Media Spotlight

A psychological twist on the news.

Can Video Games Cause Violence?

What does a recent Supreme Court ruling mean for psychological research?

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision on the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association case on June 27, 2011, that ruling not only established that video games were covered under the First Amendment but that video game content could not be regulated by governments.    Part of the reason for the court ruling was that psychological research linking violent games and violence was “unpersuasive”.    Though psychological research is often used in the courtroom in issues relating to child safety, the lack of consistent findings connecting video games to violent behaviour in children helped sway the court against regulation.

Moral panics over the potentially damaging effects of media violence on children are hardly new.  Along with Frederic Wertham’s crusade against comic books during the 1950s, similar concerns have been raised over violence in movies, television, and the Internet though the link between media violence and violent behaviour in children has never been reliably demonstrated.

Beginning in 1983 when U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop implicated violent video games as a leading cause of family violence, news stories about video games such as Death Race (allowing players to run over “gremlins”) and Custer’s Revenge (with a naked Custer avoiding arrows to have sex with a Native American woman) have helped reinforce the idea that graphic violence in video games was potentially harmful.  In 1994, the video game industry established the Educational Software Rating Board (ESRB) as a voluntary system where video games could be rated according to violence or other inappropriate material.   Rating video games according to age-appropriate categories was intended to prevent underage children from playing games considered too intense for them.  

But the controversy was hardly settled.  After the Columbine high school massacre in 1999, family members of the shooting victims sued 25 video game companies which they blamed for the deaths.  In particular, the game Doom came under intense scrutiny over reports that the Columbine shooters may have been influenced by the spectacle of shooting various targets to accumulate points.

Influenced by the massacre and the question of whether media violence may have been a cause, Senate Committee Commerce hearings were held in 2000.  During the hearings, Senator Joe Lieberman  (whose campaigning against video games helped create the ESRB rating system) raised the apparent connection between video games and violence  and even suggested that media violence could turn children into killers.   In condemning the ESRB system, Senator John McCain suggested that the rating scheme was “nothing but a smoke screen to provide cover for immoral and unconscionable business practices.” 

At the same time, there was a sharp rise in research studies examining the link between child violence and video games though the results were rarely consistent.  In an excellent overview of video game studies recently published in American Psychologist, author  Christopher J. Ferguson  of Texas A&M International University pointed out that many scholars working in the area of child violence added to the moral panic with studies that were often flawed.     While psychological studies designed to correct for these problems continued to show a link, other studies turned up no relationship at all between video game violence and antisocial behaviour in children.  The debate over video games has led to a serious split between different groups of researchers which was as much about politics as research findings.

Along with handing down a decision on video games and the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has taken a hard stand on the credibility of psychological research in general.    Part of the problem seems to come from the lack of real consensus among researchers and the heated arguments they tend to make defending their own view on whether video games led to violence.    In his review, Christopher  J. Ferguson pointed out some of the main problems that helped influence the Supreme Court decision.  These include:

  • Lack of real agreement over whether a consistent relationship between video game violence and real-life violence
  • Problems over how aggression is actually measured.    Since there are no commonly accepted tests of aggression, researchers often use laboratory measures that may not be valid or reliable enough to test the link between media violence and aggressive behaviour.
  • The possibility of publication bias.   Usually studies with positive results get published in professional journals while negative findings often go unpublished.   Many researchers tend to ignore studies that disprove their own research which can slant their own conclusions over whether a link exists.
  • The problem of small effect sizes.  How large a correlation does there need to be between video game violence and real life aggression?  Almost all meta-analyses agree on a correlation of about  0.15 which, while significant, is really not that large.   Researchers also debate whether an effect size that small is enough to rein in the entire video game industry as a result.

Whatever the status of the research so far, the only clear outcome is that the divide between pro- and anti-video game activists seems as wide as ever and both sides are citing research to support their arguments.   In some cases, they are even looking at the same research studies and coming away with opposite interpretations of the findings. 

So what does all this mean for parents of children wanting to play video games?   And will any real consensus resolve the bitter division?    While Ferguson argues  that scientific debate like this is actually healthy, he also warns against the use of inflammatory statements by professional groups that misrepresent research.   As one example, he referred to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2009 statement which stated that “playing violent video games has been found to account for a 13% to 22% increase in adolescents’ violent behavior; by comparison, smoking tobacco accounts for 14% of the increase in lung cancer.”     Not only are the figures in question exaggerated but the statement also implies a clear cause and effect relationship (which they then equate with the cigarettes causing lung cancer).  

Aside from credibility issues,  there is also the question of sponsorship.  Should studies commissioned by the video game industry be taken at face value?   How about studies put forward by anti-violence  advocate groups which already show a clear bias on the subject?   Many of these groups have a lot of time and money invested in promoting the dangers of video game violence and are hardly likely to be objective, especially if research they sponsor fails to meet their expectations.   Scientists who receive research funding from advocacy groups, no matter where they stand in the debate, often find themselves in an awkward position of becoming advocates rather than impartial researchers.

 All of which comes back to the familiar problem of science being used to promote moral panic, however justified that panic might seem.    As Ferguson points out in his article, “scientists who are exposed to the violent imagery of some games and are subsequently offended may interpret ambiguous data in light of their emotional responses to offensive material”.    This is a problem that often lies at the core of many psychological research studies which are expected to guide public policy on controversial subjects, whether it involves child abuse, the harmful effects of rock music, or in this case, violent video games.

While the issue of whether violent video games are harmful for children is far from settled, every new tragedy that comes to light becomes introduced as evidence in the debate (including the  Newtown massacre in December).   That the latest statistics show youth violence at a 40-year low despite the popularity of video games is something that has to be considered, especially with media psychologists insisting that game violence is directly responsible for shooting rampages (along with psychiatric medication, availability of guns, or whatever other pet cause is being advocated).  

 So where does this leave us?   That psychological research can be used and misused to promote one moral panic after another is hardly a revelation.  Still,  many psychologists have already spoken out over the need for more rigid guidelines in using psychological research as well as avoiding the use of overly broad statements than can damage the credibility of psychological research.   

 As for the question of whether video games are really harmful, the lack of a clear answer after decades of research suggest that the real problem may well lie with our not being able to ask the right questions. 

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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