Violent Video Games and Children’s Empathy

Subject: Tech & Engineering
Pages: 3
Words: 956
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College


People’s pastime has changed significantly over the past decades due to technology. Video games took one the critical places among children and adolescents’ hobbies. Video games are controlled by electronic equipment launched on special platforms using game consoles, computers, or other devices (Funk et al., 2003). The content of many games includes cruelty and violence, which raises the question of the possibility of harmful effects on the development of children, in particular the presence of desensitization effect. This concept implies weakening behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses to certain stimuli (Funk et al., 2004).

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There is an assumption that children’s reaction to violent video games to cruelty in the real world is weaker, and their aggression increases. In this regard, a research question has been raised: “To what extent does playing aggressive video games affect the development of empathy among children?” The answer to the question will show whether additional control and restrictions are necessary for the content of children’s video games.


Within the discussion of violent video games’ influence, the researchers’ opinions are divided – part believes that such games are harmful, and others – believe that they have no effect. The articles studied to answer the research question are distributed according to the viewpoints of the researchers and chronologically. The presentation of each study highlights the age of participants and the focus on the effect term as essential differences between them.

Studies Confirming Desensitization

Five of the eight studies selected claim that violent video games reduce empathy. During the research by Funk et al. (2003), using questionnaires and vignettes, it was found that experience with violent video games was associated with low empathy in the long term, but the children’s results differed. Distinctive features of this research are an assessment of both short- and long-term consequences and a sample of children 8-12 years old. Funk et al. (2004) also confirm the long-term negative impact of games on children’s empathy. Moreover, the testimony of the focus group consisting of children from elementary schools revealed their desire to copy games’ characters, which correlates with the identification issue discussed by Gabbiadini et al. (2017). The disadvantage of these studies is the publication dates since there have been many changes in video games and children’s upbringing over the almost 20-year period.

Even studies revealing the negative effect of violent video games differ among themselves – some consider it undeniable and robust, others – weak. Anderson et al.’s (2010) meta-analytic review presents a deep analysis of violent video games influence. The authors unequivocally claim that such games can cause aggressive behavior. They noted that the age of the participants did not have much impact, although the older participants had smaller effect sizes.

The authors urge not to continue the debate about the presence or absence of harm but focus on interventions. Fraser et al. (2012) concentrated on changes in human prosocial behavior due to the impact of violent games in the long term. Study participants, at an average age of 19, completed an online questionnaire. The detected negative influence is not intense, but the authors highlight one mechanism through which the impact occurs – decreased empathic concern.

Empathy is vital in various spheres of life, and its weakening may be associated with other issues, such as sexism. Gabbiadini et al. (2017) experimented to identify a decrease in empathy for violence, particularly against women, due to identification with the character, using three video game types – cruel and encouraging sexism, violent, and non-violent. Their results demonstrate that violent and sexist games have reduced the level of empathy for violence, especially in cases of identification of players with evil characters. As part of the experiment, participants 15-20 years old completed questionnaires soon after the playing session, evaluating short-term rather than long-term results.

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Studies Without Evidence of the Impact on Empathy

Three of the studied articles do not provide evidence of the violent video games adverse influence on empathy. Ferguson et al.’ (2015) research included three studies – one correlational study and two experiments, and none of them revealed the games’ impact on the chosen sample – teenagers 12-18 years old. In this case, age may also represent a significant limitation for the established research question. The authors attribute the view of the harms of video games to their relatively recent appearance and spread, which caused fears as a new and little-known phenomenon.

Two more studies used fMRI to track participants’ empathetic reactions. Szycik et al.’s (2017) study focused on long-term consequences, highlighting empathy, and used magnetic-resonance images to monitor responses. The results did not show desensitization in people fond of violent games and any other differences from the control group. Gao et al.’s (2017) research design using fMRI and results are significantly correlated with Szycik et al.’s (2017). Gao et al. (2017) found no differences in empathy responses for the pain to images stimuli between players and non-players. A key drawback of both studies is the age of participants – an average of 21-22 years. The influence on children whose personality is still formed can differ significantly.


Based on the materials studied, the answer to the research questions is the following: the probability of reducing empathy among children due to violent video games is very high. The main limitation of the research studied, which does not allow giving an unambiguous answer, is the older age of the participants, while empathy formations occur at an early age. This conclusion suggests the need for further research involving children playing games since childhood. Considering the high likelihood of adverse impact, it is also necessary to develop interventions to limit the prevalence of violent video games in children’s hobbies. For example, measures may include involving small children in the alternative and cognitive pastime.


Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H. R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151–173. Web.

Ferguson, C. J., Barr, H., Figueroa, G., Foley, K., Gallimore, A., LaQuea, R., Merritt, A., Miller, S., Nguyen-Pham, H., Spanogle, C., Stevens, J., Trigani, B., & Garza, A. (2015). Digital poison? Three studies examining the influence of violent video games on youth. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 399-410. Web.

Fraser, A. M., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Coyne, S. M., Nelson, L. J., & Stockdale, L. A. (2012). Associations between violent video gaming, empathic concern, and prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and family members. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41(5), 636-649. Web.

Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T., & Baumgardner, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: Is there desensitization? Journal of Adolescence, 27(1), 23-39. Web.

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Funk, J. B., Buchman, D. D., Jenks, J., & Bechtoldt, H. (2003). Playing violent video games, desensitization, and moral evaluation in children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 413-436. Web.

Gabbiadini, A., Riva, P., Andrighetto, L., Volpato, C., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). Acting like a tough guy: Violent-sexist video games, identification with game characters, masculine beliefs, & empathy for female violence victims. PLoS One, 11(4), e0152121. Web.

Gao, X., Pan, W., Li, C., Weng, L., Yao, M., & Chen, A. (2017). Long-time exposure to violent video games does not show desensitization on empathy for pain: An fMRI study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 650. Web.

Szycik, G. R., Mohammadi, B., Münte, T. F., & Te Wildt, B. T. (2017). Lack of evidence that neural empathic responses are blunted in excessive users of violent video games: An fMRI study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 174. Web.