Experts Pick Apart APA Report on Video Game Violence

Leland YeeA task force appointed by the American Psychological Association made a big splash last week with a report that claimed to identify a link between “violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect,” but other experts within the profession are crying foul, pointing out numerous issues with the report and the task force itself.

The report acknowledges that “insufficient evidence exists about whether the link extends to criminal violence or delinquency,” but many fellow researchers question even the link to increased aggression. A detailed article by Newsweek’s Taylor Wofford identifies four key areas of concern related to the 49-page report, a meta-analysis of 31 research studies conducted between 2009 and 2013.

Inconsistent and nebulous definitions of what constitutes aggression and violence, both in video games and real life

One study, for example, measured aggression by asking people who have just played violent video games fill in missing letters in words like _ill. Measured against a control group that hadn’t played games, they were more likely to construct words like kill rather than fill. But Dr. T.A. Ceranoglu, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, points out that “there is no evidence that writing the word kill on a piece of paper means one is more likely to commit actual acts of violence.”

Disregard for the benefits of creative play and children’s right to free expression

Task force chair Mark Appelbaum compares regulation of video games to taking daily aspirin for heart attack prevention, implying that while the benefit may be small it also can’t hurt. Child psychologist and Boston College professor Peter Gray strongly disagrees with that mindset, saying “I think that there’s harm in controlling children’s choices and behavior. Unless we can show that children are doing something harmful, we need to allow children to make their own choices.” Gray may have had Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comics in mind as he continued: “There’s a long history in psychology of trying to prove that exposure to violent depictions of one sort or another increases violence in people, especially in children. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there has never, ever been good proof of that.”

Task force members’ conflicts of interest

The APA’s task force is purported to be unbiased, but Wofford found that at least four of seven members “appear to have previously expressed opinions about the link between exposure to violent video games and aggression” through their own published research and other outlets. Two of them, Sherry Hamby and Kenneth Dodge, signed an amicus curiae brief endorsing the link between video games and violent behavior in the Supreme Court case Brown v. EMA (CBLDF also filed a brief, for the opposing side, which was quoted in the majority opinion that struck down a California law that would have regulated the sale of video games to minors). Christopher Ferguson, chair of the psychology department at Stetson University, says he doesn’t think “the individual task force members were acting in bad faith, but… they were selected [by the APA] because their opinions were pretty clear going in.”

Cherrypicking of included studies

Most of the studies included in the task force’s meta-analysis did purport to find a link between video games and aggression or violence — but there were other studies that found no effect. Conveniently, the latter did not fit the criteria for inclusion. Ferguson sums up the APA’s vested interest in identifying a treatable problem where there may in fact be nothing:

People have to remember that groups like the American Psychological Association—of which I’m a fellow, by the way—are guilds. They do not exist to provide people with objective facts. They exist to promote the profession. It’s to their advantage to identify problems that psychologists can run in and fix. It is not to their advantage to say ‘we don’t know’ or ‘the evidence is all over the place’ or ‘there’s nothing we can do to help you.’

In light of the findings in its report, the APA earlier this month called on the Entertainment Software Rating Board to clarify the “levels and characteristics of violence” in each game’s rating, and on developers to “design games that are appropriate to users’ age and psychological development.” The ESRB responded that while it is “open to continuing a dialogue” with APA, it would not be making any changes to its ratings system, which studies have shown parents overwhelmingly trust and rely on when making purchase decisions.

For an in-depth analysis of the report’s potential shortcomings, in particular the various conflicts of interest for task force members, check out Wofford’s article at Newsweek. Also see this 2013 open letter from over 230 media scholars, psychologists and criminologists calling the APA’s position on violence in entertainment media “misleading and alarmist” and outlined concerns about the task force’s methodology.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.