In the wake of the killing of the schoolteacher Ann Maguire last week, the question has again been raised of whether playing violent video games could lead someone to commit murder. It’s a common link that we see suggested in the media whenever tragedies of this sort occur, but the scientific evidence simply doesn’t support these claims.
The most recent data that we have on the links between video game use and aggressive behavioral outcomes comes from a meta-analysis, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in January 2014. Researchers from the University of Innsbruck looked at 98 studies, testing nearly 37,000 participants since 2009. They found that, overall, video games do affect the social behavior of players – violent video game use is linked to an increase in aggressive outcomes and a decrease in pro-social outcomes. On the other hand pro-social games show the opposite effect – they’re linked to a reduction in aggressive behavior and an increase in pro-social, cooperative behavior.
At first glance these findings might suggest that there is something to the suggestion that violent video games encourage acts of violence, but the link is actually quite tenuous. Psychological studies on aggression and video games tend to rely on measures of aggression that are a far cry from murder. For example, one experimental test that’s often used is a modified version of the Taylor Competitive Reaction Time Task. Here the participants are first asked to play either a violent or non-violent video game. Afterwards, they’re asked to play a reaction time game against another, fictional player. If they win a particular encounter, they get to blast their opponent with a loud noise. The key manipulation is that the participants choose how loud the noise is, and how long it lasts for. Longer, louder noises are taken as a measure of increased aggression.
Another task, called the “hot sauce paradigm“, measures aggression by having participants prepare a cup of chilli sauce for another (again, fictional) participant. The more hot sauce they put in the chilli, the more aggressive they are deemed to be, and some studies have shown that people who are asked to play violent video games beforehand use more hot sauce.
Blasting someone with noise or spiking their chilli is all well and good, but neither of these measures tell us much about real-life instances of aggression, let alone murder. And on top of the disconnect between wild media claims and the limited reach of the evidence, the literature on video game use and violence is itself mired in controversy and politics. As we’ve noted on this blog before, one major research group led by Craig Anderson routinely reports strong links between aggression and gaming, while another led by Christopher Ferguson often refutes these claims. With perhaps a touch of irony, the recent Innsbruck meta-analysis included a breakdown of the evidence according to which of these two research groups, Anderson or Ferguson, was doing the discovering. Sure enough, the evidence conveniently divided down “party lines”, as though Mother Nature herself was giving way to politics.
The problem is that across the discipline, it almost seems as if solid, progressive research has given way to unproductive squabbling. As a case in point, Ferguson co-wrote a recent review of the past 25 years of research into video games and aggression. This was followed by comments from various researchers attacking the author’s work, which was then followed by a particularly invidious reply entitled “Does doing media violence research make one aggressive?” This is not a particularly efficient way of conducting scientific research. No one learns anything appreciably new, and it simply reinforces old battle lines between research groups – lines that should never be there in the first place.
There is no question that journalists need to stop perpetuating the tenuous and unsubstantiated link between extreme violence and video games. But the buck doesn’t stop with the media. Scientists on all “sides” of this debate need to grow up and work together to generate useful, meaningful data. Opponents should participate in adversarial collaborations to get to the truth and eliminate their own bias. Until the research community decides that generating real answers matters more than winning arguments, the media will happily fill the vacuum with sensational nonsense.