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Monday, May 17, 2010

Read This Or I'll Punch You: Media and Societal Hype vs Violent Video Games

"It was almost frightening, the reaction... from teenage boys"

"a threat to the moral well being"

"fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people"


"definite danger to the security of the United States"

Reactions to video games considered violent? No, these are quotes from things said about Elvis Presely, and "rock and roll" music only a few decades ago. How quaint, and how ridiculous the hype and overreaction seem to us now.

The same kinds of overreaction and hype have been seen from society at large and "experts" before: Television, violent movies, comic books, "professional" wrestling to name a few.

The current poster child of the extremists these days seems to be "violent" video games, that is, video games that graphically portray violence, gore, criminal behavior, or other material considered by some to be "provocative" or otherwise objectionable. Opinion and studies have attempted to link such games to actual aggression and addiction by the players.

In this blog entry, I'm going to argue that these opinions and "studies" do not hold water.

According to statistics reported by the Entertainment Software Association 68% of US households play video games, but only about a quarter of video game players are under  the age of 18: the majority of players are adults, which in fact represent the fastest growing demographic of players at around 35%  of U.S. households. In fact, the average age of players is 35, and the most frequent game purchaser is one 39 years old. An amazing fact to this author is that by 2009, 25% of video game players were over 50 years old - we might have to add a key for "walker" in addition to the sprint key...hardly children, I think you'll agree.

In addition, 92% of the players under 18 (children) report that their parents are present when the purchase or rental of video games are made, and nearly two-thirds of parents believe video games are a positive part of their children's lives.

And yet, studies such as "Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature" by Anderson, "Aggression and psychopathology in adolescents with a preference for violent electronic games"  by Funk et al., and "Violent video games: The newest media violence hazard" by Gentile all claim to show links between the playing of violent video games and actual aggressive and violent behavior by the players.

Is there such a link? As in any kind of investigative science such as this, there will be differing views. I believe a careful examination of reports such as those listed and a comparison with those holding opposing views must lead one to the conclusion that reports linking video game violence to actual violence suffer from poor methodologies, ignoring negative results, failing to cite academic research with differing views, and improper use of meta-analytical techniques. Craig A. Anderson, author of one of the more comprehensive papers supporting the hypothesis, and a witness before the U.S. Senate on the issue, seems to be a particularly egregious offender toward scientific accuracy and journalistic integrity.

Major studies by groups such as The Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health, The Journal of Adolescent Health, and The British Medical Journal have shown no significant link between video games and actual player violence. As is made clear in these studies, the old adage "correlation does not imply causation" holds true here, as it should in any honest scientific study. It appears to the author that most if not all of the authors of reports supporting the hypothesis have fallen into the logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc: "After this, therefore because of this". The mistake of this is in coming to a conclusion like these authors without considering confounding factors that could rule out any actual connection or causality. Correlations prove very little, if anything, other than a correlation exists. Is it more likely that a violent game begets violence, or that violent children prefer violent games?

Constructing a scientifically valid test of the hypothesis that violent video game play begets actual violence may be nearly impossible: The very definition of "aggression" is difficult to measure objectively. Some studies done with college students in an attempt to measure aggression objectively by allowing players to blast their "opponents" with noise bursts as "punishment" are flawed for example because of the very fact that  it is viewed by the participants as a game. There is no real "punishment", the noise bursts cannot cause any real harm. There is little if any remorse in punishing your opponent if they punish you.

In addition, an accurate definition of "violence" in video games themselves is hard to come by. Is the Madden football series really violent, as some studies state, considering the societal acceptance of the real game of football, where nearly 23 deaths per year are reported on average. Is the children's game Kirby violent? After all, the protagonist swallows their enemies whole, absorbing all of their powers.

I agree wholeheartedly with Nathaniel Edwards in his blogcritics posting: "No matter what a study's results show, the media can be counted on to warp it enough to make it interesting. Typically, this means that headlines claim a greater link between violent media and aggression. There are few details in the actual news stories, and instead there are lots of sweeping claims which don't allow the reader to interpret anything."

There can be no doubt that tragedies such as The Columbine High School massacre and The Virginia Tech massacre are calamities beyond the imaginations of most of us. Expressions of condolences to the victims and their families and friends seem hollow, so horrible were the events. Nonetheless, the immediate links to violent video games made by the media and "experts" were scientifically unfounded.

A particularly bright light of reason and scientific integrity is Christopher J. Ferguson of the Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice department at Texas A&M International University. Professor Ferguson has done extensive research on violent behavior, and published landmark papers specifically covering the aspect from a video game play standpoint, along with various lay articles on the subject.

In his paper titled "The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Relationship or Moral Panic?", Ferguson states "Some scholars have attempted to draw links between laboratory and correlational research on video game playing and school shooting incidents. This paper argues that such claims are faulty and fail to acknowledge the significant methodological and constructional divides between existing video game research and acts of serious aggression and violence. It is concluded that no significant relationship between violent video game exposure and school shooting incidents has been demonstrated in the existing scientific literature, and that data from real world violence call such a link into question." 

In the paper shows how the conclusions reached by the research he studied that support the hypothesis of violent video gaming being causative of real violence are faulty. A most interesting fact revealed in the paper is that while video game play has grown explosively among children and adults, violent crime over the same period has decreased significantly, both for police arrest data and crime victimization data in the U.S., with similar results found in studies from Canada, Australia, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. The interested reader is referred to the link for the paper for details of Ferguson's study.

A more approachable article for the lay reader was published by Ferguson in the September/October 2009 issue of Skeptical Enquirer titled "Violent Video Games: Dogma, Fear, and PseudoscienceIn this article, Ferguson reviews and distills research on both sides of the argument, reaching the same conclusion as found in his academic research and publications: There is no proven link between the playing of violent video games and actual violence by the players of such games, and current research and studies that claim otherwise seem to suffer from severe methodological and other issues that compromise their scientific integrity and usefulness.

In particular, Ferguson shows how these studies typically suffer from severe "citation bias", that is, a failure to honestly report on research that do not support the author's hypothesis. Even more concerning are papers, such as the aforementioned Anderson study, where the authors appear to ignore their own results in order to forward their a priori hypothesis. In particular, Anderson used four measures of aggression in his laboratory studies, and only found a very weak significance for one of them. Had proper statistical techniques been employed by the author, even this weak link would have been shown to be statistically insignificant. Nonetheless, the author chose to ignore the results that did not support his hypothesis, and published a paper based on the single, intrinsically flawed, result set.

Ferguson sums this kind of behavior, unfortunately typical on the side of the argument supporting the hypothesis with "I believe that these authors have ceased functioning as scientists and have begun functioning as activists, becoming their own pressure group. Indeed, in at least one article, the authors appear to actively advocate censorship of academic critics and to encourage psychologists to make more extreme statements in the popular press about violent video-game effects"

With respect to the links made between the tragic school shootings and the fact that the perpetrators played violent video games, Ferguson retorts "It is certainly true that most (although not all) school shooters played violent video games. So do most other boys and young men. Concluding that a school shooter likely played violent video games may seem prescient, but it is not. It is about as predictive as suggesting that they have probably worn sneakers at some time in the past, are able to grow facial hair, have testicles, or anything else that is fairly ubiquitous among males."

That legal nut cases such as Jack Thompson, a particularly troublesome and misinformed activist, have been disbarred for their antics gives a glimmer of hope that sanity will prevail. Just as Elvis is the Devil chants that were the norm now seem ludicrous, it appears the media and science are coming to their senses with respect to video games and violence. A recent paper in the medical journal The Lancet suggests "the time may have come to move beyond professional research focusing on media violence, generally, as a cause of serious aggression."

U.S. courts have blocked laws that attempt to outlaw violent video games, and most recently the U.S. Supreme court justices have agreed to review a California law that attempted to restrict the sales of video games.

We may finally get the legal protection we deserve to allow us to purchase and play the games we chose. And as more researchers like Professor Ferguson present the facts backed with proper research and scientific integrity, the spectre that the media has portrayed regarding violent real life behavior and video games will fade into oblivion.

1 comment:

  1. Having 3 boys myself, ages 10, 12 & 14, I might have some insight. All 3 kids have PC's in their rooms, with internet. We play games together via LAN, they play together on the internet, they play seperately on the net, they play single player, etc. Pretty much anything that's been released in any genre they have been exposed to.
    To avoid getting into specifics, I had to take one of their PC's out of their room. I noticed a change in his behavior afterwards. He was being very cocky, thinking he was "all that" and all his school friends worshipped him. He ended up doing something at school that got him suspended for a week. I took the PC away, along with all his toy guns and plastic swords etc. Now that he hasn't been playing games for a couple months, he is somewhat easier to deal with, however if I let him play a game on my PC for an hour or so as a "reward" he suddenly becomes vocal and cocky again.
    Having said this, I think the more accurate statement should be "voilent kids play violent games". He is a pretty rambunctious kid, likes sports, plays as running back and quarterback for the junior football team, is very social and has the most friends of all 3 of the boys. He thinks he wants to join the military, and is the best player I've seen playing Modern Warfare 2 on the XB360. He is the youngest of the 3, and is the most outgoing of the 3. Yet he still does dumb things, and I think it is just boys being boys. He got suspended for bringing knives to school, but in my heart I know he was just showing them off because they looked cool, they were decorative pocket knives that he bought at a swapmeet, and I didn't know about it. So a grownup sold a 10 year old kid knives without a parent being there. Who is the responsible party in this case? Maybe the seller played GTA4....