He used to rob old ladies, but now he just plays video games all day

I blogged a few months ago about empirical evidence suggesting that pornography might reduce sexual assault (not increase it, as most media and political commentators seem to assume). In a similar vein, a new study on video games seems to suggest that they too have a negative effect on crime rates.

Patents and Antitrust: Video Games and Violent Crime
Michael Ward
Psychology studies of the effects of playing video games have found emotional responses and physical reactions associated with reinforced violent and anti-social attitudes. It is not clear, however, whether these markers are associated with increases in one’s preferences for anti-social behaviors or whether virtual behaviors act to partially sate one’s desire for actual antisocial behaviors. Violent or criminal behaviors in the virtual world and in the physical world could plausibly be either complements or substitutes. A finding of one versus the other would have diametrically opposing policy implications. I study the incidence of criminal activity as related to a proxy for increased gaming, the number of game stores, from a panel of US counties from 1994 to 2004. With fixed county and year effects, I can examine if changes relative increases in gaming in an area are associated with relative increases or decreases in criminal activity. For six of eight categories of crime, more game stores are associated with significant declines in crime rates. Proxies for other leisure activities, sports and movie viewing, do not have a similar effect. For confirmation, I also find that mortality rates, especially mortality rates stemming from injuries, also are negatively related to the number of game stores.

And it turns out that the same goes for violent movies.

Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?
Gordon Dahl & Stefano DellaVigna
Laboratory experiments in psychology find that media violence increases aggression in the short run. We analyze whether media violence affects violent crime in the field. We exploit variation in the violence of blockbuster movies from 1995 to 2004, and study the effect on same-day assaults. We find that violent crime decreases on days with larger theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent. After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent. This finding can be explained by the self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance, leading to substitution away from more volatile activities. In particular, movie attendance appears to reduce alcohol consumption. We find suggestive evidence that strongly violent movies trigger an increase in violence; however, this increase is dominated by a substitution away from more dangerous activities. Overall, our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend. While our design does not allow us to estimate long-run effects, we find no evidence of medium-run effects up to three weeks after initial exposure.

It’ll be interesting to see whether these studies have any impact on the way policymakers think about regulation of violent movies and video games. I’m guessing that the strong distaste that policymakers have for the subject matter will continue to dominate empirical evidence.

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4 Responses to He used to rob old ladies, but now he just plays video games all day

  1. ChrisPer says:


    Why would violent crime decline through the 1990’s? I had an answer…

    INCAPACITATION OF TEENAGE MALES. They were all playing PC games. THank you for giving me evidence to back my theory.

    So now what about the news reports triggering imitative mass shootings? Bryant was inspired by the media treatment of Dunblane, according to some who interviewed him. (See my link too).

    The families of the vurrent victims would do well to consider action against CBS, who broadcast the Cho video.

  2. ChrisPer says:

    Incidentally, there are quite a few things to consider – contradictory or confounding issues. Eg., for the MAJORITY of reasonably well adjusted people, these claims are correct. But for the minority of psychopathic or otherwise borderline violent people, media treatments provide scripts for exciting lifestyle alternatives. We can all recall reports of trials of such people who admitted imitating fictional characters.

    So in a gross sense, these two may result in net gains or net losses.

  3. derrida derider says:

    ChrisPer –

    But the great majority of crime – even serious crime – is not carried out by psychopaths, so any incapacitating effect on the normal is likely to greatly outweigh any imitative effect on the abnormal. And anyway there’s no real evidence that psychopaths need those external script to do what they do – post hoc is not propter hic. Plus who is to say that weirdos, just like everyday testosterone-poisoned young men, can’t be incapacitated by endless hours of World of Warcraft anyway?.

    In aggregate I reckon virtual violence and real violence are far more likely to be substitutes in consumption rather than complements, just as virtual sex is a substitute (a much inferior one) for real sex.

  4. ChrisPer says:

    dd, I will note that I should have said these two effects are operating on distinguishable subpopulations. Your ‘testosterone poisoned teenage boys’ up to age 28 or so are the major source of crime whether or not they are ‘normal’ in most ways. A widely targeted intervention can perhaps affect crime rates for the ‘normal’ people, because many of those crimes are related to social behaviours and alcohol.

    So the question of formal substitutable consumption vs complements in this case is irrelevant; the constrained but available resource for the wider population of normal young males is disposable time. This resource is heavily competed for between uses, once we add computer games and internet!

    The people who commit the mass shootings are not ‘average’, but outliers in distinct ways. The proposed interventions are to consciously frame the public d iscourse so as to minimise imitiative crimes, and this is already done fairly well for suicide. The exceptions show that the guidelines in general work – eg the newsreader suicide a couple of weeks ago led to at least three imitative suicides, two reported high-profile in the media and also one I learned of privately. Mostly that doesn’t happen because the reporting guidelines work, and work without formal censorship of media groups.

    And overall cime rates are not so relevant to these guys. A component of crime is committed by extreme personality types, but it isn’t separately recorded and its hard to estimate what proportion we would possibly affect with an intervention. The work of Phillips et al on suicide and media reporting seems to indicate a measurable part of suicide is imitative, and perhaps a similar proportion might relate to murders and murder-suicide stats.

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