Let’s End the Debate About Video Games and Violence

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Stetson University | February 19, 2018 11:03 am
young-gamers-SXSW

Young gamers give new titles a spin during a past SXSW gaming conference in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Shutterstock)

In the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting at a Broward County, Florida high school, a familiar trope has reemerged: Often, when a young man is the shooter, people try to blame the tragedy on violent video games and other forms of media. Florida lawmaker Jared Moskowitz made the connection the day after the shooting, saying the gunman “was prepared to pick off students like it’s a video game.”

In January, after two students were killed and many others wounded by a 15-year-old shooter in Benton, Kentucky, the state’s governor criticized popular culture, telling reporters, “We can’t celebrate death in video games, celebrate death in TV shows, celebrate death in movies, celebrate death in musical lyrics and remove any sense of morality and sense of higher authority and then expect that things like this are not going to happen.”

But, speaking as a researcher who has studied violent video games for almost 15 years, I can state that there is no evidence to support these claims that violent media and real-world violence are connected. As far back as 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that research did not find a clear connection between violent video games and aggressive behavior. Criminologists who study mass shootings specifically refer to those sorts of connections as a “myth.” And in 2017, the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association released a statement I helped craft, suggesting reporters and policymakers cease linking mass shootings to violent media, given the lack of evidence for a link.

A History of Moral Panic

So why are so many policymakers inclined to blame violent video games for violence? There are two main reasons.

The first is the psychological research community’s efforts to market itself as strictly scientific. This led to a replication crisis instead, with researchers often unable to repeat the results of their studies. Now, psychology researchers are reassessing their analyses of a wide range of issues – not just violent video games, but implicit racism, power poses and more.

The other part of the answer lies in the troubled history of violent video game research specifically. Beginning in the early 2000s, some scholars, anti-media advocates and professional groups like the APA began working to connect a methodologically messy and often contradictory set of results to public health concerns about violence. This echoed historical patterns of moral panic, such as 1950s concerns about comic books and Tipper Gore’s efforts to blame pop and rock music in the 1980s for violence, sex and satanism.

Particularly in the early 2000s, dubious evidence regarding violent video games was uncritically promoted. But over the years, confidence among scholars that violent video games influence aggression or violence has crumbled.

Reviewing the Scholarly Literature

My own research has examined the degree to which violent video games can – or can’t – predict youth aggression and violence. In a 2015 meta-analysis, I examined 101 studies on the subject and found that violent video games had little impact on kids’ aggression, mood, helping behavior or grades.

Two years later, I found evidence that scholarly journals’ editorial biases had distorted the scientific record on violent video games. Experimental studies that found effects were more likely to be published than studies that had found none. This was consistent with others’ findings. As the Supreme Court noted, any impacts due to video games are nearly impossible to distinguish from the effects of other media, like cartoons and movies.

Any claims that there is consistent evidence that violent video games encourage aggression are simply false.

Spikes in violent video games’ popularity are well-known to correlate with substantial declines in youth violence – not increases. These correlations are very strong, stronger than most seen in behavioral research. More recent research suggests that the releases of highly popular violent video games are associated with immediate declines in violent crime, hinting that the releases may cause the drop-off.

The Role of Professional Groups

With so little evidence, why are people like Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin still trying to blame violent video games for mass shootings by young men? Can groups like the National Rifle Association seriously blame imaginary guns for gun violence?

A key element of that problem is the willingness of professional guild organizations such as the APA to promote false beliefs about violent video games. (I’m a fellow of the APA.) These groups mainly exist to promote a profession among news media, the public and policymakers, influencing licensing and insurance laws. They also make it easier to get grants and newspaper headlines. Psychologists and psychology researchers like myself pay them yearly dues to increase the public profile of psychology. But there is a risk the general public may mistake promotional positions for objective science.

In 2005 the APA released its first policy statement linking violent video games to aggression. However, my recent analysis of internal APA documents with criminologist Allen Copenhaver found that the APA ignored inconsistencies and methodological problems in the research data.

The APA updated its statement in 2015, but that sparked controversy immediately: More than 230 scholars wrote to the group asking it to stop releasing policy statements altogether. I and others objected to perceived conflicts of interest and lack of transparency tainting the process.

The ConversationIt’s bad enough that these statements misrepresent the actual scholarly research and misinform the public. But it’s worse when those falsehoods give advocacy groups like the NRA cover to shift blame for violence onto nonissues like video games. The resulting misunderstandings delay efforts to address mental illness and other issues that are actually related to gun violence.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  • Erik Bosma

    Way before video games, we played “Cowboys and Indians (no offense intended – besides I always played the Indian)” and other such ‘violent’ games. I am not a violent person and have only been in one fist fight in my whole life which, by the way, I lost. I rarely play video games but my son does and he is even more peace loving than I.
    “What I find really important in the above piece is in this paragraph:
    Spikes in violent video games’ popularity
    are well-known to correlate with substantial declines in youth violence
    – not increases. These correlations are very strong, stronger than most
    seen in behavioral research. More recent research suggests that the releases of highly popular violent video games are associated with immediate declines in violent crime, hinting that the releases may cause the drop-off.”
    This suggests to me that there are people with violent tendencies whose pressure to release this violence on others is rather released on the new and anticipated video game. In other words, video games may instead be a form of therapy for violent types to release their violent tendencies on the computer instead of on the public.

    • Erik Bosma

      One last point I forgot to make: Now if we could only develop a video game that would interact with the player in such a way that he or she could use it to seek help of a more personal nature.

      • Mike Richardson

        You made some very good points. I’ve played video games, including some pretty violent ones, most of my life. But like most folks who enjoy them, I don’t have any problem telling fantasy from reality. That inability to differentiate, or to even care about the value of real human lives, is what makes a person truly dangerous — not games.

        • Panamaniak

          There are however individuals that can simply lose the grip on reality – and one of them can kill you. So, there is price to pay for your simple pleasure – like in the Russian Roulette.

          • Mike Richardson

            A lot of things can cause people to lose their grip on reality, and to drive them to violence. Religious and political extremism, for example, or some drug-induced psychosis. Probably video games aren’t the catalyst that drives them to violence, and it will likely be a gun, and not a game, that they use to kill their victims. My simple pleasure isn’t what’s costing so many American lives.

          • Michael Cleveland

            I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say, but I would point out that no gun in history has ever killed anyone.

          • Mike Richardson

            I’m saying that no videogame has ever been used as a murder weapon, and while guns do not fire themselves, they have been quite effectively been used as such. Hence, we should be much more concerned with regulating something created with the sole purpose of killing or injuring, and not a source of entertainment.

          • Michael Cleveland

            And I’m saying your comparison is apples to oranges. Video games may or may not be an impetus to murder–the jury is still out on that–but there is always a person behind any murder weapon. Guns do not kill. I could just as easily say we should control axes. Chopping wood is no fit hobby for anyone, and no one should have to do it any more, so axes are only good for killing people (see Borden, and Villisca, Iowa, et al.), hence should be banned.

            We live in a country that treats morality as a laughable bother and raises its children accordingly, allowing them to be exposed to things that would have horrified any parent of the 50’s–when, btw, we did not have this problem. We live in a country that has an abysmally shameful level of mental health infrastructure. I could go on and on.

            If someone breaks out the window of your car to steal something, are you going to blame the brick, or the person behind it? Your problem with guns is hugely misguided.

          • Mike Richardson

            For starters, no child should play violent videogames, anymore than they should be allowed to watch an NC-17 movie. I don’t think we are in disagreement on this point. I play such videogames, but I don’t let my kid play them or watch as I play them. Regarding your axe argument, though, I really don’t think that holds up in light of mass killings such as Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub, or the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Seems like it would be rather difficult to accomplish that level of homicide with an axe, which really isn’t intended to kill people (whereas guns are generally poor tools for cutting wood). Perhaps the video game industry needs to form a lobbying arm, then donate enormous amounts of money to politicians. Then we’d hear a lot less talk about blaming videogames for violence, and politicians would speak as passionately about First Amendment protection for videogames as they do about Second Amendment protection for guns.

          • Michael Cleveland

            But what age is universally appropriate? I have a 17-year-old who is in a lock-in mental health facility now–and probably should stay there, but they won’t do that. I wouldn’t allow her to play such games, but I really have no control. In any event, it isn’t whether my axe argument “holds up,” as I think you may have missed the point, which is that it is ludicrously absurd to blame the tool. The NRA performs a necessary function against a liberal element that want guns done away with altogether. If they ever stop fighting, I guarantee that right will be lost, and bear in mind that the number of criminal shooters is smaller than tiny, compared to the number of gun owners

          • Mike Richardson

            I’m truly sorry to hear about your daughter. As a father myself, I can only imagine how I would deal with such a difficult situation. But just as you would not judge your daughter capable of dealing with the violence of some video game entertainment, you likely wouldn’t want her to possess a gun. One might conceivably inspire thoughts of violence in someone suffering from mental illness, but the other could facilitate acts of violence by the individual. Clearly society does have an interest in keeping both violent imagery and the means to commit violence from the young and impressionable, and from those with impaired judgement and self control. Now I don’t know exactly what agenda you believe liberals have, but I for one have no interest in depriving responsible, mentally stable adults of guns for hunting, home protection, or recreation. But I do think there’s reasonable compromise between the NRA’s industry -sponsored opposition to any restrictions on guns, and the abolition of the Second Amendment altogether. I would hope most parents can agree on the need to avoid such extremes, whether we’re discussing First Amendment or Second Amendment rights.

          • Michael Cleveland

            It would be nice if compromise were possible,

    • Michael Cleveland

      Just one note: I also played cowboys and Indians, but there is an enormous difference between the visual impact of pretend shooting of pretend bullets that draw pretend blood (except I don’t remember that even imaginary blood was shed. If you were shot, you just fell down. Nobody was thinking about the blood.) Part of the appeal of video games is their visual reality. Shoot someone there, and the blood spurts and flows. As I noted above, I don’t see game playing as a valid single predictor of violent behavior, but with a certain kind of mentality, it can be a short step from the joy of the virtual kill to a willingness to try the real thing. As also noted above, you cannot un-see a thing once it’s been seen. Understand that I’m not saying that video games are the cause of school shootings, but I will disagree vehemently with the opposite claim that they are universally harmless. You may, indeed, see an immediate decline in youth violence tied to the release of a new game, but no one has done studies of the long-term psychological impact of the marriage of violence and fun.

      • Erik Bosma

        I agree about a long term impact study. Those individuals who are mentally unbalanced enough yet see some relief in violent video games may eventually ‘graduate’ from video games to the real thing. However, take video games out of the equation and I’m sure these individuals would be ‘graduating’ much earlier. Perhaps if we could find studies of average age of violent mentally unbalanced people who also act out that were done before the age of video games we could have something to compare with your long term impact study. We could at least determine if the percentage of people who act out on violence is the same as before video games AND if these people just begin acting out later in life after they have become bored with the games. If that’s the case, we would then have a great tool to catch and hopefully treat these people while they’re still in the violent video game stage.

  • OWilson

    Most societies in the past encouraged their children to play war games, and even provided them with toy weapons.

    Like a cat stalking a ball of wool, some of this behaviour is genetically imprinted. Children’s games like hide and seek, tweak and satisfy the hunter instinct.

    The militant societies that are killing innocents around the world today, start their children very young, and they have the advantage of being able to take advantage of our more “civilized” culture!

    Sometimes that makes us a sitting duck!

    It’s a “civilized” culture indeed that allows a madman to mow down innocent schoolchildren, confess, and then be lawyered up by our society, and become a celbrity, be perpetually interviwed by important people, which is probably what he wanted all along! He’ll get his FDA approved 3 free meals a day, all the drugs he needs, and a maybe a law degree. Tons of fan mail and marrige proposals

    Of, course, the chorus goes, as we stand in tears with our candles in yet one more candlelight vigil, we are so much better than that.

    But who’s actually laughing, and who is always crying?

    I must confess I’m not better that that. A well placed bullet, would be my answer, to him, and those looters, rioters, first responder snipers, cop car burners, and Mom and Pop neighborhood store pillagers!

    Might cut into the Democratic voter base a little, but that’s just me! :)

    • Ty White

      I hope then that you’d also shoot the people who rioted over a football victory. It’s the same policy.

      Nothing psychopathic about that.

      • OWilson

        Nope, if you shot the unredeemable barbarians, the ones that shoot fireman and police who are there to help the innocent citizen, youthfull exhuberance would find another, shall we say, less destrucive outlet.

        Along with stiff fines and long jail sentences, for wantonly destroying public and personal property!

        You need to spend a little time studying the human condition. :)

        • Panamaniak

          I agree with you.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Video games are the only empirically relevant education remaining after social justice warriors removed discrimination based upon demonstrated ability in public schools and universities. Ban them.

  • Michael Cleveland

    Even this writer fails to move beyond over-simplicity. All the players in this controversy want to make it a yes/no, black and white question: they do or they don’t. So, we give kids a desensitizing game that they win by killing people, the more blood and gore, the better. Is it even possible to suggest that active participation in such imagery has no impact (as opposed to never being exposed)? But this is not the only kind of conditioning they receive. Well-balanced individuals integrate the game behavior with more benevolent socialization, and don’t proceed to shoot up the school yard, where less balanced individuals assimilate the experience differently. Bottom line: the effect of violent video games has to be taken as part of a kid’s broader conditioning and mental health, so cannot be used as a single predictor of negative behaviors, but to say they are harmless is to suggest that what has been seen can be unseen.

    • David Koval

      On a broad spectrum; yes, there are other factors that can lead to severe violence. But, I’d say that games, by themselves, do not have a noticeable negative effect on one’s mental state, but a semi-positive one. I say semi-positive, mostly because of the isolation one begins to feel. While that seems bad, all it really makes you do is try to connect with others, hence gaming communities. On the plus side, the brain reacts to an in-game situation much the same way it would in a real situation, and certain situations can induce creative thinking on part of the individual playing, which becomes more useful in real life. But for me, I wouldn’t worry all too much about video games and mental stability, I am more concerned about video games and it’s impact on one’s physicality. People who play games tend to sit down for hours, very close to a big screen, and usually don’t take proper fluid and solid intake (speaking from personal experience here). This can lead to scoliosis, myopia, insomnia, dehydration and starvation. All of which are treatable, but very discomforting and when put altogether, very detrimental to one’s health.

      • Michael Cleveland

        Again, it depends on the individual. Put violent games in the hands of someone who is impressionable or already unstable and the games are not going to contribute to improved stability.

        • Chance

          That’s true of any media, including press coverage of violence. The real question is: why aren’t we trying to identify and treat so-called “impressionable” individuals, through our existing mental health apparatus, because those individuals are at the root of most or all antisocial behavior, regardless of cause.

          • PunkyMonkey

            Because funding for Mental health has been cut to the bone. A caseload of 100 will not allow you to provide intensive therapy these individuals need. Blame Mental Health for shooters…Next cut funding for Mental Health, Family Protective Services, and Addiction…

      • Michael Cleveland

        Since this has come up again, I would add here that all of the physical problems you note also contribute to mental state. A person who has never been exposed to the violence of violent video games necessarily has a different mind set than one who has–for better or worse, but the nature of the medium definitely has the potential to swing the balance away from the better. I submit that as a participant, you cannot offer any but a biased view.

  • David Koval

    As a gamer, I can say that there is nothing wrong with playing them, let alone violent ones. I know it sounds a bit one-sided, especially when coming from a gamer, but it really isn’t. I’ve basically grown up playing games, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy being out in the sun, or reading a book, or going to the beach. In fact, if I have the chance, I’d rather go out than stay home playing games. I never once thought about shooting people when I play games, and I don’t suspect any of my peers to have done so either. The fact that there is little evidence to point at something, most “researchers” decide to pin it on games as a way to get by. And most people believe it, especially parents, who grew up in different times. Violence is a human characteristic, and to pin it on video games would be like saying diabetes causes AIDS. See? There’s no correlation; one’s been around since the dawn of our existence, the other’s just came into our lives a few decades ago. I’d say that a violent person would just show that they do not have as much control over their emotions as a peaceful person. I was a pretty violent kid when I was little, but my parents raised me the way they were raised, and I became a better person for it. This arises an entirely different issue, but one that can be closely related to this so-called “problem”, but best keep that to its own article.

    • David Koval

      I also would like to mention that this article made a very good point, which is that people always want to find something to blame, which is also in our nature. It’s been this way for a very long time, and it’s always been a bit of a nag. But it never turned into such a problem as this, where almost EVERYBODY believed it. Not everybody is an angel, and certainly not every kid. Just because some kid hasn’t finished puberty yet, it doesn’t mean s/he is a good one. If people want something to blame for school shootings and violent outbursts, it should be the kid, not everything else.

      • Michael Cleveland

        Agreed. If you leave your car unlocked and someone steals from it, the fault goes to the criminal who committed the crime. His choice. But you should also read what I wrote below.

  • Mason Poepperling

    To all those who believe that Video Games cause violence: Thats a bit like saying “There is more crime in the summer, more ice cream is sold in the summer, therefore ice cream causes crime.” That not how legitimate research works!

  • PunkyMonkey

    Even Kids who get an inflatable bopi to punch, kick show aggression after it is removed.

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