Posted by: Gregory Linton | 01/11/2010

The Effects of Video Games on Learning: The Negative View

In the last post, I described the positive effects of video games as established by research. Now, I want to describe the negative effects that have been identified by researchers.

In his book Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax (2007) presents a compelling argument that video games rob boys of motivation to learn. Granted, he never actually cites research that proves this, but he cites numerous studies that show a negative correlation between amount of time spent playing games and academic performance (see n. 6 on p. 235). He also reveals that he has not found a single study that shows a positive correlation between academic performance and video game playing.

To support his argument, he also draws on the fact well established by research that violent video games cause aggressive behavior in the players. He argues that video games are so addictive because they satisfy the male need for power and control. To guard against the negative effects of video games, he offers practical guidelines for parents to follow: prohibit video games with graphic violence, especially those that depict killing police officers and noncombatant civilians; limit video games to forty minutes a day on school days and one hour on other days; and do not allow video games to displace other activities and priorities, such as family, schoolwork, and friends.

In their review of the evidence, Barlett, Anderson, and Swing (2009) describe a number of negative effects of video games. As they did with the positive effects, they categorize these as “confirmed,” “suspected,” and “speculative.”

Confirmed Negative Effects

The one negative effect of video games established by the research is that exposure to violent video games is causally related to aggressive thoughts, physiological arousal, aggressive behavior, and antisocial behavior. They note that this causal relation is as well established by research as the causal relation between asbestos exposure and cancer or the relationship between calcium intake and bone mass. They also note that age, sex, socioeconomic status, video game genre, or video game systems are not variables that affect these outcomes.

However there are two variables that heighten the effect. One is depiction of blood, which results in higher levels of physiological arousal, aggressive feelings, and aggressive thoughts. Another is rewarding of violent acts, which also increases these effects.

Suspected Negative Effects

Barlett, Anderson, and Swing (2009) describe five negative outcomes that have substantial empirical support but not enough to confirm causal claims:

  1. Violent video game exposure may affect long-term attitudes toward violence.
  2. Violent video games are related to desensitization toward violence.
  3. Exposure to electronic media (violent and non-educational media in particular), especially in early childhood, is associated with attention disorder diagnosis or the symptoms of attention disorders such as ADHD.
  4. Playing violent video games is associated with decreased ability to exert executive control (i.e., behavior consistent with personal goals), which may in turn increase aggressive behavior.
  5. Amount of time spent consuming screen media (TV and video games) is negatively associated with school performance. With respect tof college students, the amount of video game play is associated with a lower GPA. The issue here is the amount of time rather than the particular type of media because that time could be spent on activities that would lead to better educational outcomes.

Speculative Negative Effects

The authors speculate that there is a connection between narcissism and violent video game play. Highly narcissistic individuals may behave more aggressively after violent video game play. Also, playing video games that reward violent responses to threats and that encourage narcissistic behavior and attitudes may increase the trait of narcissism.


Most of this research on the negative effects of video games has focused on violence and aggression. But what is the connection between video games and intelligence? Do video games enhance a person’s memory and reasoning abilities or do they harm them? These questions continue to be investigated, especially in connection with video games designed for educational purposes (Stansbury, 2009). In the meantime, parents are advised to screen the video games that their children play and limit the amount of time that they play.

My wife and I, for example, require our son to earn time on his Leapster by performing certain tasks on time, such as getting out of bed, changing his clothes, and brushing his teeth. He is given a poker chip for successful completion of such activites, and he can cash in four chips for one game on his Leapster. This policy provides incentives and rewards for responsible behavior, but it also limits the amount of time that he can spend on his video games. In addition, the video games that he plays teach him reading and math skills. One of the ways that he can earn a chip is by completing three daily tasks on the GoGoLingo website, which teaches Spanish through interactive entertainment. So by playing an educational video game, he works toward the right to play another educational video game.


Barlett, C.P., Anderson, C.A., & Swing, E.L. (2009). Video game effects confirmed, suspected, and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation & Gaming, 40(3), pp. 377-403.

Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York: Basic Books.

Stansbury, M. (December 18, 2009). Can gaming change education? eSchool News. Accessed December 18, 2009 at


  1. This is a great article. I do believe that further studies should be done on how developing minds are affected long term when they spend endless hours playing these games. Some youngester I know have unattended hours they can play violent mature games.

    I especially like the poker chip reward method for earning video game time.

  2. […] Greg Linton – The Effects of Video Games on Learning: The Negative View […]

  3. I have to say that I believe this is true because even my brothers are like this… I tell them they can’t play until their hw is done and now they finish quicker than they used to when the Rule was only on fridays after hw and weekends…. They now finish by 4 and they get out at 3 when it used to be 5 when they finished….. Should I stop letting them play during the week? Or should I be mean and tell them to write a summary on hw every day b4 they play? Idk if i should be mean or kinda mean? Plz help on my decision…….

    • Those are good questions. As a parent of two second-grade boys, here is how I try to apply the research. First, we don’t allow violent video games, especially those that are more explicit with blood spattering, etc. It is hard to avoid video games that involve punching, sword fighting, etc., such as in Star Wars. But the research shows that the more explicit the violence, the more they tend to mimic it. Second, we make our boys earn screen time, preferably with some learning activity that is good for their brain. For example, a half hour of reading (or homework) earns them a half hour of screen time–or whatever ratio you set up. Third, limit the total amount of video game playing that they can earn each day. Your question seems to be concerned with how quickly they are completing their homework. If they are doing it properly and completely, I wouldn’t worry about how quickly they are doing it. I hope this gets at the issues you are raising.

  4. I’ve been playing games – mostly containing violence – almost constantly for a good 10 years now, yet I’ve come out of school with As and A*s, despite doing practically no revision. I’m also one of the least violent people that you may ever come across. Many of my friends are very similar to me: barely ever showing signs of aggression, yet have been high achievers. In fact, I think that I have learned almost as much from playing games as I have in secondary school.
    Many people also overlook the fact that the age of the average gamer is 27.
    All of this leads me to believe that the research was biased. For example, “sugar causes hyperactivity” was recently disproved. Several 5-year-olds were given sweets; several others were not. All of the parents were told that their 5-year-old had been given sweets, and all of them reported seeing heightened activity in them, yet the researches saw no difference in both the control and research groups.

    • I can relate to this, if there is a causal relationship between violent video games and negative outcomes such as poor academic performance and actual violent behavior, there are several exceptions to this “rule”. I’ve also been gaming for most of my life, and a lot of the games I played (even as a kid) contained violent content. I have a strong academic record, with good performance in both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at a top tier university in my country. I am currently employed in a senior management position, which in my organisation is quite unusual for someone under the age of 30. I don’t wish to boast, but only to emphasize that I have been able to achieve academic and professional success, despite being an avid gamer. I can also attest to the fact that I am not a violent person. In fact, I believe that I can handle conflict much better than most people, and in my performance reviews I have often been commended for being assertive and diplomatic, and for handling conflict in a constructive manner. I have several friends who are and have been gamers for some time, and who will tell you similar stories about their experiences.

      I don’t mean to imply that there are not potential negative side effects to gaming, but only that they are heavily dependent on context. When reading studies on gaming, it is also worth remembering that correlation does not equal causation. All that said, I’ve enjoyed your article Dr. Linton, as it is probably one of the most unbiased articles I’ve read on the subject. It’s always nice to see academics who write with objectivity and without prejudice or underlying agendas.

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  6. You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the highest quality sites online. I most certainly will recommend this website!

    • Thank you for the encouragement. I only wish I had more time to post more consistently. There are many topics yet that I would like to learn more about and share what I am learning with others.

  7. It’s hard to come by experienced people for this subject, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

    • I am mainly reporting what I have found in the research of others, so I can’t take any credit for the information. I try to keep up on research on the effects of video games.

  8. I think that what you’re doing with your son is good.
    But have you thought what will happen once he gets to school?
    On our current timeline, kids usually learn most of their bad habits at school.
    Such as:
    Sexual-Related (masturbation, watching porn….)
    Violence-Related (punching classmates, Stealing……)
    Anti-Social values ( being Dishonest, unresponsible…..)
    How? It starts as something that someone older told one of them, and showed him/her how it works (“steal other’s people money” could be a example).
    I’m not trying to bother you, but for you to know that it’s impossible to make something perfect on this world. Even though, excellent can still be made. Thank you for your time.

    • You make good points here. These are reminders that parents need to be involved in their children’s lives in order to shape their values and influence their conduct. We need to maintain close, positive relationships so that what we say matters to the child. My wife and I have also dealt with these concerns proactively by putting our boys in a private Christian school. We have known too many of our friends and co-workers whose children came into contact with negative influences in middle school and high school and ended up in all kinds of trouble. At our school, the parents of the children are sacrificing because they are committed to their child’s education and character-building. My experience in public school was that, if one took learning too seriously, one was an outcast. In my kids’ school, taking learning seriously is the norm. We hope this increases the odds that they will stay on the right track and go on to earn a college degree (and higher).

  9. “The Effects of Video Games on Learning: The Negative View Higher Education Pedagogy & Policy” was
    a wonderful post. If only there was more websites just like this specific one
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  10. […] is the link to the above article, it also speaks to some of the benefits of video game play as well. As a […]

  11. […] written a piece […]

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