After describing an epic quest for buried treasure within the castle of the Bear King, the elderly storyteller — a character in a computer game for seven-year-olds, designed by researchers at Cardiff University in the UK — asks the hero for help. “Could you hit that wood pile with your mallet? I need it for later to warm up.” Eighty-seven percent of the seven-year-olds complied.
Thirteen percent smacked the old lady with their mallets.
The computer game was part of an intriguing study, recently published in Developmental Science, which tracked 266 children from birth until age 7 to answer a question that has racked the gaming community for years — do violent video games encourage otherwise peaceful kids to act out, or are children with aggressive tendencies simply drawn to video game violence?
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Anger Management
To find out, Dale Hay and colleagues at Cardiff University asked 266 parents to keep tabs on whether their infants and toddlers displayed aggressive tendencies over the course of seven years. “Parents often notice their infants’ anger and frustration, as well as biting and hitting others,” Hay told Fatherly. “That’s what we asked them to report in the questionnaires.”
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Then, at age 7, Hay invited the children to play a custom-built first-person computer game, a modified version of the popular Skyrim series. Children were told to imagine that they were on a school trip to a Welsh castle, competing against children from another school to find hidden treasure. Each player had an in-game mallet that could either be used to respond to quests in a constructive manner (building the old lady’s fire) or destructive manner (bopping her on the head). Roughly half of the children never once used the mallet in an aggressive fashion.
But 34 percent aimed their mallets at character programmed to taunt them, and 13 percent brained the harmless storyteller. When Hay and colleagues analyzed which children made the most aggressive in-game moves, they found two striking correlations. Infants who had, based on reports from their parents, expressed the highest proportion anger or use of force (hitting, biting, angry moods, temper tantrums) grew up to be the kids most likely to make liberal use of the mallet. They were also most likely to, by age 7, be playing video games regularly. In other words, aggressive infants were more likely to become gamers — and violent gamers, at that.
This study is unlikely to end the debate over the correlation between video games and violent behavior, due in part to several limitations. First of all, the findings relied on self-reporting from parents and involved a relatively small sample size. Second, the Cardiff University computer game was not designed to allow graphic violence, and its cartoonish mallet is a relatively poor analog of the weaponry in Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. There is also scant evidence that the sort of kid who mows down an elderly storyteller in virtual reality is the sort of kid who would act that out in real life, so the findings have limited implications for real-world violence.
The study broadly suggests that aggressive infants are more likely to be interested in playing video games — and more likely to act out within those virtual environments. But, pending further study, the immediate applications for parents of aggressive babies (and hardcore gamers) are limited.
“We cannot provide broad parenting advice on the basis of our data,” Hay says. “We do think it’s important for parents to pay attention to their infants’ emotions and help them cope with frustration in every day situation.”