KOTAKU Takes a Look at 25 Years of Research on Violent Video Games

January 22, 2013
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Obama signs gun control recommendations

Obama issues gun control recommendations

After the violence in Newtown — and really, any violent mass shooting these days — it didn’t take long before pundits were blaming violent video games for the violence. As happened with comic books in the 1950s, video games have become a scapegoat for deeper societal problems.

Senator Jay Rockefeller proposed a bill mandating that the National Academy of Sciences research the effect of violent media on children, and President Obama himself asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the relationship between violent media and actual violence to the tune of $10 million dollars in taxpayer money. These calls for more research come despite the fact that previous studies do not support the existence of a strong link between violent media and violent behavior.

In the wake of President Obama’s directive to the CDC, Jason Schreier with Kotaku took a balanced look at 25 years of research on video game play. He reviewed dozens of studies and journal articles from 1984 to present in a comprehensive look at video game research.

In particular, Schreier examined Craig A. Anderson et al’s “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review” (Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, 2010, Vol. 136, No. 2, 151–173), a survey of studies done by other institutions and individuals. Anderson concluded there was a clear link between violent video game play and violent behavior. Schreier describes the conclusions Brad Bushman, one of the study’s authors, drew based on the data:

So the science seems to show a link between games and aggression, but what about violence? There’s no way of knowing, Bushman said. Violence can’t even be tested.

“Are they more likely to stab someone? I dunno. Are they more likely to shoot somebody? I don’t know. Are they more likely to rape someone? Beats me. Those are very rare events and we can’t study them ethically, so I don’t know what the link is between playing violent video games and violent criminal behavior. But we know that there is a link between playing violent video games and more common forms of aggressive behavior—such as getting in fights.”

In opposition to Anderson, “Much Ado About Nothing: The Misestimation and Overinterpretation of Violent Video Game Effects in Eastern and Western Nations: Comment on Anderson et al. (2010)” (Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, 2010, Vol. 136, No. 2, 174–178) by Christoper J. Ferguson and John Kilburn decried faulty science on the part of Anderson and concluded that the data could be interpreted in the opposite way: There is no clear link between violent video game play and violent behavior. Schreier took a look at Ferguson’s concerns over faulty science:

Ferguson, who met last week with vice president Joe Biden and several leaders in the gaming industry to talk about violent video games, thinks there are three main flaws with today’s research. The first: many of the studies look at college students, not children.

“Of course most of these college students probably have heard theories about media violence and aggression, ‘cause they’re in college and taking these classes,” Ferguson told me. “So a typical experiment is they show you a violent video game and ask you to be aggressive one way or another, and probably a typical college student can draw that link of what they’re supposed to do, basically.”

Ferguson then describes the second major flaw in the studies:

The second major flaw with current studies, in Ferguson’s view, is that measures for testing aggression are not ideal.

“They’re kind of like filling in the missing letters of words, so if you spell explode rather than explore, that indicates you’re being aggressive,” he said. “Or you may be giving people little bursts of white noise. These measures that are being used are not very effective at getting at even minor acts of aggression.”

As for the third flaw, Ferguson thinks that several of the studies are so fundamentally flawed and subjective that scientists can basically pick and choose their data to support their hypotheses.

Schreier points out that both sides of the argument do support that idea that video game play can increase aggression (which, it should be noted, is not any of the following: illegal, violent behavior, or violent crime), but the data are difficult to quantify and interpret. Some studies note a 0.5% increase in aggression; others note a 2% increase in aggression. In either case, the increase in aggression is fairly small (and some could argue statistically insignificant). Further, the studies can’t establish that increased aggression leads to outwardly violent behavior and violent crime.

Furthermore, scientists disagree about the actual cause of the increase in aggressive behavior. Violent video game play may not actually be to blame:

Willoughby and Adachi tracked violent competitive games (ex: Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe), violent non-competitive games (Left 4 Dead 2), non-violent competitive games (Fuel), and non-violent non-competitive games (Marble Blast Ultra). What they found was fascinating: it wasn’t violence that triggered aggression; it was competition.

In his article, Schreier also examined whether studies compared the effect of other violent media (such as movies) to the effect of violent video games — no such studies exist. He also looked at who funded the studies, establishing that many were funded by organizations with a vested interest in the results (whether a video game company or conservative family-values organization), which opens the door to bias on the part of the researchers. You can read the entirety of the Kotaku article here.

Whether video games cause a slight increase in aggression or not, what is clear is that there is not a definitive link between video game play and violent crime. Comic books were censored for decades despite a lack of scientific evidence that they caused violent behavior, and the current discussion regarding video games echoes the past. Like comic books, video games are constitutionally protected creative speech, and no amount of fallacious fear mongering justifies their censorship, especially by the government.

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Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.