Those comic books are filling your head with nonsense! Don’t sit so close to the TV, you’ll ruin your eyes! The internet’s turning us all into zombies! Those lyrics are making kids do crazy things!
Name a media technology, and there’s always someone claiming that it’s harmful to individuals or society.
Video games are are no different.
There’s been a lot of hype about video games and violence, but what does the latest research say about it, and where do we go from here?
First, the controversy over gaming and violence isn’t new. The video game, Death Race, raised concerns in the 1970s (yes, those 1970s, when video games were about as tame as an Archie and Jughead comic). Pundits were saying then what they’re saying now: Acting out violently in games leads to acting out violently in real life.
Not surprisingly, some of the more heated rhetoric about video games has come from advocacy groups, such as Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence (MAVAV), who had this to say back in 2002 about whether video games make people violent:
“Yes. What was once debatable is now a proven fact. Researchers have conclusively proven a relationship between behavioral violence and video game violence.” (emphasis added)
They didn’t cite the specific research they based this claim on, so it’s not possible to evaluate it. This is an unfortunately common misuse of research by advocacy groups to bolster their positions on controversial topics.
To make matters worse, numerous academic studies have reached contradictory conclusions on this issue over the years. For example, in a 2001 review of the literature on video games and aggression (PDF), the researchers concluded that:
“…violent video games increase aggressive behavior in children and young adults. Experimental and nonexperimental studies with males and females in laboratory and ﬁeld settings support this conclusion. Analyses also reveal that exposure to violent video games increases physiological arousal and aggression-related thoughts and feelings. Playing violent video games also decreases prosocial behavior.”
In a second review of the literature from 2007 (PDF), however, other researchers concluded that:
“Once corrected for publication bias, studies of video game violence provided no support for the hypothesis that violent video game playing is associated with higher aggression.”
Pretty frustrating stuff. Confusion in the research leads to less than useful public debate about any topic, especially ones involving emotionally driven topics, like kids and violence.
In this type of environment, politicians, pundits, and advocacy groups can cherry pick research that supports their position (which is possibly what MAVAV did above) and then cite it as scientific fact. It’s hard to make any progress that way.
Fortunately, a 2010 study may be getting closer to the truth of the matter (PDF). Instead of starting from the perspective that video games themselves were either good or bad, the researchers looked at the vulnerabilities of certain people to violent images.
Their argument was that being rated high on one personality trait, such as aggressiveness, after playing a violent video game was misleading. It was more important to look at a range of personality traits and how they interact to affect overall behavior.
“It appears that the vast majority of individuals exposed to VVGs [Violent Video Games] do not become violent in the “real world.” Thus, the questions for researchers, policymakers, and laypersons become “Why do some individuals appear to be affected by VVGs while others are not?” and “Who is most likely to be affected by VVGs?””
In other words, there may simply be people whose personalities are more easily influenced by experiencing video game violence. That doesn’t mean the games are responsible for the violence itself. It means that some people with violent tendencies may be attracted to the violence in video games.
That seems a more reasonable place from which to debate the issue.
The US Supreme Court has also weighed in on this controversy after California attempted to ban the sale of some video games to minors. In their 2011 decision, which struck down California’s ban, one of the Justices wrote:
“Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” (PDF)
Despite this obvious victory for free speech related to video games, the Centers for Disease Control is pushing for yet more research into the links between violence and video games. So, the search for answers goes on.
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