There’s been much ado about video games in the news recently. In the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting, President Trump even called for a meeting between lobbyists and lawmakers to revisit the interplay between video games and real world violence. Like many, you may have been hoping the politicization of violent games was a thing of the past, something more reminiscent of the 90s or early-to-mid 2000s. Unfortunately, the headlines tell a different story. Even so, this isn’t the 90s anymore. The kids whose parents wanted to protect them from Mortal Kombat are grown-ups now, and they are not having it. Rather than mass concern for what video games are teaching young people, we are seeing much more condemnation cast at politicians who have blamed violent media for actual violence, ostensibly to deflect blame away from gun availability.
While much of the coverage of these recent accusations against violent media does cite research, it often amounts to a reference to only a few studies which have been selected to fit a particular narrative. Citing research is well and good, but in the midst of a body of scholarship filled with as much controversy as video game research has historically seen, finding research to support whatever ideas you already have about video games is easy. In this sense, there is often little difference between those wishing to implicate or vindicate video games. So, in light of these conversations, it might be helpful to explore what the wider academic community has discovered about violent video games and how these findings may be interpreted.. . . we don’t yet know for certain whether or how violent media effects those who use it.
The current state of affairs
The most helpful introduction I have found to the current state of academic opinion, thematically titled A Plea For Caution, was written by Ryan C. W. Hall et al and published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in August of 2011 in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision on Brown vs EMA. The article makes a modest claim: we don’t yet know for certain whether or how violent media effects those who use it. The academic research is split between scholars who believe that the link between violent content in games and antisocial (hostile) states of mind has been conclusively demonstrated, and those whose research has shown no such link. Because the academic community has not reached a consensus, argues Hall et al, any attempt to regulate the purchasing of video games (beyond what the gaming industry does on its own) should be undertaken with a great deal of caution. Subsequent responses (here, here, and here), published in August of the same year, came after the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the Entertainment Merchants Association.
The first response (linked above) from a group of six scholars in support of such a causal link is, if anything, a clear demonstration of Hall et al’s characterization. Titled, “A Plea for Concern,” Murray et al’s response contains many more words expressing outrage that anyone would question their findings than providing answers to those questions. It smacks of moral crusade.
A history of research on video game violence
Murray’s zeal shouldn’t surprise us given the stakes. Before 1999, research into violent video games was sparse. After various media outlets suggested that the Columbine shooters’ interest in Doom may have contributed to their decision to end fifteen lives, research into violent video games exploded, increasing more than 1000% in the ensuing years. That research, being motivated largely by efforts to prevent further violence, had predictable results.
It was claimed that the effects of smoking on the development of lung cancer was only “slightly larger than” that which violent games had on aggression, that media violence in general could explain as much as 30% of total violent crime, and that the societal risks associated with violent games were comparable to other significant criminological risk factors.
Researchers’ desires to warn the public of the potential dangers of video games culminated in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2005 Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media. Intended to summarize the research to date, the APA’s resolution affirmed, with a great deal of certainty, a causal link between violent video games and aggression. This despite contemporaneous findings that violent games had little impact on aggression, no impact on aggression, and findings from the CIA that only 12% of perpetrators of mass shootings occurring before 2005 had any interest in video games at all, none of these findings seemed to have been considered by the APA’s task force.. . . habitual players of violent games show no less ability to differentiate between real and virtual violence.
It is important to realize that the APA operates in terms of advocacy as much as in terms of scholarship. They play an important role in magnifying the scientific community’s voice in matters of public interest. Problems arise, however, when the lines between advocacy and good science begin to blur, and they become incentivised to overstate a problem—unconsciously—in order to sell a solution.
But it is not as though truly independent reviews of the evidence do not exist. Sweden, Australia, the UK, and the US House of Representatives all have conducted reviews of the research, all noting a great deal of inconsistency in scholastic opinion as well as a litany of procedural errors attending most positive results.
When the APA formed a new task force in 2013 to reconsider the body of evidence concerning the alleged causal link between violent video games and aggression, an open letter was sent to the committee, signed by 238 psychologists, summarizing many of the problems with prior research and warning against drawing strong conclusions from what was a relatively weak body of evidence. Similarly, a 2014 overview of methods used in such studies showed that different researchers are able to analyze the same set of data to produce whatever outcomes they want.
In spite of these problems, the APA’s second policy statement, adopted in 2015, contained similar conclusions to the first, and the academic community remains divided. Research, however, has started to become more consistent. Studies increasingly show that viewers of violent television do not experience desensitization to actual violence, and that habitual players of violent games show no less ability to differentiate between real and virtual violence.
Most notably, a 2015 analysis of crime statistics and the release of particularly popular violent video games seems to have laid to rest any notion that the effects of violent video games include a substantial increase in violent crime: when sales in violent media have shot up, violent crime rates have sunk dramatically.
Video games and aggression
Now, a word of caution: to conclude from this that video games do not play a causal role in aggressive or even violent behavior on an individual level would be to commit an ecological fallacy. That video games do not predominantly lead to greater levels of detectable violence at an aggregate level does not mean that they don’t lead to aggressive behavior. I can’t promise that going bot lane in League of Legends with Twitch for the second time ever with a team that isn’t coordinated and with tanks who don’t protect their ADC won’t send you into a blind rage owing to their incompetence. I also can’t promise that you won’t make the questionable decision to cool off with an ARAM and end up throwing a left hook at the mini-fridge by your desk, fracturing your hand, but I wouldn’t know anything about that (Me. It was me). We all need to be more cognizant of our behavior when playing games and its important to recognize that games often provide sufficient tension for the worst of us to come out. But what this data seems to provide is adequate falsification for the hypothesis that video games represent an imminent health risk to the population in general.
All the same, the consistency with which researchers come to divergent conclusions may not only indicate that other variables are responsible for the perceived link. While the research might not bear out a consistent connection between violent content and aggression per se, it is worth investigating what other aspects of gameplay could have the effects on aggression that have sometimes been detected. Luckily for us, a few scholars have recently sought to fill this gap in the research.
Other Factors Related to Aggression
One study, conducted by Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, represents an attempt to understand the player’s sense of competitiveness. When the effects of competitiveness were observed and controlled for, the effects of violent content on aggression disappeared. Similar results were found by Andrew Przybylski, who investigated frustration and in-game obstacles to player competency, finding that effects of these factors on aggression occur independent of a game’s violent content. That variables like competitiveness and frustration have only recently received attention from researchers could explain the inconsistent findings of aggression-related studies, since violent games tend to be both more competitive and more complex than their non-violent counterparts.. . . finding research to support whatever ideas you already have about video games is easy. In this sense, there is often little difference between those wishing to implicate or vindicate video games.
One other potential avenue into an understanding of gaming-related aggression, specifically in online games, closely relates to the psychology of road rage. The same phenomenon responsible for your unpleasant feelings when someone cuts you off could play as much a role in putting you on tilt when you get spawn-sniped. Many of the conditions which lead to aggression behind the wheel of a car—anonymity, a limited ability to communicate, being in a group setting with diffused responsibility, all thrown together with a dash of frustration—are very similar to the sort of experiences present in many competitive online games.
So in review, no, video games are not likely a meaningful contributor to violent crime, and politicians who suggest that they are face rightful criticism. I hope that it can be seen, however, that dismissing disparate opinions doesn’t often lead to the truth by any means other than by accident. In that spirit, let me leave you with this: Do not take my word for it. Check my sources. Do your own research. Because very often, the difference between knowing and not knowing is making an honest effort.