In the News

For years, ‘experts’ have debated whether video games negatively influence players to become more violent and aggressive. Recently, the American Psychological Association published a report, concluding that their research demonstrated a “consistent relation between violent video game use and heightened aggressive behaviour”. The report was a review of over one hundred and fifty studies (from 2005-2013) that primarily focused on the effects of violent video games on young adults and adolescents. As expected, the forty-nine paged report caused quite a stir in the gaming community. Many gaming groups initially claimed that the task force was bias, allowing their anti-gaming views to compromise their research and skew the conclusions made in the report. In response to the publication, over two hundred psychology scholars piped up, voicing their concerns regarding the methods used by the task force. Many of these individuals had also contributed to the ‘Scholars’ Open Statement to the APA Task Force on Violent Media’ which was delivered to the APA task force back in September 2013. Here, the scholars outlined that the 2005 policy statement [one that we can assume was one of the one hundred and fifty studies used in the more recent report] “delineated several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence”. Many of these academics agreed that the evidence and conclusions supplied by the APA were somewhat ‘misleading’. In addition, Dr Mark Coulson (Professor of Psychology at Middlesex University) stated that he fully acknowledged that the “exposure to repeated violence may have short-term effects – you would be a fool to deny that – but the long-term consequences of crime and actual violent behaviour, there is just no evidence linking violent video games with that”.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at what the APA’s intention for this report was in the first place.

“In keeping with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) mission to advance the development, communication, and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society, the Task Force on Violent Media was formed to review the 2005 APA Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media and the related literature. The goal of the task force was to ensure that APA’s resolution on the topic continues to be informed by the best science currently available and that it accurately represents the research findings directly related to the topic”.

So, are the APA the bad guys here, condemning violent video games as the cause of increased aggression and subsequent crime (which we have all heard before), or are they just researching and advancing in psychological knowledge to better society? Well, if sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Whilst there is less of a focus on crime, their report makes a number of concerning conclusions regarding violent games and their psychological effects on young adults. After reading the report, it is also quite apparent that there are a number of areas that could have omitted a sense of objectivity. Interestingly, at some points, there are glimmers of reflection that question how valid the findings of the report are. For example, the report contains phrases such as, “the controlled environment of most experiments reduces their ecological validity”, and, “this body of research is small, with a limited number of studies addressing a limited number of risk factors”. Yet the APA have stuck to their guns by continuously reiterating the fact that “higher amounts of exposure are associated with higher levels of aggression”, despite the obvious holes in their research.

This may not seem surprising; the APA have been focusing on this research for years. Surely they had to find some sort of link between violent games and increased aggression, no matter how small or weak the evidence actually is? That was kind of the point of the study and these guys have already been called out for being particularly misleading in previous studies. What I found most surprising was the response from the general public.

Upon examining the reports and comment sections published by Sky and The Independent it appears that the general public also have quite conflicting opinions regarding this debate. These perspectives range from ‘I play games and I’m not violent’ to naming specific games that should be banned, to parents stating whether or not they allow their children to access violent material (whether it be games, books or films). From what I have read, the majority appear to reject the notion that video games increase aggression. Many others also highlight that there are other factors that have much stronger ties to increased aggression such as psychological disorders and substance abuse. However, what was interesting about some of responses was that a number of them began to comment on how games affect children.

Now, if we just quickly direct our attention back to the APA report:

Is this research applicable to children? The earliest research in this area focused primarily on young adults age 18 and older, and more specifically on college students. Young adults are a group of high interest because they have a high exposure both to violent video games and to other risk factors for violence. Similar concerns have been voiced about the impact of violent video games on children and adolescents. Implications of this research are often applied to children, yet relatively few of the studies used in the meta‐analyses reviewed included children or adolescents younger than age 16 as participants in the research”.

I’m not saying that the debate on whether violent video games increases aggression should not include children. A large proportion of children play video games on a daily basis, and we all had friends at school that would get their parents to pick up the newest CoD or GTA game for them on release day, despite the PEGI rating. What I find slightly disappointing is that a lot of these comments suggest that the public have not read the APA report themselves. Instead, they have opted to consume the information published by Sky, the BBC or whoever is reporting on the publication. How many of those that commented actually read the APA report? Less than half? Probably. As we all know, the media has a habit of putting whatever spin they want on news stories that they publish. Therefore, with the majority of the public only reading a tiny portion of the report, effectively censored by whichever website they are reading from, it is difficult to decipher how informed these opinions really are. Consequently, one could argue that one reason why this debate keeps cropping up is because the ‘society’ that organisations such as the APA hope to improve by publishing these studies, doesn’t actually read the findings of their reports. Basically, a lot of the public are misinformed and this affects their opinion – but it’s their own fault for not engaging with the original material, in the first place. However, this is not the case for everyone and we also have to remember that the comment sections inserted at the bottom of these types of inflammatory articles, are often just places for people to have a good rant and go wildly off-topic.

CoD Screenshot

So why are games getting so much heat?

The last time I checked, video games were intended to be fun, and a lot of them are. There are billions of gamers worldwide; all individuals that have unique personalities, likes and dislikes. Some of us like puzzle games, rhythm games and yes, games that involve violence. Do you fall into that last category? Does that make you aggressive and potentially a danger to society? Absolutely not. Just because I enjoy shooting at people in GTA does not mean that I take it upon myself to recreate that situation on our streets in the evenings. I find it truly disappointing that I frequently hear/read about some ‘experts’ somewhere that have found links between video games and aggression; violence; crime, or whatever negative aspect they can dream up that makes for a good headline. Video games seem to get a rough deal a lot of the time, especially in comparison to music, films and books. But why? What makes someone that plays video games any more aggressive than someone that likes to read books with violent themes, music with violent lyrics or films with scenes of extreme violence?

Let’s consider these (somewhat outdated but still relevant) statistics from the U.S,

The arrest rate for juvenile murders fell by 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. The arrest rate for all juvenile violent crimes declined by 49.3%. In this same period, video game sales more than quadrupled.

From this data, one can notice that as violent video game popularity increased between 1995 and 2008, violent juvenile crime actually declined in the United States. In the UK, other articles have also ruled out that violent video games are no more likely to be damaging to young people’s behaviour than games that are considered harmless. Yet these stories appear to get a lot less attention and tend to fade into the background of the news scene pretty quickly. Something that is often overlooked is how video games can have a positive impact on a person.

If you were to talk to a number of people and ask about their gaming experiences it is very likely that they will be able to tell you which games they like to just kick back and relax with when they get home from school or work. It has also been proven that when playing co-op or multiplayer games, people tend to feel happier as they are having fun whilst playing as part of a team. In some cases, people have been known to seek video games for comfort when they are going through a difficult time in their life, such as dealing with bullies at school or even just having a bad day at the office. For many, video games can be outlet of stress, enabling people to deal with their emotions in a healthy way. So if some studies have proven that games do not negatively influence behaviour then what kind of aggression is the APA report and others actually talking about?

What does ‘aggression’ really mean?

I am a competitive person – I do not like to lose, but playing competitive games in a household of guys that have years of gaming experience on me has meant that I have lost on many occasions. Sometimes I get frustrated, if I make a stupid mistake or get beaten by something that I believe is ‘unfair’, I will sometimes feel a bit irritated. However, I do not believe that video games have influenced me to react in this way and I do not believe that they make me aggressive. Similarly, when playing particularly violent games I am aware that I am having fun, but I’ve never been overcome with the urge to act violently, nor do I suddenly become more aggressive towards my family or friends after a gaming session. At twenty-one years old, I can say that I am not an aggressive person and any video game that I have played has not tried to sway me to act aggressively.

Others that I play games with will sometimes rage quit in quite a spectacular fashion, slamming the control pad down and exiting the room in anger. This may be the kind of aggression that the APA might be trying to hint at, but can it really be attributed solely to games? Surely you would have to consider whether that person would react in a similar manner doing something else and failing at it, which would then put it down to the person’s personality, rather than the game itself. Maybe the APA should concentrate on that…

Bottom line: So far, studies have been unable to prove that there are strong links between violent video games and increased aggression. Reports that try to use weak evidence in order to draw these links are appearing too often and keep sending out the same message. Violent video games are not responsible for increased aggression, there are a number of other factors at play that should be taken into consideration.

Sources:

APA Report
Game Informer: More Than 200 Psychology Scholars Speak Out Against APA Video Game Aggression Task Force
Scholar’s Open Letter to the APA Task Force On Violent Media
BBC: Do video games make people violent?
ProCon.org: Violent video games
The Telegraph: Study finds no evidence violent video games make children aggressive
BBC: How gaming can ‘influence’ your mood