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The GTA 6 trailer broke YouTube records. How violent games can increase aggression

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, February 9, 2024 - 12:01pm
Updated: Friday, February 9, 2024 - 12:29pm

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When the trailer for the video game Grand Theft Auto 6 was released late last year, it reached more than 100 million views in just a couple of days, according to the games and entertainment site IGN.

That was higher than the number of views for the fifth version of the game; it also surpassed the number of views for trailers of other popular video games. And, Guinness World Records posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the GTA 6 trailer broke the record for the most views on YouTube in 24 hours.

The Show reached out to Brad Bushman, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University, where he studies human aggression and violence, about the popularity of violent video games like this, and why so many people are drawn to them.

MARK BRODIE: Why are people so attracted to violent video games?

BRAD BUSHMAN: Yeah, that's a, a really good question, and researchers have been studying it for a very long time. I think violent video games allow players to engage in illegal violent behaviors in the virtual world that they would never engage in, in the real world. And not only do they not get punished or go to jail for their actions, they actually get rewarded. So for example, they might hear praise like nice shot after they kill an enemy or they get points for killing enemies and they get to advance to the next level of the game. And we know that reward is a very powerful motivator of human behavior.

BRODIE: Right. Well, so are these generally players who would not do these things in, in real life? Like are they people who are not generally inclined to violence?

BUSHMAN: Well, I think violent video games are tremendously popular. So many people play them, but many people don't assault rape, rob, murder people in the real world. So violent games give people a chance for those who are interested to do to engage in those actions. Another possible reason that people might play violent games is they think they're healthy and therapeutic. And this belief is based on catharsis theory, which proposes that violent games allow people to purge or cleanse their angry feelings and aggressive impulses and harmless channels. But if catharsis theory is true, then playing violent video games should decrease anger and aggression. But hundreds of studies have shown exactly the opposite.

Playing violent video games increase anger and aggression. And our own research shows that people who are angry and believe in catharsis, in one study, we manipulated them to believe in catharsis by having them read news stories. In another study, we measured their belief in catharsis. In both studies, we found that people who believed in catharsis when they are angry, they wanted to play violent video games, perhaps because they think that doing so is therapeutic even though it's not.

BRODIE: Well, that seems to be the same kind of thinking in terms of like when you're really frustrated with something going to a rage room where you can take a baseball bat to a printer or something like that or go boxing or something like that.

BUSHMAN: It sounds elegant in theory, but there's not a shred of scientific evidence to support catharsis theory.

BRODIE: Well, so is the opposite true then. And you kind of alluded to this, that somebody maybe is feeling frustrated or feeling angry and they play a violent video game and it does, it just kind of add on to their anger.

BUSHMAN: For sure. It's like adding fuel to the fire. 

BRODIE: I mean that seems like it would be problematic in at least some cases.

BUSHMAN: It definitely is, problematic, you know, maybe you've heard the old joke. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice, right. How do you become an angry, aggressive person? The answer is the same practice, practice, practice, and by playing violent video games, that's exactly what people are doing. They're practicing, how to behave more aggressively by engaging in violent behaviors within the game.

BRODIE: Is IT the same also true for non video games. Like if you are a fan of watching violent TV shows or watching other violence on screens in the movies, that kind of thing? Or is it different if you're actually the one doing it?

BUSHMAN: It is playing a violent video game is different than watching a violent TV program or film. And that's an important distinction to make because throughout history, violent entertainment has been tremendously popular. Humans probably have been entertaining themselves with violent spectacles since the beginning of time, such as going to gladiator games or attending public executions. But today, people can entertain themselves with these violent spectacles. Anytime anywhere 24/7, they don't have to go to the coliseum to watch the gladiator games. They don't have to go to the village square to watch a public execution. They can consume it on screens, large and small, including handheld devices that they carry around with them everywhere they go.

And there are at least three differences between viewing violence and playing a violent video game. One is that violent gameplay is active whereas watching TV program or movies passive. Second, players of violent video games are more likely to identify with the violent character. If the game is a first-person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as a killer. And if the game's a third person game, they control the actions of the violent character in both cases, they're connected to the violent character. And research shows that people are more likely to behave aggressively themselves when they identify with violent characters. And third violent video games directly reward violent behavior such as by awarding points or allowing players to advance in the game. And, you know, if you watch a violent movie or TV program, people don't give you a quarter every time somebody gets killed, right? But in, in a video game, you accumulate these points and praise for behaving in an aggressive way. So I think it is research clearly shows that watching violent TV programs, watching violent movies also increases aggression. But violent video games are different in important ways from TV programs and movies.

BRODIE: Yeah. Are you finding that video games are more violent now? Like is there just more violence in video games and maybe more graphic violence in video games now than there has been in the past?

BUSHMAN: Yeah, for sure. They're becoming more and more realistic over time. So for example, a video game developer might hire a doctor and say, oh, what would happen if I shot somebody in the arm with the blood like spurt out or would it pour out or? So they're becoming very, very realistic. The guns are the same guns that you find in the real world. The characters look more like lifelike, you know, get an idea, just play a violent video game from the 1980S or something. It's, they've changed a lot.

BRODIE: All right. That is Brad Bushman, professor of Communication at the Ohio State University. Brad, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

BUSHMAN: Yeah, my pleasure.

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