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If video games cause violence, there should be a correlation between game sales and violent crime, right?

By on August 6, 2010
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Critics around the world equate video games with crime and the causes of crime. They routinely blame games for being “murder simulators” or for desensitizing our children to violence.*

If that was true, it would be a very bad thing. Especially as since 1990s, games have seen explosive growth. Research from the Entertainment Software Association in the US shows that 67% of all American households have games, and 40% of all gamers are women.The UK trade body ELSPA says  32% of the entire British population classify themselves as gamers.

Are we building up an army of killers?

I don’t think so

Let’s look at the numbers.

Screen Digest have very kindly provided me with North American software sales since 1990. It shows amazing growth from $2.3 billion in 1990 to $12.9 billion in 2008. That’s 461% growth, or a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10%. If video games cause violence, you’d at least expect *some* growth in violent crime wouldn’t you?

US violent crime statistics versus video game sales

Well that’ not what the chart above shows. I’ve plotted the Screen Digest numbers in blue on the right hand axis. On the left are the FBI’s official violent crime statistics for the US from 1990 to 2008.Violent crime in the US has fallen by a quarter during this period, a CAGR of -2%.

I know (unlike many journalists) that correlation does not equal causation. But if games were corrupting our youth (and adults) into violence, and we have just witnessed a massive explosion in games, you would perhaps expect violent crime to rise when games sales have risen nearly six-fold, not fall by a quarter.

I’m not saying that there are not some cases where games (like films, books and music) can inspire bad behaviour in impressionable people.

But politicians and scaremongers: just look at that chart and tell if you can really believe that games are making our society go to hell in a hand basket.

Because that’s not what it says to me.

* For the record, I fully support all efforts to create legally-enforceable age ratings for games.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
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  • Zombellic

    Consider the UK which started seeing it’s decline in violence begin 3 years after the US. The UK allowed abortions many years before the US but it is the norm for the UK to get affordable tech a few years behind the US.

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  • Oh, I agree. Correlation and causation are different elements, and statistics can hide a lot. My point is to counter the “there’s a lot of violence in video game, stands to reason there will be more violence” nonsense.
    Lots more research is needed. I still think this is powerful weapon in our arsenal against kneejerk tabloid sensationalism

  • The core flaws in that chart are:

    1) Not all software sales are violent video games.
    2) You would expect to see a lag effect between the influence of violent video games and a rise in crime if one existed – it is unlikely to be an immediate effect (because then we’d know about it and it would be more obvious).
    3) The crime statistics themselves may be due to other factors – are we seeing a long term decrease due to demographic or cultural changes? Perhaps violent video games are causing increases in violence, but they are being masked by overall trends.

    There’s also the issue of taking into account the type and style of violence in video games – going back to the 1990s would see much less realistic violence depicted in a video game than you could get off the shelf today since graphics have improved dramatically. There may be a tipping point as graphics move from cartoon-y to ultra-realistic that impacts start to occur.

    All that said, I don’t think violent video games cause violence. I’d be interested to see a study that tested if exposure to violent video games increased violent attitudes as some sort of test of desensitisation effects, but I haven’t seen any come out.

  • No correlation because it’s all retarded.

  • The only thing that happens with these games is de-sensitization to violence. At least make believe violence. How many of these kids would cry at the sight of real blood? C’mon soccer moms, get real.

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  • I think you're right that these stories will die off. And I hope that this chart will be one part of it. Not that I think that this chart is gospel – I nearly became a scientist at university before opting for flaky history – but because the opposing trends are so marked.

    If I were a tabloid journalist, I would scream: “BOFFINS prove VIOLENT videogames REDUCE crime!”.
    Or something.

  • David Hayward

    People's increased fear of it is an interesting development, though as you say, irrelevant to games.

    The latter argument is as flawed as saying pornography causes rape because most rapists look at pornography though: A popular argument among anti-porn groups, especially some of the religious ones I've read cases from.

    Ultimately, any correlation between violence and games is extremely difficult to research: Try getting a study of the effects of 18 rated titles on 3 years olds past an ethics committee! Most researchers probably wouldn't consider risking the potential effects. Luckily, the burden of proof lies on those who say there is a correlation between playing games and violent behaviour, because people are playing games and it should result in measurable effects. Every year that slips by, they fail once more to prove it 🙂

    I think making the case that games don't cause real world violence is mainly a cultural process rather than a research process. Works like Grand Theft Childhood help, but there will always be groups who eschew games/films/TV/books. Culture will make them into a minority. People will grow up with games, see their peers with them consistently over decades, and the scare stories will die off.

  • Games are irrelevant to this story, really. The real issue is that people in the developed world live in increasing fear of violent crime and its causes, even though violent crime has been declining for ages.

    What is almost certain is that more violent criminals play violent computer games now than they did 5, 10, or 20 years ago. This is the argument more usually pressed into service to show what petty pasttimes are fuelling crime.

  • David Hayward

    It could be argued (and I'm not a proponent of this) that any number of other factors are driving violent crime down and it'd be declining faster were it not for games.

    It may also be that cultural changes are reducing the number of violent crimes reported, or Police forces may have changed the way they classify and gather statistics.

  • I agree, Jon. But that same attack could be aimed at movies, television and pulp novels. Isn't the A-team, or Cowboys and Indians just as damaging.

    The chart isn't brilliant, but as a way of showing that the “it stands to reason” link between games and violence is a clear-cut as critics might think.

  • I agree Chris. This is pretty shaky science. But it is an intriguing argument that while games have gone from non-existent to ubiquitous, violent crime has fallen. It's hard to blame games against that background.

  • ChrisBateman

    Your argument is sound, but the chart isn't quite the necessary evidence. Since not all of those videogames are violent, there are serious confounding influences. But of course if you could pick out the number of violent games (which would be terribly difficult to compile) it's quite likely the same conclusion would follow.

  • Jontintinjordan

    for one thing you should be breaking down the sale of violent games, but more properly the number of hours the US population spends playing violent games.

    obviously, this would show even more divergence, but there are many other, more obvious social factors to explain the drop in US violence – most famously the rise of abortions…

    frankly though, I don't think such a graph can tells us anything anyway. The real argument about violent games isn't its direct casuality on realworld violence, but something much more subtle about how we think about the world and the people in it.