The Debate Behind Video Game Violence

The Debate Behind Video Game Violence

February 2, 2020 100 By Sebastian Fry


Today, 65% of American adults and
nearly all teenagers play video games. Games look evermore real. They can, and do,
show incredibly detailed violence. And since their beginnings, video games
have come with an implicit assumption that they’re probably doing
something bad to us. 77% of parents believe media
violence, including video games, is contributing to America’s
culture of violence. But what do we actually know
about how violent games affect us? Psychologists have been studying
this for decades. But right now, the research community
includes a small but vocal subsection convinced that the
perceived scientific consensus linking violent games to aggression
is completely wrong. Alongside moral panics and conflicting
research, huge amounts of money have been made selling video
games, violent or otherwise. In 1976, the industry was
already making $25 billion annually. In 2018 it made
more than $136 billion. So the stakes are high. Depending on what scientists find, there’s a
whole lot to be gained, or lost. Brad Bushman and Christopher Ferguson
are perhaps the best known researchers representing each side
of this dispute. They are both psychologists who have
spent years researching video games and violence. They use similar
methods and do similar experiments. But they’ve wound up on either side of
a line drawn clearly in the sand. So why do these researchers disagree so
strongly, and how did we get here? So you can’t look at
at anybody without pointing your gun at them. Right. In 1976, video game company Exidy
released a game called Death Race. To play it, you put your
hands on an actual steering wheel. Your foot’s on a pedal. You drive around a car and
murder anything in your way. You hear the screams of your
victims and their gravestones litter the screen. Soon after its release, there
were calls to ban it. There was outrage and many were worried
about what it was doing to their kids. OK, so death race did come out
in 1976, that’s four years before Pac-Man. Its graphics are primitive and barely
recognizable, but the game resulted in what was perhaps the first
widespread panic about violence in video games. And while that may seem
laughable now, those concerns didn’t go anywhere. Do violent video games
make for violent kids? Officials say they are responding to
complaints from parents that children have skipped school or stolen money to
play the games and made a nuisance of themselves. Outrage exploded again in
1992 with the release of games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Mortal Kombat! Parents are often the first to
ask, could this, lead to this? Mortal Kombat featured especially violent
deaths and Night Trap showed sexual violence against women. Cold blooded murder is making Mortal Kombat
the most popular video game in history. Kids relish their victory
and their bloody choice . Should they pull out their opponents heart
or simply rip his head off just to see a spinal cord dangle
at a pool of blood? Parents were terrified. Schools panicked. Congress got involved. There was no rating on this game
at all when the game was introduced. Small children bought this at Toys “R” Us
and he knows that as well as I do. In 1994, the Interactive Digital
Software Association, now called the Entertainment Software Association, founded
the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB. The ESRB introduced a rating system similar
to the one that had been used to rate movies for decades. Last March, we promised you our
industry would develop a rating system that would put the controls back in
the hands of consumers, and especially parents. The system we present to
you today redeems on that pledge. While there are absolutely popular
nonviolent games, undeniably violent games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike,
PUBG and Fortnight continue to be hugely successful. Epic Games alone, the
publishers of Fortnight, made a reported $3 billion in 2018. Huge games like Fortnight or Call of
Duty or World of Warcraft are created by organizational behemoths with massive
budgets and scores of employees. According to John Staats, the first
level designer ever for World of Warcraft, there’s just too much at
stake to be willingly creating something that might be dangerous. If you’ve worked in the gaming industry,
you’re also hyper aware of the responsibility that you have because I
mean, it’s a class action lawsuit. It’s a big thing. Games are as hard,
they’re hard enough to make as it is. You’re talking hundred
million dollar budgets. They don’t risk anything. So if there was really any
danger, they’re not dummies, they would definitely be avoiding
any potential damage. Because they have shareholders. They answer to their shareholders. I mean, it’s not just
a bunch of nerds. You actually have to have the money
guys who are actually really calling the shots. And they’re
no dummies either. I don’t see any game companies really taking
the time to think about it or care about it unless it comes
close to affecting their bottom lines. But politicians, concerned parents and the
media are thinking about it, and that alone can
have real-world consequences. Walmart is announcing it is
temporarily removing advertising displays for violent video games following
the recent mass shootings. Recently, when President Trump implicated
violent video games in mass shootings, shares of major video
game companies fell sharply. We must stop the glorification
of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly
video games that are now commonplace. So the question is,
are violent games actually doing something bad to us? The internet is full of both people
with a vested interest in violent games and conflicting
narratives about them. There is zero connection between
entertainment and behavior, and that’s been studied over and over and over
again and even ruled upon by the Supreme Court. This was a, maybe a
video game to this evil demon. He wanted to be a super soldier
for his Call of Duty game. What is causing trouble among
America’s youth in schools? Oh, it has to be a video game. Anyone of thought should find that
insulting at the face of it. Video games give you the skill
and the will to kill. It is the moral equivalent to putting
a military weapon in the hand of every child in America. And it turns out that the
conversation happening publicly often has very little in common with what
interested psychologists are actually researching. It’s a
reasonable question, right? You see people, and particularly at
risk groups like children, playing these violent games. And it’s pretty
reasonable to ask like, well, does that cause them to behave
more violently in real life? Psychologists have been trying to get to
the bottom of this for decades, and it’s important to first understand
how they go about seeking answers to questions like this
in the first place. You can’t measure violent criminal
behavior in a laboratory experiment. For example, we can’t give our participants
guns and knives and see what they’ll do with them after
they play a violent game. Because of that, when you see
headlines about video games and violence, the underlying research was
probably actually about aggression. There are a few fundamental types of
studies that can be done in these situations: experimental studies, cross-sectional
studies and longitudinal studies. An experimental study involves
a carefully constructed scenario in a controlled environment. You bring in participants, some of whom
are asked to play violent games. Afterwards, you measure their aggressive behavior,
which is defined as any behavior intended to harm another person
who doesn’t want to be harmed. If you’re studying kids, you might
just watch their behavior on the playground afterwards. If they’re adults, you use aggression
proxies, like how long you make someone hold their arm in ice or
how long you blast someone with awful headphone noise, or give
someone an electric shock. Then there are cross-sectional studies, which
just means you take some measurements at one point in time
and see if they’re correlated. So you could, for example, find
people whose favorite games are violent and see if those people are more
likely to have a history of aggression. Lastly, there are longitudinal studies,
which are just like cross-sectional studies, except you take
more than one measurement over time. These are the basic tools
researchers have at their disposal, not just for studying video games, but for
the majority of psychology as a whole. According to many researchers, the
evidence is clear: there is a connection between playing violent
video games and aggression. First, they can make
us more aggressive. Second, they can make us more numb
to the pain and suffering of others. And third, they can make us more
afraid of becoming victims of violence ourselves. One of Bushman’s most recent
studies looked at how playing violent games might affect what kids
do if they find a gun. They used an actual handgun
that had been disabled. We had them play
the video game Minecraft. We had a gun version where they
could kill monsters with a gun. We had a sword version where they could
kill monsters with a sword, or we had a nonviolent condition with
no weapons and no monsters. We found the largest effects for
the condition with the guns. Playing a violent game with swords
also made children engage in more dangerous behavior around guns. The kids who played the violent version
of the game were more likely to touch the gun, pull the trigger, and
point it at themselves and others. To a smaller but very vocal group
of researchers, the evidence points in an entirely different direction. People really wanted this to be true
and there really was this kind of like set group of scholars that sort
of invested their lives in this. We don’t generally find that
playing more action-oriented games is predictive of violence or
aggression later in life. It seems to be the knowledge of
the fictional nature of what people are engaged with seems to blunt to any
kind of learning experience from that. If there is a divergence between
different groups of studies, why would that be? And I think, you know, my
answer would be that unlike a lot of studies that existed before, I tried
to use standardized well, clinically validated measures for a
lot of my studies. And I started embracing preregistration, you
know, earlier than a lot of other people did. You know, and I’m
trying to do it without sounding like defensive. I don’t in any way mean to
say that my stuff like, you know, perfect or, you know, beyond
any kind of critique. It isn’t. You don’t win science by
consensus, actually, you know, even if there was a consensus. Nonetheless, scientific consensus is
a powerful tool. And for researchers, one way to
gauge the consensus on any particular topic is through meta-analyses, studies that
combine the results of many individual studies into
one larger analysis. In 2015, the American Psychological
Association released one such meta-analysis after forming a task force
of 10 experts chosen specifically for both their areas of expertise and
because they didn’t have a vested interest in video game research. It was an attempt at an objective
review of the most recent research on video games and violence
at that time. Mark Appelbaum, professor emeritus at UC
San Diego, chaired that task force. I’m fundamentally an
applied statistician, methodologist. I have been on a number of
APA task forces before, women’s mental health and abortion, a bunch of these. It’s not unusual for those of us
who are more on the methodological side to be asked. And I got a
call from someone at the American Psychological Association and they said, do you know
anything about what’s going on in video games? In the field, not the content. And I said, not much. And they said, good. The task force did its work,
and here’s what they concluded. Does playing these games where there is
this violent content, does it seem to have some impact? Yeah, it seemed pretty consistent, study
after study, that you did find things that happened in this
sort of behavioral aggression domain. And this is with regard to
aggression, not with regard to violence. And that’s the main
takeaway from the report. The APA task force says if we look
at all the way psychologists know how to measure aggression, playing violent video
games seems to be having an effect on people. But they did not
conclude that playing video games makes you violent or commit crime. And that lines up with what most
other researchers in the field are finding. I’ve been studying the effect of
violent video games for 10 years now. I can tell you that there is
a causal link between playing a violent video game and behavior. Simulated violence in video games
may influence a player’s thoughts, feelings and physical arousal,
affecting the individual’s interpretation of other behavior and then
increase our own aggressive behavior. In violent video games, there’s
definitely this triangulation where you get the same pattern of
results for laboratory experiments, cross-sectional studies and
longitudinal studies. The magnitude of the effect is
not especially small or especially large. It’s about the same size effect that
you get for most variables in social science studies. So exposure to violent video games, in
this case, is not the only risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior,
but it’s not a trivial risk factor either. The majority of published studies on the
effects of violent video games do show some kind of
effect on the player. Depending on the study, the
findings could be correlational, demonstrating a connection but not attributing cause,
or causal, suggesting that the game actually caused the effect. Christopher Ferguson and others take issue
and disagree with the APA, Bushman, and the psychology community’s
perceived consensus that there’s a link between violent
games and aggression. They cite conflicts of interest,
misguided research methods, and things like publication bias, the idea that
scientific journals are biased in which studies they decide to publish,
and the replication crisis, the idea that some established research is
unable to be later replicated. At this point, you really can look
at a number of other research groups and I’d say there’s maybe about, maybe
ten to a dozen of these preregistered studies and almost, maybe, only one
of them I can think of found evidence for any kind of, you
know, effects, and that one was a correlational effect. Video games are a little bit different
from more passive forms of media, such as watching television or watching
a movie or a video. They’re directly tied or linked
to the violent character. They directly reward
violent behavior. And we know that reward is a
very powerful motivator of human behavior. For years, people have tried to
argue that the interactivity of games makes them remarkably different from,
say, watching television or reading a book. But we don’t really have a
lot of evidence to suggest that games are super different from other forms of
media for the most part, in terms of having more of an impact on
people than television or books or other forms of media. Ferguson’s position is perhaps best summed
up by this excerpt from his 2017 book Moral Combat,
co-authored with Patrick Markey. Quote, “Within the world of video
game research, a David and Goliath battle is underway. The Goliaths are a well-organized,
politically connected, and well funded group of senior scholars who have
been linking violent video games to horrific acts of real-world brutality
for over thirty years. These anti–video game giants are being
challenged by a group of younger, progame researchers, many of whom grew
up surrounded by Atari, Nintendo, and PlayStation systems. Theirs is an epic struggle for truth
as they attempt to challenge the much more powerful anti–video
game empire.” But ultimately, the arguments happening
here are about statistics, research methods and personal motivations,
all of which don’t especially matter to many
people reading headlines. If two researchers publish a violent
video game study, one of those researchers finds that exposure to
violent media increases aggressive behavior, the other researcher finds that
exposure to violent media has no effect on aggressive behavior, the
mass media will definitely publicize the latter. It will get
a lot more media attention. It’s often suggested that since violent
crime, gun deaths and cases of bullying are decreasing, or that because
there’s much less violent crime in Japan or South Korea, where games
are also widespread, that it proves there’s no connection between
violence and video games. But violent crime could decrease while video
games are at the same time making people more aggressive. Aggression doesn’t necessarily mean violence,
and it doesn’t mean crime. But it’s true that
publication bias exists. It’s true that there is
a replication crisis in psychology. It’s true that in 2011, the
Supreme Court ruled that the research presented to them did not prove that
violent video games cause minors to act aggressively. For the Entertainment
Software Association, the lobbying group representing the video game industry,
that Supreme Court ruling says a lot. From our perspective, this issue
has been debated and resolved by the Supreme Court, which is why you
have seen very few attempts to regulate the sale of video
games since that decision. It’s a very powerful reminder that the
reason we have a First Amendment and free speech and that we
have the ability to express ourselves, particularly through video games, is because
we’re in a country that allows for the ability for people to
choose what they want to hear and what they want to say
and how they connect. From the beginning, video game companies
have been accused of doing terrible things to those who play
their games and those accusations often didn’t have much basis in fact. So it’s not surprising that game
companies and gamers themselves might be defensive and quick to reject researchers
who suggest a connection with aggression. The fact remains that there
is an abundance of research suggesting a link between violent
video games and aggression. But you can take
that seriously without panicking. Many things contribute to someone’s
tendency towards aggression, like watching sports, your socioeconomic
status, or your gender. There’s research suggesting kids who play
violent games may be affected negatively, but there is no
research suggesting playing violent video games will make someone
a school shooter. It is easier to look at a
mass shooting as many people have, many politicians have, and say, hey, the fault
for this is video games, violent video games. And so people have tended
to look at, kind of, the research and the facts and the games
themselves with that preconceived notion in mind. Similarly to how if you’re a
big video game fan, you’re probably looking at games and saying, oh, of
course these games cannot have any effect on my mental state or cannot
make me more aggressive or anything like that. I certainly think they’re
like ethical questions of like, is this game glamorizing the military? Is this game a fetishization of war
in a way that makes people feel uncomfortable? And those are the ethical
questions that I think people have to wrestle with a lot
in the video games world. At the same time, there’s research
suggesting playing games can be in other ways beneficial, and that
collaborative games might counteract some of the negative effects
of violence in games. It’s a nuanced,
ongoing scientific debate. So, don’t panic, video games are not
turning you or your kids into monsters. But they’re probably doing something.