A student writing a paper on children and violent video games recently asked me about the psychological effects on children who excessively play violent video games and if playing violent video games relieves stress or breeds more anger. Here are my thoughts:
It is important to understand what is going on for the child outside of his video game life. Is he experiencing symptoms of depression (e.g., withdrawal, anger) or anxiety (e.g., fear, difficulty concentrating, worry)? Does he have impulse control or relationship problems? Is he struggling with self esteem or is he overly grandiose? What were the child's early experiences (e.g., was there any trauma, neglect, loss, problematic or disrupted family relationships, etc.)? Children who play violent games excessively have the potential to "disappear" into a fantasy world. Maybe they do so because it distracts them from their own feelings, the games give them a sense of control or it feels powerful and safe. Escape through violent video games may feel relieving, for a time, but it could keep the child from dealing with other issues and could exacerbate violent behavior. As such, excessive playing of violent games, especially if all he does is play the games and he has no other outlets or social relationships, may suggest that the child has some other issues of concern and playing violent video games is a symptom of these issues.
On the other hand, children can be easily over-stimulated. So, if they are repeatedly exposed to a lot of violent stimuli (in video games, or movies or violence in the home), it could have a serious impact on their ability to regulate their own emotions and behaviors. Problematic behaviors can lead to difficult relationships.
Having a balance in one's play and activities (not just video games but after school sports, clubs, hobbies, outings with friends, etc.) and having a healthy family environment is important for overall mental health and social well being. For children who have a strong, more well developed sense of self with healthy positive relationships and where video games are just a part of a balanced play life, the effects of violent video games are potentially less harmful. Prolonged exposure to violence, though, in any form can have negative consequences.