want my gun, I like having my gun. It’s not my fault if some bozo can’t keep his gun locked up. It’s not my fault if some kid plays too many games and listens to too much Marilyn Manson, and shoots up his school or holds up a liquor store. It’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s.

It’s not my fault.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.


  1. KrazyFace /

    In the mid 1800’s there were studies taken for colour-blindness for train drivers (bare with me), these were then extended to the general public purely for reserch purposes. Soon after a U.K scientist decided to take these studies further afeild to some small unknown islands where the natives were black. It was his inclination that black people were less evolved than white, and to prove this he figured that they would have problems distinguishing different colours but have better hearing/smelling abilities (like cats or dogs). After his extensive research had shown no difference in colour identification between white or black people, he was so pissed off he simply discarded his findings and returned to the U.K saying that there were “obvious indications that the white man was more evolved than the balck man”, which was purely his own opinion.

    It seems that even now, some of our scientists are hell-bent on proving what THEY think should be true, rather than what the actual truth IS.

    I hope those who read your article (who haven’t already realised) will see that just because someone has the credentials of a scientist, does not mean they’re trying prove the reality of a situation.

    Great read, thanks.

  2. half_empty80 /

    Top article. I’ve watched supernanny before, but haven’t bothered with this series. It’s a shame since I would have liked to have seen the edition you’ve highlighted here. The study sounds completely flawed.

    Why is bad parenting hardly mentioned? It’s not difficult to tell your kids to turn that off is it? Oh well.

    My son reads for hours after I put him to bed. I don’t mind since he gets up in the morning ok and has a reading age 2.5 years older than his actual age. He hardly plays with the Mega Drive I got him for Xmas. Still, he sneaks in some wins against me at NBA Jam and I am a sore loser.

  3. pidgeridoo /

    Yey Supernanny! My Hero 😀 *cough* Hire Me Jo *cough*:P

  4. steven g /

    A great article. ‘Video games ate my child’ stories are all the rage and will remain so as many of those in editorial and commissioning stages of the media are clearly not part of the gaming community and fear that which they do not know and understand.

    As I have mentioned in articles of my own previously, it is worth nothing that should someone had attended a football match they would probably get similar results. Children who take up boxing, I would imagine, would also become desensitised to violence.

    They key thing though is that EVEN if gaming gives an adrenaline rush, that in itself is not enough to claim that as a consequence one becomes desensitised to violence as a consequence. They might be able to cope better with it and panic less, but it doesn’t equate to their moral centre being corrupted.

    Are we suggesting that the morals of the British Army is being eroded away because they are fighting day in and out in Afghanistan? Certainly, perhaps, after being in ‘x’ number of combat scenarios their heart rates might increases less (I’m sure the shock of combat never truly does away – and indeed I know service personal and security staff who need that ‘rush’ to survive), but does this somehow mean that their moral centre is becoming more corrupt and less able to work out what is right and wrong?

    If that is what Channel 4 are saying, then that is a huge leap of logic. Taking into account that in some cultures, say Israel or until recently France, where there is mandatory service and where rightly or wrongly they are also often put in real combat situations, does this mean we should see a higher rate of crime, broken families and other issues in such a state? In the case of Israel, although it’s domestic crime situation is far from perfect (like any modern developed country), it is overall a lot safer and has less broken families relative to it’s population size than the UK. Clearly there are more factors that influence people’s behaviour more than how often they are subjected to violence or other activities which result in an accelerated heart rate.

    As for the BBC survey on what children do at bed time – I used to have a torch and read sci-fi novels way into the early hours. I reckon that desensitised me to normality.

  5. Oni-Samurai /

    My parents to this day still consider my hobby of gaming as a childish pursuit and not for adults. Despite the fact that there are games targeted towards a more mature/ adult audience.

    I find it quite incredible that parents would consider buying (& have brought) modern warfare 2 for their underage child. I remember last xmas Matthew Wright from The Wright Stuff on ch5 saying that he was going to buy this game for his 12 year old nephew, despite the fact it had an 18 certificate and the show was debating (can’t remember exactly..) the morality, violence of these games and the negative effect they had on children. Yet they were quite stupidly ignoring the fact that this game was clearly rated as 18 and shouldn’t be brought for a 12 yr old.
    If his 12 yr old nephew asked him to buy any of the Saw movies or a Porno (all rated 18) for Xmas, I don’t believe he nor any other sane parent would.

    I didn’t get into gaming until I was 13 and started with a megadrive. I played a variety of violent and non-violent games ranging from the mortal kombat series to sonic. Despite being underage for mortal kombat, I know I was mature and intelligent enough to not be influenced by what I was playing negatively. Going back to MW2 being 18-rated, parents really need to use their own discretion whether their child is mature enough to play such a game before the age of 18.

    In spite of all the leaps made in graphical realism, detail and immersive environments, games are still quite unrealistic compared to films. In assassins creed 2, you can use your double blades to stab an enemy in both eyes simultaneously. There’s a lot of blood splatter, but if you look at the enemy afterwards his eyes are still intact, the end result should be a lot messier. Also after killing an enemy, if you pick him up, you can clearly hear moaning (which is a glitch/ bad programming) but it still detracts from the realism.

    A friend of mine showed me about 10 minutes of scenes from one of the Saw movies and I was more disgusted by that than anything that I’ve experienced as a gamer. In fact I don’t watch any films of that type, & my friend was deliberately trying to offend/distress me. what a nice guy.

    LOL. I too, used to read books in bed late into the night. Still managed a good nights sleep and got up for school the next day..

    • KrazyFace /

      That’s exactly the problem Oni, parents that think that all games are just for kids. My grlfriend’s nephew is eight years old and his mum has no problem with him playing the Modern Warfare games at all, but when I suggested I buy him Debbie Does Dallas for christmas she said I should just leave her aunty’s son alone. My sister on the other hand goes in the opposite direction and pulls my nephew off his wii if he even gets a little grumpy about not completing a goal/task in a game.

      I do think that discression as a parent is an importiant thing, and who else can make a better judgment than the parent? That said, there’s a lot of stupid people out there that should have just been neutered before they had the chance to make copies of themselves!

  6. I still feel the video game industry are being baptized, cruely, by other media and entertainment outlets. I wrote an article about this problem on my website, and this article only gives weight to my conclusions.

  7. Euphidius /

    Hears a study for ya. My nephew and I play halo reach often, 1 hr every weekday, this week, I took him to the zoo where they had a tiger pelt out for everyone to look at and touch, he was deeply disturbed that the tiger died and kept practically a ten mile radius around it. Now, I understand this game isn’t insanely violent as some, but he’s 6 and it is violent enough for him. when a kid snaps, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they where desensitized, maybe their parents haven’t taught them the difference between right and wrong, maybe their peers pressure them to do it, or maybe they just have a screw loose and need intense therapy, either way, don’t say that a fake character causing unrealistic blood shed caused anything. (honestly, bullet wounds, in reality, don’t bleed as much as video game ones. the bullet is traveling so fast that it’s super heated and catalyzes the wound)

    • jdwhitewolf /

      You’re playing halo with a 6 year old?

      Learn some brain science. This activity is making that 6 year-old’s brain used to violent actions. When we witness someone do something, parts of our brain mimick that action and send out motor signals — as though we were performing the same action. Thankfully, other parts of the brain inhibit those signals, but the non-cognitive ‘memory’ of those actions persists.

      In other words, especially for a brain that won’t be even MOSTLY developed until it is 7 or 8 years old, you’re nephew is getting stimulus that, to his brain, makes it o.k. for violent actions to occur.

      Put simply, you’re teaching his brain violence, no matter what you say to him to the contrary.

      • Euphidius /

        Wow, hows it feel to have a master in psychology along with, evidently, ground breaking evidence in terms of social behavior in young children, and lets not forget the ability to study a child you know nothing about and have never even seen. I have seen no evidence of my nephew becoming violent in any way. I believe facts, if I cant see it and their is no evidence of it’s existence, than I will do what I think is right. The number of children who play violent video games (even more violent than halo) in comparison to those who play them and snap is low. Give me evidence and I will admit my mistake, continue to question my methods and you just make me angry. I hate it when people tell me what to do and I refuse to roll over to such demands.

  8. Seripha /

    I realize that this is an old article, but I feel the need to comment on it, all the same.

    I was in 100% agreement with this article up until the very end when he took a sharp turn from blaming bad parenting to blaming guns. I agree completely that it is not the fault of video games that children have any form of violence or problems, but rather bad parenting. However, don’t you think that this also applies to guns? On one hand, you’re NOT willing to blame an inanimate object (video games) for a problem, and yet on the other hand, you ARE willing to blame a different inanimate object (guns) for a problem. This is blatant hypocrisy. Either argue for both, or argue for neither. Don’t change your opinion to fit your obviously personal bias about guns.

    The fact is, a kid can go out and find a way to play an M-rated game EASIER than he could get his hands on a gun. If this happens in his own household, then it is definitely the parents’ fault. A child should no more be able find a gun in their house than they should a violent video game they aren’t allowed to play. Both cases, it’s bad parenting. And outside of these two cases, outlawing either of the inanimate objects (guns or video games) will not make the child any less likely to obtain them, if they are already predisposed via bad parenting, DNA, bullying, .

    Remember how well prohibition worked in the 20s? Yeah, me neither. I’m pretty sure alcohol still causes more deaths per year in the US than guns. I suppose we should try to outlaw alcohol again with all the guns, effectively punishing the MASSES in both groups who use both objects properly and with respect.

    • Luke K /

      Nobody ever used a videogame to kill another human being.

      • Seripha /

        That’s a fair point. However, gun control wasn’t what I was arguing here, and I thought, neither was your article. I mean, isn’t this article arguing that bad parenting is to blame?

        If a parent lets their child play a violent video game and (for the sake of argument) that child murders somebody as a direct result of the video game, would that not be the same as a parent not properly restricting their child’s access to a gun that was then used to murder?

        Both cases can be 100% solved by parents being responsible for what their children have access to. I guess I just don’t see how the last paragraph of your article effectively ties into the rest of your article, which was so well and objectively written. I felt like you got a little off topic from the parenting angle you started with.

        I agree that this is a society where no one wants to take the blame, and parents should take responsibility for what their children have access to. However, if my (theoretical) children were to gain access to a violent video game or firearm in my house, I WOULD hold myself 100% responsible, but if my neighbor’s child were to gain access to a violent video game or their parent’s firearm in their house, I would NOT hold myself responsible. Why would I?

  9. Seripha /

    Also, whoever runs this website, you should escape the XML characters in users’ comments. I happened to put some text surrounded by a greater than and less than signs in my previous post, and it got swallowed by the page. The sentence should read, “… if they are already predisposed via bad parenting, DNA, bullying, (insert reason for violence here).”

  10. Kevin Bacon /

    It’s more likely that they’re being desensitized to the sudden rushes of adrenaline that occur while playing video games. These rushes occur at varying rates and intensities during the game and vary from game to game. With regard to the pens falling, it’s possible that the children may have had some sort of mental reason why they didn’t help; maybe an autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s syndrome.

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