Aug 06 2019

Video Game Violence

Recent mass shootings have once again fueled discussion about the role of video game violence (VGV) and aggressive behavior. This is an enduring controversy, which is a real scientific controversy (not just a political one) because the research is highly complex.

Part of that complexity is that there is just one question, does VGV cause aggressive behavior – there are many subquestions, and many ways to measure outcomes. Research can focus on whether or not VGV is correlated with aggressive attitudes, aggressive behavior, or with diminished prosocial attitudes or behavior, or empathy towards the victims of violence, or normalizing aggressive or violent behavior. If there is a correlation, then research needs to tease apart what is cause and what is effect. Researchers also have to decide how to measure all of these things, and to consider demographic variables as well as duration and intensity of exposure and duration of any potential effects. Finally there is the issue of confounding factors, always an issue with psychological research – how do we establish the true lines of cause and effect.

Right now there appears to be two basic schools of thought. Anderson and colleagues champion the view that there is strong evidence for not only a correlation between VGV and aggressive behavior, experimental studies have shown that VGV causes aggressive ideation and behavior, and reduces empathy and prosocial behavior. A 2018 meta-analysis shows that these correlations are indeed strong, and exist across experimental and observational studies. These effects are greatest for males and for whites, less so for Asians, and not significant for Hispanics.

The other school is championed by Ferguson and others, who argue that these results are spurious and due to poor research designs. Specifically he argues that the effects are inflated by including measures of aggression that are too mild, and not ultimately meaningful. There is only an effect if you include things like aggressive language, but not if you restrict the definition of aggressive behavior to actual violence. Further, he argues, that confounding factors are not adequately controlled for, and when you do, the effect disappears.

To support this position Ferguson has published a 2019 longitudinal study in which he tried to correct what he perceives as the deficiencies in the methodology of other research:

In the current article, a large sample of 3034 youth (72.8% male Mage = 11.2) in Singapore were assessed for links between aggressive game play and seven aggression or prosocial outcomes 2 years later. Theoretically relevant controls for prior aggression, poor impulse control, gender and family involvement were used. Effect sizes were compared to six nonsense outcomes specifically chosen to be theoretically unrelated to aggressive game play. The use of nonsense outcomes allows for a comparison of effect sizes between theoretically relevant and irrelevant outcomes, to help assess whether any statistically significant outcomes may be spurious in large datasets. Preregistration was employed to reduce questionable researcher practices. Results indicate that aggressive video games were unrelated to any of the outcomes using the study criteria for significance. It would take 27 h/day of M-rated game play to produce clinically noticeable changes in aggression. Effect sizes for aggression/prosocial outcomes were little different than for nonsense outcomes.

This outcome supports his contention that if you include proper controls and proper measures, the link between VGV and aggression disappears. Still, the study needs to be independently replicated, and use different demographics.

So far neither side has managed to convince the other, and the debate rages on. The American Psychological Association up together a task force to review the controversy, and their conclusion puts them right in the middle:

The size of the effects was similar to that in prior meta-analyses, suggesting a stable result. Our task force concluded that violent video game use is a risk factor for adverse outcomes, but found insufficient studies to examine any potential link between violent video game use and delinquency or criminal behavior.

In other words, both sides are sort-of correct – there is a correlation with milder measures, but not established with real-world outcomes like actual delinquency or criminal behavior.

Meanwhile, other research has exposed some further nuances to this complex phenomenon. A 2018 study found that being socially excluded increased preference for violent video games, which in turn increased aggression toward the excluders. This suggests a possible feedback loop between social exclusion and VGV. Social exclusion has already been identified as a serious problem contributing to violence, and even mass shootings specifically. It’s almost a cliche that mass shooters are described as being loners.

Other studies look at moderating effects, such as a strong family environment.  For kids growing up in a stable environment with moral structure, VGV seems to have little or no effect.

This is more of a side issue, but there is also evidence that VGV with guns increases risky behavior of children around actual guns. This is more about safety than violence or aggression. Children may simply be more curious about guns and comfortable playing with them if they have already done so in video games. This is a separate gun safety issue.

So how do we make sense of all this complexity? What is the bottom line in terms of public policy? First, I think we need to do more research, which does seem to be the only consensus among researchers. We need consensus studies – designed by both sides in the debate, that everyone feels should yield reliable results. The problem, however, is that video games are a moving target. By the time such research is done, perhaps virtual reality (VR) games will become dominant, and then we won’t know if the prior research applies.

Meanwhile, I think what we can conclude from all the reviews of all the studies is that there is an association between VGV and some measures of aggression, but this association decreases as the type of aggression gets more serious. There is no evidence at this time that VGV makes it more likely for someone to commit actual physical aggression, criminal behavior, or mass shootings (the latter being the specific context in which it is often raised).

Further, any actual effects of VGV are mitigated by other social factors. Perhaps it may contribute to actual violence if it is part of a toxic stew of isolation, extremism, lack of family support, and even preexisting cognitive or emotional disability. But then, those other variables alone are a risk with the introduction of VGV, but the VGV may make it worse.

In terms of regulating video games, there is already a rating system giving parents information about the violence and maturity of the content in the games. But then again – if you have the kind of parents that will look at the ratings of the games they allow you to play, you are probably not someone at risk from a negative effect from VGV. The kids we have to worry about probably don’t have a parent looking over their shoulder.

I don’t think banning such games is plausible (not with the internet and open-source gaming), and this also seems like a massively draconian measure for a questionable phenomenon.

In the end it is most important to consider all the social variables that contribute to actual violent behavior. We need a greater support infrastructure to identify and intervene with children and young adults who are at high risk for violence. We already know the profile. VGV may be one small piece of this profile, but it is clearly not the most important, and we still don’t really know if it is even significant. Meanwhile the other factors clearly are.

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