Texas Tech University

Playing Action Video Games May Increase the Capability for a Suicide Attempt

Glenys Young

March 28, 2016

A new study by Texas Tech researchers examines the acquired capability for suicide.

Video Games

Among individuals already thinking about suicide, those who play action video games may be significantly more capable of attempting it than those who play other video game categories, according to a new study from Texas Tech University.

Researchers in the Department of Psychological Sciences examined the relationship between video game play and the acquired capability for suicide, with the moderating effects of video game category and gender. The team published its findings in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

The research was based on the interpersonal theory of suicide by psychologist Thomas Joiner, which says a person can develop a capability for suicide through exposure to physically painful or psychologically provocative events.

“What we know from previous research is that not everyone who thinks about suicide goes on to attempt or die by suicide,” said the study's lead author, Sean Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. “What the interpersonal theory of suicide brought in was the acquired capability for suicide, which is meant to differentiate who may think about suicide but never attempt versus someone who thinks about suicide and does go on to attempt.

Sean Mitchell

“Acquired capability is an increased fearlessness about death, not being as afraid to die, and also an increased pain tolerance – not being as sensitive to pain. Increased acquired capability allows individuals to overcome the fear and pain that would inhibit a suicide attempt.”

An important caveat to the research is it's only applicable to people already thinking about suicide, what researchers call suicide ideation.

The research also doesn't give a clear picture as to whether violent video games cause an increased acquired capability for suicide.

“We didn't assess change over time,” Mitchell said. “Some studies say people play violent video games, which causes them to be more aggressive. Other studies say there's no association. Other studies say the opposite: people who are already more violent seek out violent video games. We see findings that show all of it, so there's not a clear picture. Without doing intensive study over a long period of time, we can't really say what causes what.”

The study included data from 228 students at Texas Tech who reported playing video games weekly, largely male (65.5 percent) and Caucasian (74.1 percent).

Participants were asked to report what categories of video games they played:

  • Action games: First-person shooter, horror, fighting, sports or crime/war games, such as “Call of Duty,” the “HALO” series, “Left for Dead,” “Resident Evil,” “Streetfighter,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Tomb Raider” and “Grand Theft Auto”
  • Adventure games: Role-playing, multiplayer online or adventure games, such as “The Sims” and “World of Warcraft”
  • Simulation games: Wii, PlayStation Move, vehicle simulation, sports, racing or music games, such as “Guitar Hero”
  • Educational/traditional games: Puzzles, educational or traditional games, such as “Solitaire,” “Chess,” “Minesweeper” or “Tetris”
Kelly Cukrowicz
Kelly Cukrowicz

“The more hours of video games you play, the higher your acquired capability tended to be,” Mitchell said. “But if we took into consideration what kinds of video games you're playing, we saw that if you play action games, which tend to be more violent, there is a stronger relationship between hours of video game play and acquired capability. However, if you don't play action games, there was no relationship. So, hours of video game play is associated with increased acquired capability only when they report playing action games.”

However, because action games aren't the only types of games that contain violence, the reality may be more definitive than the study's results.

“Violence could show up in adventure games as well, so by us having it be just action games, it's probably a slightly more conservative estimate of that association than if we said ‘violent video games,'” Mitchell said. “If we had the question rephrased that way, we might have seen a stronger relationship.”

In addition to Mitchell, the study's other authors are Danielle Jahn, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine who earned her master's and doctorate at Texas Tech; Evan Guidry, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate in the Texas Tech Department of Psychological Sciences; and Kelly Cukrowicz, an associate professor of clinical psychology, chair of the institutional review board and director of Texas Tech's Suicide and Depression Research Program.