CSO – Today, 65% of American adults and nearly all teenagers play video games. Games look evermore real. They can, and do, show incredibly detailed violence. And since their beginnings, video games have come with an implicit assumption that they’re probably doing something bad to us. 77% of parents believe media violence, including video games, is
Contributing to America’s culture of violence. But what do we actually know about how violent games affect us? Psychologists have been studying this for decades. But right now, the research community includes a small but vocal subsection convinced that the perceived scientific consensus linking violent games to aggression is completely wrong.
Alongside moral panics and conflicting research, huge amounts of money have been made selling video games, violent or otherwise. In 1976, the industry was already making $25 billion annually. In 2018 it made more than $136 billion. So the stakes are high. Depending on what scientists find, there’s a whole lot to be gained, or
Lost. Brad Bushman and Christopher Ferguson are perhaps the best known researchers representing each side of this dispute. They are both psychologists who have spent years researching video games and violence. They use similar methods and do similar experiments. But they’ve wound up on either side of a line drawn clearly in the sand.
So why do these researchers disagree so strongly, and how did we get here? So you can’t look at at anybody without pointing your gun at them. Right. In 1976, video game company Exidy released a game called Death Race. To play it, you put your hands on an actual steering wheel.
Your foot’s on a pedal. You drive around a car and murder anything in your way. You hear the screams of your victims and their gravestones litter the screen. Soon after its release, there were calls to ban it. There was outrage and many were worried about what it was doing to their kids.
OK, so death race did come out in 1976, that’s four years before Pac-Man. Its graphics are primitive and barely recognizable, but the game resulted in what was perhaps the first widespread panic about violence in video games. And while that may seem laughable now, those concerns didn’t go
Anywhere. Do violent video games make for violent kids? Officials say they are responding to complaints from parents that children have skipped school or stolen money to play the games and made a nuisance of themselves. Outrage exploded again in 1992 with the release of games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Mortal Kombat!
Parents are often the first to ask, could this, lead to this? Mortal Kombat featured especially violent deaths and Night Trap showed sexual violence against women. Cold blooded murder is making Mortal Kombat the most popular video game in history. Kids relish their victory and their bloody choice .
Should they pull out their opponents heart or simply rip his head off just to see a spinal cord dangle at a pool of blood? Parents were terrified. Schools panicked. Congress got involved. There was no rating on this game at all when the game was introduced.
Small children bought this at Toys “R” Us and he knows that as well as I do. In 1994, the Interactive Digital Software Association, now called the Entertainment Software Association, founded the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB. The ESRB introduced a rating system similar to the one that had been used
To rate movies for decades. Last March, we promised you our industry would develop a rating system that would put the controls back in the hands of consumers, and especially parents. The system we present to you today redeems on that pledge. While there are absolutely popular nonviolent games, undeniably violent
Games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, PUBG and Fortnight continue to be hugely successful. Epic Games alone, the publishers of Fortnight, made a reported $3 billion in 2018. Huge games like Fortnight or Call of Duty or World of Warcraft are created by organizational behemoths with massive budgets and scores of employees.
According to John Staats, the first level designer ever for World of Warcraft, there’s just too much at stake to be willingly creating something that might be dangerous. If you’ve worked in the gaming industry, you’re also hyper aware of the responsibility that you have because I mean, it’s a class action lawsuit.
It’s a big thing. Games are as hard, they’re hard enough to make as it is. You’re talking hundred million dollar budgets. They don’t risk anything. So if there was really any danger, they’re not dummies, they would definitely be avoiding any potential damage. Because they have shareholders. They answer to their shareholders.
I mean, it’s not just a bunch of nerds. You actually have to have the money guys who are actually really calling the shots. And they’re no dummies either. I don’t see any game companies really taking the time to think about it or
Care about it unless it comes close to affecting their bottom lines. But politicians, concerned parents and the media are thinking about it, and that alone can have real-world consequences. Walmart is announcing it is temporarily removing advertising displays for violent video games following the recent mass shootings.
Recently, when President Trump implicated violent video games in mass shootings, shares of major video game companies fell sharply. We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. So the question is, are violent games actually doing something bad to us?
The internet is full of both people with a vested interest in violent games and conflicting narratives about them. There is zero connection between entertainment and behavior, and that’s been studied over and over and over again and even ruled upon by the
Supreme Court. This was a, maybe a video game to this evil demon. He wanted to be a super soldier for his Call of Duty game. What is causing trouble among America’s youth in schools? Oh, it has to be a video game. Anyone of thought should find that insulting at the face of it.
Video games give you the skill and the will to kill. It is the moral equivalent to putting a military weapon in the hand of every child in America. And it turns out that the conversation happening publicly often has very little in common with what interested psychologists are actually
Researching. It’s a reasonable question, right? You see people, and particularly at risk groups like children, playing these violent games. And it’s pretty reasonable to ask like, well, does that cause them to behave more violently in real life? Psychologists have been trying to get to the bottom of this for decades,
And it’s important to first understand how they go about seeking answers to questions like this in the first place. You can’t measure violent criminal behavior in a laboratory experiment. For example, we can’t give our participants guns and knives and see what they’ll do with them after they play a violent game.
Because of that, when you see headlines about video games and violence, the underlying research was probably actually about aggression. There are a few fundamental types of studies that can be done in these situations: experimental studies, cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies. An experimental study involves a carefully constructed scenario in a controlled environment.
You bring in participants, some of whom are asked to play violent games. Afterwards, you measure their aggressive behavior, which is defined as any behavior intended to harm another person who doesn’t want to be harmed. If you’re studying kids, you might just watch their behavior on the playground afterwards.
If they’re adults, you use aggression proxies, like how long you make someone hold their arm in ice or how long you blast someone with awful headphone noise, or give someone an electric shock. Then there are cross-sectional studies, which just means you take some
Measurements at one point in time and see if they’re correlated. So you could, for example, find people whose favorite games are violent and see if those people are more likely to have a history of aggression. Lastly, there are longitudinal studies, which are just like
Cross-sectional studies, except you take more than one measurement over time. These are the basic tools researchers have at their disposal, not just for studying video games, but for the majority of psychology as a whole. According to many researchers, the evidence is clear: there is a connection between playing violent video games and aggression.
First, they can make us more aggressive. Second, they can make us more numb to the pain and suffering of others. And third, they can make us more afraid of becoming victims of violence ourselves. One of Bushman’s most recent studies looked at how playing
Violent games might affect what kids do if they find a gun. They used an actual handgun that had been disabled. We had them play the video game Minecraft. We had a gun version where they could kill monsters with a gun.
We had a sword version where they could kill monsters with a sword, or we had a nonviolent condition with no weapons and no monsters. We found the largest effects for the condition with the guns. Playing a violent game with swords also made children engage in more dangerous behavior around guns.
The kids who played the violent version of the game were more likely to touch the gun, pull the trigger, and point it at themselves and others. To a smaller but very vocal group of researchers, the evidence points in an entirely different direction.
People really wanted this to be true and there really was this kind of like set group of scholars that sort of invested their lives in this. We don’t generally find that playing more action-oriented games is predictive of violence or aggression later in life.
It seems to be the knowledge of the fictional nature of what people are engaged with seems to blunt to any kind of learning experience from that. If there is a divergence between different groups of studies, why would that be? And I think, you know, my answer would be that unlike a lot of
Studies that existed before, I tried to use standardized well, clinically validated measures for a lot of my studies. And I started embracing preregistration, you know, earlier than a lot of other people did. You know, and I’m trying to do it without sounding like
Defensive. I don’t in any way mean to say that my stuff like, you know, perfect or, you know, beyond any kind of critique. It isn’t. You don’t win science by consensus, actually, you know, even if there was a consensus. Nonetheless, scientific consensus is a powerful tool.
And for researchers, one way to gauge the consensus on any particular topic is through meta-analyses, studies that combine the results of many individual studies into one larger analysis. In 2015, the American Psychological Association released one such meta-analysis after forming a task force of 10 experts chosen specifically
For both their areas of expertise and because they didn’t have a vested interest in video game research. It was an attempt at an objective review of the most recent research on video games and violence at that time. Mark Appelbaum, professor emeritus at UC San Diego, chaired that task
Force. I’m fundamentally an applied statistician, methodologist. I have been on a number of APA task forces before, women’s mental health and abortion, a bunch of these. It’s not unusual for those of us who are more on the methodological side to be asked. And I got a call from someone at the American Psychological
Association and they said, do you know anything about what’s going on in video games? In the field, not the content. And I said, not much. And they said, good. The task force did its work, and here’s what they concluded. Does playing these games where there is this violent content, does it seem
To have some impact? Yeah, it seemed pretty consistent, study after study, that you did find things that happened in this sort of behavioral aggression domain. And this is with regard to aggression, not with regard to violence. And that’s the main takeaway from the report.
The APA task force says if we look at all the way psychologists know how to measure aggression, playing violent video games seems to be having an effect on people. But they did not conclude that playing video games makes you violent or commit crime.
And that lines up with what most other researchers in the field are finding. I’ve been studying the effect of violent video games for 10 years now. I can tell you that there is a causal link between playing a violent video game and behavior. Simulated violence in video games may influence a player’s thoughts,
Feelings and physical arousal, affecting the individual’s interpretation of other behavior and then increase our own aggressive behavior. In violent video games, there’s definitely this triangulation where you get the same pattern of results for laboratory experiments, cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies. The magnitude of the effect is not especially small or especially large.
It’s about the same size effect that you get for most variables in social science studies. So exposure to violent video games, in this case, is not the only risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior, but it’s not a trivial risk factor either.
The majority of published studies on the effects of violent video games do show some kind of effect on the player. Depending on the study, the findings could be correlational, demonstrating a connection but not attributing cause, or causal, suggesting that the game actually caused the effect.
Christopher Ferguson and others take issue and disagree with the APA, Bushman, and the psychology community’s perceived consensus that there’s a link between violent games and aggression. They cite conflicts of interest, misguided research methods, and things like publication bias, the idea that scientific journals are biased in
Which studies they decide to publish, and the replication crisis, the idea that some established research is unable to be later replicated. At this point, you really can look at a number of other research groups and I’d say there’s maybe about, maybe ten to a dozen of these
Preregistered studies and almost, maybe, only one of them I can think of found evidence for any kind of, you know, effects, and that one was a correlational effect. Video games are a little bit different from more passive forms of media, such as watching television or watching a movie or a video.
They’re directly tied or linked to the violent character. They directly reward violent behavior. And we know that reward is a very powerful motivator of human behavior. For years, people have tried to argue that the interactivity of games makes them remarkably different from, say, watching television or reading
A book. But we don’t really have a lot of evidence to suggest that games are super different from other forms of media for the most part, in terms of having more of an impact on people than television or books or other forms of media.
Ferguson’s position is perhaps best summed up by this excerpt from his 2017 book Moral Combat, co-authored with Patrick Markey. Quote, “Within the world of video game research, a David and Goliath battle is underway. The Goliaths are a well-organized, politically connected, and well funded
Group of senior scholars who have been linking violent video games to horrific acts of real-world brutality for over thirty years. These anti–video game giants are being challenged by a group of younger, progame researchers, many of whom grew up surrounded by Atari, Nintendo, and PlayStation systems.
Theirs is an epic struggle for truth as they attempt to challenge the much more powerful anti–video game empire.” But ultimately, the arguments happening here are about statistics, research methods and personal motivations, all of which don’t especially matter to many people reading headlines.
If two researchers publish a violent video game study, one of those researchers finds that exposure to violent media increases aggressive behavior, the other researcher finds that exposure to violent media has no effect on aggressive behavior, the mass media will definitely publicize the latter. It will get a lot more media attention.
It’s often suggested that since violent crime, gun deaths and cases of bullying are decreasing, or that because there’s much less violent crime in Japan or South Korea, where games are also widespread, that it proves there’s no connection between violence and video games.
But violent crime could decrease while video games are at the same time making people more aggressive. Aggression doesn’t necessarily mean violence, and it doesn’t mean crime. But it’s true that publication bias exists. It’s true that there is a replication crisis in psychology.
It’s true that in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the research presented to them did not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively. For the Entertainment Software Association, the lobbying group representing the video game industry, that Supreme Court ruling says
A lot. From our perspective, this issue has been debated and resolved by the Supreme Court, which is why you have seen very few attempts to regulate the sale of video games since that decision. It’s a very powerful reminder that the reason we have a First Amendment
And free speech and that we have the ability to express ourselves, particularly through video games, is because we’re in a country that allows for the ability for people to choose what they want to hear and what they want to say and how they connect.
From the beginning, video game companies have been accused of doing terrible things to those who play their games and those accusations often didn’t have much basis in fact. So it’s not surprising that game companies and gamers themselves might be defensive and quick to reject researchers who suggest a connection with
Aggression. The fact remains that there is an abundance of research suggesting a link between violent video games and aggression. But you can take that seriously without panicking. Many things contribute to someone’s tendency towards aggression, like watching sports, your socioeconomic status, or your gender.
There’s research suggesting kids who play violent games may be affected negatively, but there is no research suggesting playing violent video games will make someone a school shooter. It is easier to look at a mass shooting as many people have, many politicians have, and say, hey, the fault for this is video games, violent
Video games. And so people have tended to look at, kind of, the research and the facts and the games themselves with that preconceived notion in mind. Similarly to how if you’re a big video game fan, you’re probably looking at games and saying, oh, of course these games cannot have any
Effect on my mental state or cannot make me more aggressive or anything like that. I certainly think they’re like ethical questions of like, is this game glamorizing the military? Is this game a fetishization of war in a way that makes people feel uncomfortable? And those are the ethical questions that I think people
Have to wrestle with a lot in the video games world. At the same time, there’s research suggesting playing games can be in other ways beneficial, and that collaborative games might counteract some of the negative effects of violence in games. It’s a nuanced, ongoing scientific debate.
So, don’t panic, video games are not turning you or your kids into monsters. But they’re probably doing something.
Today, 65% of American adults and nearly all teenagers play video games. In 2018, the industry made more than $136 billion. Games look more real than ever, showing incredibly detailed violence. What do we actually know about how violent games affect us? Psychologists have been studying this for decades, but some are convinced that those who link violent games to aggression are completely wrong. Watch the video to find out why researchers disagree so strongly, and how we got here.
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The Debate Behind Video Game Violence
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