The UNCANNY Violence of Video Games, Part I: “GAM, VME, and the Acronyms of Aggression.”

According to the article previously quoted, research into the links between Violent Media Exposure and aggression is well into its seventh decade. There is, therefore, a tremendous amount of evidence supporting  the warnings against violent media as a causal agent of aggressive and violent behavior. To better understand the underlying mechanisms that lead to or facilitate aggressive and violent tendencies, researchers developed the General Aggression Model, or GAM.

Before we examine the processes and inter-workings that formulate the GAM, it is important to consider three terms, and their definitions, that are fundamental to the GAM methodology: aggression, violence, and violent media. According to the book, Understanding and Reducing, Aggression, Violence, and Their Consequences (from the Chapter, “The General Aggression Model”), “Aggression refers to behavior carried out with the proximal (immediate) intention to inflict harm on another person who is motivated to avoid the harm.”

This definition excludes acts that are unintentionally aggressive, such as when a parent pulls their child from harm and in the process, injures the child. It does however recognize aggression expressed through non-physical means. Thus, emotional and psychological violence are included in the definition as the products of aggressive behavior.

The same text defines violence as, “the most severe types of physical aggression, those that are likely to cause serious bodily injury.” With the exception concerning non-physical forms of violence previously mentioned, it can be stated that, “all acts of violence fit [the] definition of aggression, but not all aggressive acts are violent 1.” Aggression and violence by definition, therefore, refer to a perceived literal and imminent threat of physical, emotional, or psychological harm, both from the perspective of the perpetrator of the act and his or her intended victim(s).

In contrast to this, the definition for violent media includes acts of aggression and violence that are virtualized. For example, violent media encompasses both the live boxing event on Pay-Per-View, as well as, episodes of South Park in which one cartoon character acts aggressively and violently towards another (see Figure 3). This seeming disparity between the definitions of aggression/violence and violent media is significant, and as will be argued later in this series, indicates an overlooked incompatibility between the pre-requisite literality of aggressive and violent acts, and their virtualization in violent media, especially as it relates to violent video games.

Figure 3: Virtualized violent media.
Figure 3: “Virtualized” aggression and violence.

In terms of the GAM, these three definitions: aggression, violence, and violent media, provide a simplified guide to analyzing the role of Violent Media Exposure in the development of aggressive behavior and in its expression through acts of violence.

The purpose of the GAM, is to provide researchers with a framework through which aggressiveness which leads to violence can be analyzed as the product of what are known as “situation[al]” and “person[ological]” inputs. Put simply, these represent the environmental and personality factors that establish a person’s “Present internal state,” how someone is thinking and feeling just prior to the triggering event (“Social encounter”) that elicits an aggressive response. These inputs influence an individual’s inclination towards aggressive behavior and violent acts. For example, someone who suffers from antisocial personality disorder (APD) would be seen as having a personological input that may incline him or her to acting out aggressively.

Similarly, a situational input might be the discomfort experienced as a result of extreme temperature or weather, such as when ambient temperatures are considered unbearably hot and humid. These two inputs when combined provide a starting point from which researchers can assess the conditions in which aggressive behavior is triggered and perpetuated resulting in violence during a single event.

Once a triggering event (“Social encounter”) occurs, according to the GAM, an “Appraisal” is made to determine if there is a legitimate threat requiring an immediate response. It is during this appraisal and deliberation process that the subject of the provocation decides whether or not to respond with either, “Thoughtful (non-aggressive),” or, “Impulsive (aggressive),” action. If the decision is to react aggressively, a process known as the Violence Escalation Cycle (VEC) is inititiated (see Figure 4). The VEC represents the interactions between the aggressor and the target of their aggression that ultimately leads to a violent act.

Figure 4: The Violence Escalation Cycle (VEC)
Figure 4: The Violence Escalation Cycle (VEC)

For example, one day, person A, who is known to have an aggressive personality (a personological input), finds himself driving in traffic in a car with no air conditioning (A/C) with outside temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (the traffic, the driving with no A/C, and the outdoor temperature are all situational inputs). As a result of these inputs, person A’s present internal state is aggressive. Suddenly, the car ahead of person A stops forcing person A to slam on the brakes (the “Social encounter”). Person A begins to appraise the perceived threat and deliberate as to an appropriate response. Eventually, person A decides to drive alongside the other car and yell obscenities at the other driver. Thus begins the Violence Escalation Cycle, which eventually leads person A and the offender, to drive to the side of the road and engage in a fist fight.

Over time, and repetition, this aggressive cycle formulates an individualized behavior script that progressively overrides the methodical and deliberate aspects of the GAM, replacing a conscientious response with something more akin to impulsive reaction. Thus, when future Social encounters occur in which the requisite personological and situational factors are present, resulting in the necessary Present internal state, the subject is able to bypass the Appraisal stage and go directly to the Thoughtful or Impulsive action phase. In other words, these behavior scripts become our de facto response to specific situations and events in which we feel threatened with aggression and/or violence.

Therefore, according to this theory, repeated exposure to violent video games and other violent media (both are considered situational inputs; see Figure 5), has the potential to influence and re-write the behavior scripts of the player thereby increasing his or her inclination to act out aggressively and/or violently, both in the game, and even more controversially, the real world.

Figure 5: GAM and Violent Video Games
Figure 5: GAM and Violent Video Games

Sounds like a bunch of BS to me.

Yes it does. HOWEVER, numerous studies conducted over the past twenty years, that use the GAM methodology, clearly show that repeated exposure to violent video games DOES indeed have an affect on the player’s cognitive function as it relates to aggression and violence. In other words, playing violent video games for even a brief period of time changes the brain chemistry of the player, resulting in what researchers argue is an increasingly aggressive personality.

Still sounds like some major BS mumbo-jumbo.”

And it could be. But before refuting these conclusions outright, it would be beneficial to examine two studies in particular, generally regarded as the first to apply the GAM to the study of violent video game exposure and its relationship to increased aggression. Next month, BOOM Salad looks to take a deeper dive into the methodologies and results of these studies, and their societal implications, as we present Part II of The UNCANNY Violence of Video Games. Until then, keep on BOOMING!

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