The science of video gaming.

Is It the Competition or Violence in Action Games?

Perhaps how you play is more important than what you play.

Although plenty of researchers examine video games from multiple angles, it’s safe to say that much of the focus on action video games remains on violent content. Despite decades of research, the result has been unimpressive and the field of video game violence is probably heading into a full blown replication crisis much like other areas of “received wisdom” in social psychology in recent years.

I’ve no doubt that moral crusaders will continue banging the drum of how “bad” action games are for some time. But it’s also worth examining how and why this field came to be both so hysterical and so unimpressive. Part of the reason may have been a stubborn insistence that the moral issue of violent content should be the key avenue of research. In upcoming columns, I’ll explore the idea that our focus on content in the media, in general, hasn’t done much to illuminate the ways in which people interact with media. I’ll start in this column by exploring some of the intriguing work of Paul Adachi, Teena Willoughby and their colleagues at Brock University.

One of the groundbreaking issues they have addressed is the concern that in experiments, video games have not been carefully matched on confounding variables such as pace of action, complexity of controls and, particularly competitiveness. In their initial article on this in Aggression and Violent Behavior they note that this issue of confounding variables is largely endemic in the field. This is fairly straightforward undergraduate research methods…if you allow systematic confounds to slip into your experiments, you don’t really know what caused your outcomes. I’ve certainly seen this when reviewing papers, even in extreme versions in which scholars are trying to compare complex action games like Call of Duty to simplistic puzzle games like Tetris. Sure, one has violent content the other not, but they differ in some many other ways that, even if you do find differences, it’s hard to know why.

In follow up experiments in Psychology of Violence Adachi and Willoughby found that, by varying violent and competitiveness in various video game conditions, it is competitive play, not violent content that increases aggressiveness. This finding is most recently backed up in a longitudinal study of almost 1500 kids in press with The Journal of Youth and Adolescence which found that competitiveness in games predicted later aggressiveness, irrespective of what violent games the kids had played.

These findings bring to mind two issues I think people, both parents and researchers, should be thinking about. First, it seems to me that how people use media may be far more important than what content is in the media. Following tragic shootings much speculation occurs about whether a shooter is “inspired” by violent games, unless they are an older adult in which case the issue is ignored. The implication seems to be that these individuals are empty vessels to be filled and that even if video games were a small component of a criminal event, they were nonetheless an essential component and the event would never have occurred had violent video games not existed. I doubt this very much. We know criminals claim to be inspired by all manner of media from Beatles albums through the Bible. Removing one form of media from existence would probably do little more than send troubled individuals looking for something else with which to replace it. That is to say, I submit that people seek to be inspired…it does not happen to them passively or automatically.

A second issue that occurs to me is, if it is competition that is the key issue and not violence, what makes action video games any different from a myriad of competitive activities we endorse as a society? Might engaging in a debate, playing or watching sports, attending a lively sermon, playing a game of tag, playing Monopoly, trading on the stock market, etc., all increase “aggression” as loosely as broadly as that term is used in social psychology in the same manner that action games do? And, if so, do we really mean to restrict all these activities in the pursuit of some Brave New World utopia? I don’t think that would be a world that would appeal to me.

Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University.


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