Studying Violence in Video Games

Give it to me straight, Doc.

Mike Whiteby Mike White

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The idea that violence in media makes people more violent is nothing new. Video games are just the newest form of entertainment next to TV, movies, books, comics and music. Society has become more accepting and accustomed to violent scenes in all of these mediums. The jury is still out on studies done involving those other forms. What is it that makes anyone think video games will show a definitive answer to the same old question?

Thankfully, even the harshest critics of video games haven’t had a huge effect on the industry. Fredric Wertham published the findings from his controversial study on comic books in the 1950s that caused a wave of sensationalism, a series of congressional hearings, and all but crippled the comic book industry.

kids_gamingI have a personal bias when it comes to this subject. Video games aren’t just a hobby, they’re also a potential source of income for me. Of course I wouldn’t want conclusive evidence linking violent video games to increased aggression in the people playing them.

This all stems from an article that was sent to me about video games being linked to aggressive behavior. The piece details a study which indicates that participants, having recently played a violent video game (Call of Duty, Hitman, Killzone, and Grand Theft Auto) for 25 minutes, displayed desensitization to violence and heightened aggression.

When asked about the study and the related CBS News post, Rosanna Guadango, PhD. and Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama (Roll Tide!) had this to say:

"While the study was interesting, I felt both the news article and the journal article itself left out an important control group: an aggressive game that is framed as a cooperative behavior (i.e., by playing with a partner rather than an opponent). My own research (e.g., Ewoldsen, Eno, Okdie, Guadagno, DeCoster, & Velez, in press; Ewell, Guadagno, Stewart, & Teichmiller, in prep) indicates two important and understudied factors on the violence and video game debate: 1) context matters – people playing violent video games with friends do not show increases in aggression and engage in cooperative behavior; 2) immersion matters – our most recent data indicate that immersion mediates the relation between video games and aggression.”

She continues by explaining that a recent study at Harvard Medical School found that playing video games amongst young adults is now considered typical behavior. Consequently, it is a sign of potential socialization problems if you do not play video games.

I would never say that prolonged exposure to violence wouldn’t make someone prone to committing violent acts themselves. And I don’t think I’m more of an expert on the subject than a professor who has studied the exact things we’re talking about for more than 40 years. Then again, I also wouldn’t cite myself 8 out of 10 times in an article titled “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions,” written for the American Psychological Association’s Science Directorate.

Dr. Anderson wrote this list of topics that pertains to studies he and his colleagues published, and uses their own data to defend their key points. Many of the “facts” rely on experimental studies with no examples.

He also writes at the end of his paper: “Several major gaps remain in the violent video game literature. One especially large gap is the lack of longitudinal studies testing the link between habitual violent video game exposure and later aggression, while controlling for earlier levels of aggression and other risk factors.”

violent_kid_gamesIn essence, most of the studies tied to video games are done so in short term models. Along the same lines, I’d imagine the variables to consider for possible influences on a participant that would affect their levels of aggression or predisposition to violence are many and varied, and hard to control for.

I’m much more inclined to agree with the work of Dr. Henry Jenkins. In his essay, “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked,” you can find contrasting arguments to those made by Dr. Anderson. Mainly, Jenkins claims that distinguishing context is incredibly important and can often be lacking in media effects studies.

Where both Jenkins, Anderson and many others agree, is that video games are much better teaching tools than video and music alone. In video games, the player is an active participant in exercises based on achievement and reward. Where one side claims this is incredibly dangerous, another finds hope for humanity.

In 2010, Dr. Jane McGonigal made a thought provoking pitch at a TED conference. She wants all of us to play more video games. Her talk, called “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” is quite inspirational. She believes that we feel more productive and successful in online gaming environments than we do in our ordinary lives. If we could tap into the enthusiasm and drive for success in virtual worlds and apply them to the real one, then there’s no obstacle we couldn’t collectively overcome.

So what does this all mean? Have video games finally “arrived”? What else can it mean when highly educated adults devote their lives to perpetuating two opposing arguments for and against you? So far, all the attention has benefited the industry. I sincerely hope the momentum doesn’t slow down in our favor.