By John Cramer
Previous studies show that violent video games increase adolescent aggressiveness, but new Dartmouth research finds for the first time that teenagers who play mature-rated, risk-glorifying video games are more likely subsequently to engage in a wide range of behaviors beyond aggression, including alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, delinquency, and risky sex.
More generally, such games—especially character-based games with anti-social protagonists—appear to affect how adolescents think of themselves, with potential real-world consequences.
The study appears August 4 in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The findings follow a 2012 Dartmouth study that shows such video games may lead teens to drive recklessly and experience increases in automobile accidents, police stops, and a willingness to drink and drive.
“Up to now, studies of video games have focused primarily on their effects on aggression and violent behaviors,” says the Geisel School of Medicine’s James Sargent, study co-author and the Scott M. and Lisa G. Stuart Professor in Pediatric Oncology and co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. “This study is important because it is the first to suggest that possible effects of violent video games go well beyond violence to apply to substance use, risky driving, and risk-taking sexual behavior.”
“With respect to playing deviant video game characters, we feel it best to follow the admonition of Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night: ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,’” says Professor Jay Hull, the study’s lead author and chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
In the new study, researchers conducted a nationwide study involving more than 5,000 randomly sampled U.S. teenagers who answered a series of questions over four years in telephone interviews.
The researchers looked at a number of factors, including the playing of three violent risk-glorifying video games (Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, and Spiderman) and other mature-rated video games. They found that such games are associated with subsequent changes in a wide range of high-risk behavior and suggest this is due, in part, to changes in the users’ personality, attitudes, and values, specifically making them more rebellious and thrill seeking. The effect was similar for males and females and strongest among the heaviest game players and those playing games with anti social protagonists.