Violent Video Games and Aggression: Is There Really a Link?

In the aftermath of the Columbine shootings in 1999, families of the victims, understandably distraught and looking for answers, filed a lawsuit against 25 video […]

In the aftermath of the Columbine shootings in 1999, families of the victims, understandably distraught and looking for answers, filed a lawsuit against 25 video game companies. It was violent video games, they said, that turned Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into murderers. In 2012, the National Rifle Association claimed that the video game industry was to blame for the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And just last year, The Telegraph suggested that it was a “video game addiction” that spurred Aaron Alexis to murder 13 people in the Washington Navy Yard.

These are all extreme examples. But the notion that playing violent video games can lead to aggressive behaviour has been entrenched in the public consciousness since the days of Missile Command. So psychologists must have found a pretty strong link between video games and violence, right?

The answer, as is often the case in academia, is “it depends who you ask”. There are a number of social psychologists who argue that they have definitively proven a link between video games and aggression. Among the most vocal of these are Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson, who have both conducted many studies themselves on video games, as well as published an influential meta-analysis on the topic.

Anderson and Bushman’s meta-analysis combined data from two decades of research to see whether, overall, playing violent video games resulted in increased aggression. The research was quiet diverse, looking at various games and using several different measures of aggression (more on these later!), but when effects across all of the studies were combined the researchers found that playing these games did significantly increase aggression. According to Anderson and Bushman, “exposure to violent video games poses a public-health threat to children and youths, including college-age individuals”.

Early research into video games and aggression used games such as Missile Command

Early research into video games and aggression used games such as Missile Command

 

Yet despite this confident language, psychologists are far from reaching a consensus on the issue. There are many who feel that the link between video games and aggression has been drastically overstated, or in fact may not exist at all. Much of their criticism centres on the methods used in the research.

Take, for instance, one of Bushman’s recent papers. His team had participants play either violent or non-violent video games for 20 minutes, and after playing the games participants read unfinished stories which they had to complete. For example, in one story participants read of how a driver crashes into the main character’s car, and so the protagonist gets out and approaches the driver. Participants have to say what happens next. The researchers found that participants who had played violent video games tended to suggest more aggressive completions to the story than those who had played non-violent games.

Do results like this really show that violent video games are actually making people aggressive? At the most, it seems that they demonstrate that people are more likely to imagine more aggressive scenarios, and even then only in the time immediately after playing the game. The conceptual leap from this to actual, physical aggression is enormous. Naturally, the use of these kinds of abstract measures is a main focus of the criticism of this research.

Of course, other measures have also been used. The same study showed that in a computer task, participants in the violent game group would blast an opponent with a louder noise that those in the non-violent group. Others have shown similar effects when participants have to administer electric shocks.  These kinds of measures are still far removed from the kind of long-lasting, real world aggressive behaviours that, researchers claim, the games are causing, but they at least seem a little more valid. So what if we just look at studies examining these behaviours?

Christopher Ferguson, a psychology researcher at Stetson University, Florida, did just this. In 2007 he published a meta-analysis that included only studies which had specifically measured aggressive behaviour, ignoring those which had asked people to complete stories or measured their heart rate – after all, it is aggressive behaviour which everyone is ultimately interested in. He found a very weak correlation between playing violent video games and aggression, such that 2% of the variance in individuals’ aggression could be accounted for by the fact that they had played violent video games. In fact, Anderson and Bushman didn’t find a much stronger correlation than this – in their meta-analysis, still only 4% of the variance in aggression was accounted for by violent video games.

So this might suggest that there is a relationship between violent video games and aggression, albeit a pretty small one. Except Ferguson found evidence that our old friend publication bias had struck again: studies which had failed to find any link between aggression and playing video games simply hadn’t been published. In fact, after using statistical methods to correct for publication bias, Ferguson found that even this tiny correlation had disappeared.

Others have also found that the link between video game violence and aggression has been overstated. In another meta-analysis, John Sherry found that any effect of video games on aggression may be short-lived, and is less powerful than the effect of watching violent TV. Of course, a failure to find a link between video games and aggression does not mean that it doesn’t exist. But it is clear that so far there is very little evidence that video games are the “public-health threat” that some researchers make them out to be.

With their ultra-realistic depictions of violent activities, modern games such as GTA V have been criticised for supposedly encouraging aggressive behaviour

With their ultra-realistic depictions of violent activities, modern games such as GTA V have been criticised for supposedly encouraging aggressive behaviour

 

In the United States it has apparently required the highest federal court to point this out to concerned citizens, a saga retold by Christopher Ferguson. In the US video games, like films, are regulated by a voluntary ratings board rather than by the government. This self-regulatory system largely works: shops adhere to the ratings and console manufacturers won’t allow games to be sold for their device unless they are rated. However, the state of California decided that this protection was not sufficient, and in 2005 passed a law regulating the sale of violent video games because of their perceived negative psychological consequences. A series of court cases followed between the State and the Entertainments Merchants Association, culminating in a 2010 Supreme Court case.

In 2011 the Supreme Court ruled against California.  Their decision was informed largely by the scientific evidence that the State had brought before the court – or rather, by the lack thereof. They noted that– as we have seen –many of the measures of aggression seemed to lack any real-world validity, concluding that the research “do[es] not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively”.

Given the large number of academics who doubt the existence of a link between violent video games and aggression – not to mention the scepticism displayed at the highest level of the American legal system – how has the idea that video games lead to aggressive behaviour been so pervasive? Ferguson puts forward one theory: the issue represents one of the “moral panics” that tend to arise within society in response to new media – be it reading novels in the 1800s or playing video games in the 2000s. Simply put, scientists became swept up in the general concern about video games, while neglecting their duties as scientists. They “unwittingly became involved in promoting unreasonable fear of violent video games, speaking beyond the available data, and allowing the promulgation of extreme claims without the usual scientific caution and skepticism”.

Perhaps, then, there is a greater lesson in all of this about the role of the scientist in society. Replace “violent video games” in the above quote with “the internet”, and it could almost apply to the situation in some academic circles today. Increasingly we hear about the problems of internet addiction  or how the world wide web could be “damaging” our brains. Let’s hope that we can learn from the video games controversy, and approach issues concerning new media in a more measured, scientific way.

Matthew Warren

About Matthew Warren

Matthew is at Balliol College, studying for a DPhil in the Department of Psychiatry, and is a former editor of Bang! magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @mattbwarren