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Do Video Games Cause Violence? I’m Skeptical

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 17, 2011

Last week on the show we talked about the notion that video games might be dangerous, in that violent video games might cause violence in the people who play them. I originally decided to research this because I’m a fan of video games. When I was in high school, I took a lot of flack, mostly from my parents about video games and how they would one day ruin the world and spoil all that was decent and good.

Now, after the horrible events that followed the Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver, the very idea of video game inspired violence somehow seems ridiculous. Nevertheless, there is indeed some important elements to this and it is still worthy of skeptical attention.

We mentioned the legend of Polybius on the show, the game that was installed in a few arcades in Oregon in the 1980’s, supposedly, every week some men in black would show up and download game data. Stories spread that kids who played the game started going insane and committing suicide. Mysteriously, Polybius vanished from arcades never to be seen again.

Except in pop culture where it even made an appearance in the Simpsons.

But, as usual, most of this appears to be rumours and legends. There is very little evidence for any of the claims about Polybius, a few old photos and such, all of which are suspect now that it’s a popular meme with people building their own Polybius arcades and such.

One possible suggestion for the origin of the Polybius story is an alleged case of the real game Tempest causing photosensitive epilepsy, a condition where flashing lights cause a seizure. And the connections to the CIA might be related to the fact that the US army did ask Atari to create simulators to train soldiers.

Polybius is a good way to sum up criticisms about video games. The notion that they are bad for behaviour,  i.e kids becoming anti-social or causing crime and the notion that they are bad for your health i.e seizures, and mental illnesses.

In fact, I think you can classify most of the criticism of video games into roughly two main categories:

  1. Are Video games psychological or sociological dangerous? i.e addiction, anti-social behaviour, mental disorders?
  2. Do video games encourage violent behaviour or crime?

The arguments that video games cause anti-social behaviour or mental disorders appears to be unfounded.  Perhaps because many of these same claims were made about rock music, rap, and heavy metal when they first came out ; many suggest that such claims are the “older generation not getting the younger kids.”

The changing perception of video games may have a lot to do with either proving or debunking such claims.  When video games first came out in the 1970’s (which is generally considered when video games really took off)  They were generally limited to arcades and such. They were played mostly by young boys after school and on weekends.

When home consoles first took off in the mid 80’s, you saw a dramatic shift in the way video games were played. This is where you get the old stereotype of a nerdy kid playing the Legend of Zelda with a big thick guide book, in the basement, while everyone else was playing outside and selling lemonade or something.

For some reason, this stereotype (from the 1980’s) has remained the perception of people who play video games these days.

Nowadays, this has changed. Video games are played on home consoles like the Xbox and Playstation, and your computer. Arcades are virtually gone (as are arcade games) instead you have internet cafe’s where gamers come in and use powerful PC’s to play online games with their friends. Over the course of two decades, gaming has become a social phenomena, the most popular game in the world, World of Warcraft, is a massive multiplayer game where literally millions of people play together online.

Indeed, the most popular games nowadays are the ones that allow you to play with other people, whether they’re online, or with a group friends at your place, or in some internet cafe with a hundred other people.

We would hardly consider this kind of social action abnormal if we were playing football, so why is it abnormal when its video games?

But don’t you risk addiction when playing video games? What’s interesting about video game addiction, is that it’s not recognized as a real condition. In fact, in 2007 the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) considered adding video game addiction to the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) however, they weren’t satisfied that the science was conclusive so it was rejected.

Much of the research done on video game addiction has been mostly regarded as incomplete at best. Conflicting surveys and uniformed estimations have generally made most people think there is no strong evidence for such a condition.

What about violence? Do video games make people more violent?

There’s been some interesting research into this question.

In a article called Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts Versus Media Misinformation by Brad J. Bushman and Craig A. Anderson, suggests that violence in the United States started to increase dramatically around the same time as violence in mass media started to increase.

“One possible reason for the early interest in a link between media violence and societal violence is that violence in the United States began to increase fairly dramatically in 1965, exactly when the first generation of children raised on TV began to reach the prime ages for committing violent crimes” – (page 478. Bushman, Anderson)

This comes across as an extremely poor generalization. They are suggesting that the high presence of crime and violence in America during the 1960’s was media influenced. Did they not consider other factors? Perhaps the Civil Rights movement? Or the Anti-War movement in the United States? They also seem unable to explain then why there was a dramatic decrease in violent crime over the next few decades (as noted in their paper) which incidentally coincides with the rise of video games.

They continue:

“in July 2000, six major professional societies—the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association—signed a joint statement on the hazards of exposing children to media violence, noting that “at this time, well over 1,000 studies . . . point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children” (Joint Statement, 2000, p. 1).” (page 480. Bushman, Anderson)

The American Psychological Association also issued a statement saying that:

“decades of social science research reveals the strong influence of televised violence on the aggressive behavior of children and youth” and that “comprehensive analysis of violent interactive video game research suggests such exposure a.) increases aggressive behavior, b.) increases aggressive thoughts, c.) increases angry feelings, d.) decreases helpful behavior, and, e.) increases physiological arousal”

And that

“that APA advocate for the reduction of all violence in videogames and interactive media marketed to children and youth”

Considering the number of organizations making such a declaration, there clearly should be some careful consideration on the part of skeptics. It seems that there is widespread agreement that exposure to violent media has been shown to increase levels of aggression and frustration. And yet, little evidence to suggest that this aggression is acted on any more frequently.

Craig A Anderson and Karen E. Dill did a two part study called Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life.

In part one, they measured both the amount of exposure to video game violence and the amount of time participants had played video games in prior time periods regardless of content. These video game measures were used as predictors of self-reported aggressive behaviour and delinquency. They used a college student population, and compared their academic achievement (grade point average [GPA]) They took Two hundred twenty-seven (78 male, 149 female) students. They then had the students self report on their use of violent video games (they were asked to list their five favourite games) they were then asked to rate how violent the games were and how often they played them. They were also asked to answer questions on their “world view” and such. They were also asked questions designed to measure their irritability and aggressiveness. They also retrieved from the university the students GPA and delinquency records.

They claim that the people who played the most video games and the most violent video games also has high levels of delinquency and worse academic standing.

In part two they had people play a non-violent video game and a violent video game, they then tested them on aggression  levels and had the play a fake lab experiment where they thought they were competing against another person (but they weren’t) and the goal was to click an image faster than their opponent, if they won, a sound in which the volume and duration that they set would play on their fake opponent’s head set.  The researchers believed this was an accurate way of measuring aggression levels after a violent game.

My concern with such a study is that the researchers are merely priming the participates, putting them in a frustrated mindset. Now granted, this would prove video games are frustrating, but that was never in dispute. The question is whether playing a violent video game is going to make someone behave violently. I was also rather surprised that the authors were using some rather odd choices for video games. When they asked students what games they most often played, only one was extremely violent. The other two, Super Mario Brothers and Tetris, are hardly considered violent. Mario does have violence in the game, but its portrayed in much the same way a cartoon like Bugs Bunny or something.

So with one violent game and two non-violent game, the researchers assert that playing them cause a low GPA and higher rates of delinquency. However, I’m extremely skeptical they’ve proven causation, my suspicion is they’ve found some correlation and are jumping to an extreme conclusion.

I decided to look at a methodological review of the research: Does viewing violent media really cause criminal violence? A methodological review by Joanne Savage of Department of Justice, Law and Society, American University, in Washington, she concluded:

“although findings from the prospective longitudinal studies have been taken as strong evidence that viewing violence causes violent aggression, a careful reading suggests that evidence for an effect on criminal behavior is practically nonexistent and the evidence for an effect on aggression is very weak at best.” (page 22. Savage)

In addition, of the studies that she ranked as high or medium (meaning they had the highest or medium relevancy for such a claim that violent media causes violence)

“we find a time lag that was not prespecified, a matched design with potential for spuriousness, and a lack of control for prior aggressiveness—all very significant problems that without further study mitigate against our confidence in these findings. Of course this conclusion would be different if” (page 25, Savage)

We must also ask ourselves some questions about this possible link between violent video games and real world violence. When do kids learn the difference between fantasy and reality?

We must also ask whether the scientific evidence really points to a causal link between violent video games and violence? Or is it just increased levels of aggression?

I mentioned earlier the similar treatment video games get from authority figures that rock and roll, rap music and even Dungeons and Dragons got, could it be that video games are just a convenient scapegoat?

What about school shootings? Apparently when  profiled by the FBI and CIA –  school shooters only have two connections to each other,  most were male and depressed. Video games wasn’t one of them.

Of course, one big objection to the thesis that violent video games are causing real violence is that real violence is down, how does that compute with the extreme popularity of video games?

What about if we compared video games to organized sports?  Soccer violence, people have been killed because they wore the wrong jersey.  In professional football, hockey and soccer, there are hundreds of real injuries to players, sometimes career ending permanent injuries every year.  In armature sports, even at the high school level,  Statistics from a Ohio State study show that the most common injuries included fractures (10-36 per cent), with football accounting for the highest injury rate (4.61 injuries per 10,000 athlete exposures).

Video games are, relatively speaking, a new phenomena. And given the rapid change in demographics and style of video games, going from arcades to massive multiplayer games online, research on to the emotional and physiological effects need to take this dramatic change into account. As the content and tone of games change from Tetris to Mortal Kombat, effort needs to be taken to ensure that like any other form of media, it gets filtered to the right audience.

6 Responses to “Do Video Games Cause Violence? I’m Skeptical”

  1. Ian said

    Thanks for this review, it correlates nicely with a debate I recently had about hockey violence as a cause of the recent riots. It seems not much is really certain with the very weak methodology of many of these social science studies. Sounds like those who hate violence can continue their virtuous crusade, while those who enjoy it can also continue to play Vice City.

  2. Alma Miller said

    When I was a little girl some 50 or so years ago, I was a middle child. My 4 siblings were years apart from me and so were the kids on the street.
    I remember I had an air rifle with a cork attached to it, I would shoot cars going by and most people pretended with me and smiled and waved. I was tiny and “cute”.

    I was very active outside on my bike and swimming daily at the local pool. My aggressive behaviour that formed following this period had nothing to do with video games. My older brother taunted me horribly, my poor mother intervened to no avail. When i was a teenager, one day I was ironing, and he took to haunting me, I warned him to stop 3x’s, he was shirtless, and I had strong long finger nails. I turned around with a fury and slashed his chest from the top of the left side across and down to the right. He’s lucky I never thought of using the iron. He never bothered me again.
    The boys at school were not much better, neither were most of the girls. In order to defend myself I used threats of telling on them and fighting back. The result of this enviroment, formed an unfavourable personallity.
    I was very close to a friend and her grandsons. The father had his boys un-necessarily under his controlling thumb. He centered on the youngest boy and inflicted his cruelty on him. They were playing harsh, bloody, violent, games before the age of 6. That is what he played.
    When the parents separated, and he got custody deviously, the younger went from a helpfull loving and loved friend to a fearless bully with outbursts of screaming at school in kindergarten, to the frightening comment that he didn’t want to live anymore, he said he wanted to kill himself.
    He only wanted to be with his mom, I witnessed his abuse first hand, the authorities and school did nothing. That family, is in a hell with their father, using them as meal tickets for being on welfare. He refuses to work. A six year old wanting to kill himself has no real concept of death and it’s permanence. Did the killing in these games help him to wanting to choose death?

    One thing I know for sure, the fake and highly watched “wrestlilng” on t.v. had a lot of boys at school, some 25 years ago constantly kicking others while in line for bathroom breaks etc. I constantly had to tell them to keep there feet to themselves and on the ground where they belonged or else.

    What is the difference between that, and vide games?

    Yes, in some cases, violent video games result in violence. We are still no better than the ancient times when thousands flocked to the stadiums to watch the gore and blood and death and cheer for more.

    • Ethan Clow said

      I don’t think the child in this case is responding to video games but to the emotional abuse outlined above. As with any situation of media influencing violence we have to be careful to establish whether there is a causal relationship between the two or simply a correlation of factors. Does some violent media make a person a behave violently? Or perhaps do violent people watch a lot of violent media?

      • Alma Miller said

        Hi Ethan
        The child were are referring to is definitly acting out as
        a result of this on going abuse. No argument there. But, I
        wonder about his desire to kill himself, would a six year
        old have to hear about suicide to be able to verbalize his
        desire to kill himself. When i was young such a thought
        never occured to me. But i didn’t have as much on my plate
        as he does.
        I wish I could find appropriate legal counsel. Soon there
        will be no point. Salvaging this little one’s mind will be
        very difficult.

  3. I am 14 years old and I play a lot of violent video games. I think video games dont cause agression. In modern video games the objective is usually to kill someone. When that objective is met I dont feel a gressive or angry, instead i fell a sense of satisfaction and im calmer for finishing the objective. However when I cant kill people and i need to it often feels like im not good enough and that makes me angry. I also feel that people who might act out violently can use violence in video games as an outlet to prevent their behaviour. So killing in video games in mmy opinion doesnt cause people to act out violently or cause agression.

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