Asking Questions About Media Violence

Thierry PlanteIn January, American Vice-President Joe Biden met with video game industry representatives in the wake of the tragic events at Sandy Hook to discuss the possible relationship between video games and gun violence. Five days later, President Barack Obama asked the United States Congress to fund more research to study the potential link between violence and video games, noting that “We don’t benefit from ignorance”.[1] While that last statement is certainly true, the answers sought by teachers and parents of video game-playing children may not be found solely in new research, if at all.

Although there are a number of published studies on the potential link between violence and video games, their conclusions are often contradictory.[2][3] (The third chapter of Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood offers a good overview of the limitations of current research in this area.) This lack of definitive answers might be one of the reasons why there is a need, as President Obama suggests, for more research.

A good argument for the need for more, and better, research on the issues surrounding violence and video games has been made by Olson and can be found here. In essence, she argues that many of the previous “inconclusive” studies suffer from poor design decisions and limitations of research; that new research should also focus on parents; and that the video game industry has much to gain by supporting new research.

Olson also identifies three key difficulties of media effects research: measuring or even defining violence; describing the relationship between exposure to violence in media and real violence; and quantifying how one affects the other. (Some of these issues are summarized in the article "What Do We Know About Media Violence?").

For Canadian parents and teachers, there is also the question of whether American data is  applicable in a Canadian context. Even if clear conclusions are derived from it, to what extent would those conclusions apply to Canadian youth?

Because of the lack of definite answers on the connections between behaviour and video game violence (and media violence in general), it's hard to know what kinds of interventions are most likely to be effective. Regardless of what any new evidence may conclude, however, there's no doubt that video games and other media do influence youth, and us all. That influence may not be measurable in a laboratory, but there's ample evidence that our values, our ideas of what's normal and desirable, and how we see ourselves and other people, are affected by the media we consume. Media and digital literacy skills are an essential response for preparing youth to critically engage with whichever media they may be exposed to.

A good way to encourage media literacy amongst youth is to foster critical questions about the media they consume. It's important to frame these in a way that avoids being negative or judgmental of the media young people enjoy, asking instead their opinions and guiding them to reflect more deeply. Here are some questions relating to video games that young people can be encouraged to consider to help them put media violence into perspective:

  • How is a particular video game constructed and why might the designers have constructed it that way?
  • How might the limitations of the medium (video games) and the genre (first-person shooter, role-playing game, etc.) influence the ways that violence is portrayed?
  • What are some alternate ways the main character could solve the particular challenges within the game without resorting to violence?
  • How might different players feel about what is happening in the game: for example younger children or victims of violence?
  • What are the main social/moral messages that are delivered by the game (keeping in mind that these messages aren't necessarily intended by the game's creators)?
  • Are there any relationships between violence in the games they are playing and real-life violence? Does it change how they see violence in the real world?
  • What is it about violence in video games that is so appealing to many youth?

As with other media, there are many possible elements beyond violence that relate to video games – some positive and some negative – that merit discussions with children and teens. For more guides and examples, you can find our resources for teachers here, and tipsheets and resources for parents here.

Ultimately, research is about asking questions and deciding what to do with the results. Learning how to ask more, and better, questions is beneficial for everyone, not just researchers.

Imagine what would happen if teens and children learned to ask those kinds of questions themselves.

Related MediaSmarts Resources

Website sections
Parent tipsheets
Lesson plans
  • First Person looks at diversity representation in video games
  • Miscast and Seldom Seen helps students consider how well their favourite TV shows, movies and video games reflect the diversity of Canadian society
  • Video Games introduces students to the issue of violence in video games and helps them understand the effects that these games have on their own feelings and attitudes towards violence
  • Violence and Video Games helps students explore the issues surrounding violent video games


[1] Cifaldi, Frank. "Here We Go Again: Obama Calls for Government-Funded Game Violence Research." GamaSutra, January 16 2013.
[2] Kutner, Lawrence and Cheryl K. Olson, Grand Theft Childhood: The surprising truth about violent video games, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008.
[3] Vedantam, Shankar, “It’s a Duel: How Do Violent Video Games Affect Kids”, NPR,, Last accessed January 28, 2013.