Effects of violent video games: Standing up for the actual research findings

Do violent videogames contribute to violence?

In 2005, the American Psychological Association, a very influential organization representing psychology researchers, released a report saying that research has consistently found a relationship between violent games and violent thoughts and behavior. However, eight years later, scholars are claiming that this statement simply isn’t true.

As scholars James Ivory and Malte Elson write in the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 200 social scientists (including myself) who study games in the fields of psychology and communication among others, signed a statement urging the American Psychological Association to repeal the 2005 report. One of the things that the statement points out is that if violent games are actually causing violent behavior, why has there been a drop in youth violence statistics over the past 40 years?

Ivory and Elson write that the evidence is mixed and that certain “effects” of violent games seen in laboratory experiments may not translate to real life behaviors:

“There is a lot of cleverly designed research exploring potential effects of violent games on laboratory outcomes—such as whether a person completes an unfinished story with an aggressive ending or how much hot sauce a subject chooses to give a stranger to eat—that is only abstractly related to truly antisocial aggression. There are also large-scale surveys examining correlations between respondents’ game use and their reports of delinquency and misbehavior. Some studies find such relationships; some do not. Over the years, the latter have become more common in the growing body of research. Most relevant to social concerns, little or no evidence exists to show that violent video games can be identified as a unique contributor to serious violent crime.”

cnnSimilarly, in a CNN interview, Patrick Markey, a professor at Villanova who studies violent video games, also emphasized caution of interpreting results of scientific studies out of proportion. He is referring to the fact that most studies on violent game effects are conducted in confined lab conditions.

For example, let’s say a study tried to test the effects of violent game by having a participant play a game and then asking them to do some kind of word completion test. If the study found that people who played the violent game were more likely to complete the words with more negative than positive words, the study shows that violent games have an effect on people’s aggressive thoughts. However, whether or not this will lead to actual aggressive behavior, especially extreme behaviors such as mass shootings, is questionable, since it wasn’t actually examined in the study. However, in the past, many of these studies were misinterpreted- or interpreted beyond the scope of what the study actually found.

For those researchers who do not have an “agenda” it is really important that our findings are not blown out of proportion. Certainly we could speculate about the broader implications of our results, but implications are hypothetical. I personally think that the statement for the repeal of the APA 2005 report on violent videogames represents more than just trying to clarifying media effects. Much of the research on media effects has been done in labs, and I think it is very brave that the scholars who do that kind of research are acknowledging the fact the huge limitation that we really don’t know how these experiments translate outside of the lab. I also think it is important for people who interpret this kind of scholarship understands that well-designed lab studies, unless they are on a large scale (such as some of the experiments that Facebook does on its unknowing users), have low external validity, which is why it is important to use different methods, such as surveys, interviews, and longitudinal studies, to truly get to the core of the question of whether or not games really cause violence. I would also love to see more sociologists get involved in this research question, because contextual factors, such as family environment, social norms, etc. may be moderating factors that have been studied less just because it’s easier and sexier to say that media is to blame. How people play may also be something that moderates outcomes; for example, my colleague and I found that habitual players are less likely to have negative outcomes than compulsive players.

(Cross-posted on Play as Life)

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