Video games have been blamed for violent behaviour for nearly as long as the games have existed, but a new study concludes there may be no link between action-packed games and aggressive thoughts in players.

Researchers at the University of York in England conducted a series of experiments involving more than 3,000 participants to test whether violent video games “prime” players to behave in aggressive ways. Violence priming is the concept that exposure to killing and destruction on screen leads to aggressive thoughts and behaviour in viewers afterward.

To control for different types of games designs, the research team decided to create their own games rather than use commercially available games.

In one experiment, they investigated whether playing with realistic characters influenced the aggression of the game players. Previous research has suggested that the more “real” a game’s violence seems, the more primed players are by the violent concepts, leading to antisocial behaviour.

Some of the games included characters that employed ”ragdoll physics” so that the characters moved in the same way humans might; for instance, falling in an apparently natural way when injured.

The experiment compared player reactions to a game that used “ragdoll physics” characters to reactions to a game in which the characters simply disappeared when shot.

Following the game, the players were asked to complete “word fragment completion tasks,” filling out incomplete words with the first word that came to mind. The researchers wanted to see if the players chose more violent words after playing the more realistic game.

They also asked players to complete the same task after playing other games in which the enemy characters used either realistic or non-realistic soldier behaviours.

After reviewing the results, the team led by David Zendle, from the University of York's department of computer science, found no evidence of violence “priming”: those who had watched the more realistic games did not choose more violent concepts in their word completion tasks.

"Video games don’t lead to violent behaviour in this particular way,” Zendle told CTV Toronto in a video call, “which can only be good news for the many, many people who enjoy playing video games on a regular basis.”

Zendle notes that his study looked only at adults, not children.

“Children are a whole different ballgame. Much, much more research is needed on children to find out whether this result holds true for them as well. It may very well be the case that increasing the realism of a game has totally different effects on children,” he said.

Zendle says further study is also needed into other aspects of video game realism, to test whether viewing other kinds of violence, such as torture, has different effects on players.

The full results appear in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour

With a report from CTV Toronto’s Pauline Chan