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The Skeptic’s Guide to Violent Video Game Studies

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A few days ago, The Washington Post published an article entitled “Study Links Violent Video Games, Hostility” that combined some fairly old American research with two new Japanese studies that claimed there is “conclusive evidence” that violent video games are a “public health risk”. I propose that researchers who say they have conclusive evidence on this subject aren’t actually good researchers, and here’s why you should be skeptical as well:

1. Research results in this topic have been very contradictory. I tried to compile a list of video game studies and their findings a while back, and this list is what I found. About five studies support the idea that games lead to increased aggressive behavior. Approximately six studies could be interpreted as saying video games did not cause aggressive behavior in at least among normal people, and two or three had more nuanced findings. Saying that your study shows conclusive evidence is somewhat obnoxious when faced with the other research that has been done.

2.Studies have a lot of very important choices to make with how they define the key words in their study. First of all, “aggression” is very difficult to measure objectively, and sometimes studies don’t follow common sense with how it’s measured. For example, several studies on college students have used noise tests to measure aggression. The study participants are told that they’re linked to another person in the group in a contest where they punish one another through noise blasts of the volume they choose. Actually, a computer determines what blast to send at the participant, so that person theoretically is more aggressive if he or she sends louder noise blasts. The clear problem is that this is set up more like a game than real life. The noise blasts aren’t particularly harmful, so there is little to no remorse paired with sending a loud blast at your partner if he or she is sending one at you. This may make sense when you consider that such tests used to involve electric shocks, which were later considered too harmful.

3. Next, the definition of “violence” in games is a surprisingly difficult one. I propose a Kirby test for studies’ definitions of violence. If the study’s definition of violence considers the Kirby series violent games, then the definition is automatically invalid, rendering the research useless. Yes, the main character swallows his enemies whole to absorb their powers. This is a dangerous thing to teach our children, but I have a feeling they’ll be okay. The Madden series is a less silly distinction that studies have to make, considering how socially accepted the violence is in football.

4. Correlations prove very little. What we’re looking for is cause-and-effect, which is harder to find. Which is more likely: Do violent video games make children more aggressive, altering their character through raw media persuasion? Or do more aggressive children and teens generally prefer more aggressive media? Longitudinal studies try to take this issue into account by quantifying previous aggression, but children can change unpredictably over the years without media being the cause. A rowdy baby won’t necessarily be the schoolyard bully, and who may not necessarily shoot up his high school.

5. No matter what a study’s results show, the media can be counted on to warp it enough to make it interesting. Typically, this means that headlines claim a greater link between violent media and aggression. There are few details in the actual news stories, and instead there are lots of sweeping claims which don’t allow the reader to interpret anything. This goes even beyond the potential bias resulting from research not even getting published if it shows an uninteresting result like “Weak correlation between mature-rated games and childhood aggression”.

6. How could we actually prove a relationship, then? It would be difficult. The vast majority of children play video games, and most of them play at least some violent ones. Children that don’t play video games are also likely going to skew poorer, which has potential affects on childhood aggression of its own. Therefore, reliable control groups are nearly impossible to find. Then, the already mentioned issue with cause-and-effect isn’t entirely ruled out by studies over time. I’m not actually sure what would qualify as conclusive evidence.

7. We’ve been through all this before. Rock ‘n’ Roll, professional wrestling, comic books, television, and violent movies have all been forced through this process in the past. Rap music has been going through a similar process as well. Looking back at the earlier “public health threats” of crime comic books and Elvis music, we find them quaint and wonder how we ever thought they were real concerns.

Video games haven’t caused an epidemic of youth violence and they aren’t going to, no matter how horrendous and popular they may be. Even if they made kids more aggressive, the results aren’t apparent and there are clearly better things we could be doing than introducing yet another violent game bill that gets rejected in favor of the Constitution. Research in this area is very difficult, due to regulations on studying children and the definition issues raised here. We aren’t going to find “conclusive evidence” of anything, so any researcher that says they’ve found it for either side isn’t to be trusted.

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About Nathaniel Edwards

  • Tall Writer

    Great article! You hit a lot of great points, especially research being difficult. Dating all the way back to the beginning of printed media, this topic will always debated and scrutinized because of the powerful influences and message it communicates to the public. I really enjoyed reviewing the Grand Theft Childhood book, which also touched on many of these points.

  • Nathaniel Edwards

    I’ve been reading Grand Theft Childhood on my new Kindle. That combined with the stupidly written Washington Post story inspired me to write this.

  • Funky J

    Here is another psychologist Christopher Ferguson systematically destroying this study.

    Also, this study, done by Craig Anderson was commissioned by the NIMF, so I wonder just how impartial he is – if you’re paid by someone to find something, you’re going to find it, right?