Research News

Many factors influence video games’ link to violent acts, UB researcher says

Young gamer looking at screen and playing video games on computer in dark room wearing headphones and using backlit rainbow keyboard.


Published March 6, 2019

headshot of Richard Lamb.
“Video games do not, in and of themselves, create aggressive behavior. Rather, the video game may act as a primer for violence and aggression when specific biological and social conditions are present.”
Richard Lamb, associate professor
Department of Learning and Instruction

Exposure to violent video games alone does not create aggressive behavior, but these games may trigger violent acts in people with a predisposition toward violence, according to research conducted by a UB professor in the Graduate School of Education.

Richard L. Lamb, associate professor of learning and instruction and director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory, examined the relationship between video games and violent behavior. His conclusions, published last month in Boston’s Public Health Posting, caution against any causal relationship between video games alone and violent behavior.

Instead, Lamb’s research, based on a computational model that studies relationships of factors, indicated certain people had “social/emotional/cognitive and biological vulnerabilities.” If people with these vulnerabilities played video games, the games could “trigger” violent or aggressive behavior.

“It’s not just the violent games themselves,” says Lamb, known for innovative work in his UB lab that uses virtual reality to help teachers and students in the classroom. “Someone could easily play hundreds of hours of violent video games and never once be violent.”

Studies Lamb conducted using existing data from more than 1,000 gamers in grades nine through 12 showed that predicting violent behavior was difficult when comparing use of these video games with genetic disposition or social factors alone.

“What we found was neither model definitely predicts, or goes a good job of predicting, aggressive behavior,” he says.

However, when he combined social, emotional and biological factors — what Lamb called the diathesis stress model — then the video games could become a “trigger” for acting out in a violent way.

Lamb’s research defined social factors as qualities such as socioeconomic status or bias in society. Biological factors included a genetic disposition to violence. And for emotional factors, Lamb used a predisposition of being easily upset.

“So when these three factors interact,” Lamb says, “video games can act as a trigger for those kinds of violent acts. But it’s not as if a video game itself causes it. That’s why you can have situations where you may have a person who plays violent games but doesn’t engage in violent acts. Or you may have someone who doesn’t engage in violent acts, but plays a video game and all of a sudden something happens.

“It’s not a one-to-one correspondence,” he explains. “It’s the interaction of all these really complex variables that creates this outcome.”

Simple analytical results of comparing one of these factors to violent behavior are not possible, Lamb wrote in his article, “Video Games and Violence: a Continuing Discussion.” “But the findings can help us to better understand the complex interaction of social and biological factors that might lead to violent behavior.

“Results illustrate that the models of aggression focused only on social factors or biological factors do not adequately predict or explain aggression and violent behavior as they arise from video game play,” Lamb wrote. “Results from the model that looked at interactions between biological and social factors were more compelling in that they illustrated socioemotional, cognitive and biological vulnerabilities that interact to influence violent actions among video gamers.

“In other words, video games do not, in and of themselves, create aggressive behavior,” he wrote. “Rather, the video game may act as a primer for violence and aggression when specific biological and social conditions are present.”

Lamb called for more research to examine the role of biological and social factors relating to violence in video games.

“We need to move past the question of whether or not there is a relationship between aggression and video games, and instead focus on how and why video games cause aggressive behavior,” Lamb wrote in the article. “Once we understand how, why and for whom video games increase aggressive behavior, we can more easily develop interventions and policies, and work with public health professionals to begin to mitigate effects of this relationship.”