Are violent video games the problem?

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KILLING TIME: Politicians rush to apportion blame - but do games such as Black Ops II train killers?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, the NRA blames America's "culture of violence" on violent movies and video games.

They also suggest that, rather than ban assault weapons, we put armed guards in every American school.

That point is being addressed elsewhere on Slate, but suffice it to say it's a weird and implausibly expensive idea that will never, ever happen. The video game point, however, merits a little more scrutiny.

Much of the research supporting the theory that violent video games prompt real-life violence comes out of a psychology lab at Iowa State University.

The lead investigator is a fellow named Craig Anderson who has devoted his professional life to proving a link between video game violence and real-life aggression.

In 2010, Iowa State issued a news release claiming that one of Anderson's studies "proves conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids."

The other day, Anderson appeared on CNN to talk about Adam Lanza's fondness for violent video games. In the course of the interview, he repeated his claim that the link between video game violence and real-life aggression has been definitively proven.

Said Anderson:

"Every major scientific society that has studied the question has come to the same answer, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, most recently, the International Society for Research and Aggression, have all come to the same conclusion that basically media violence is a risk factor, is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behaviour, including violence."

Wow, that sounds pretty conclusive!

But not so fast. Turns out, Anderson's work is a bit controversial. In a piece on, Phil Savage talked to a researcher named Christopher Ferguson whose work was also cited in the International Society for Research and Aggression report that Anderson mentioned on CNN. According to Ferguson, that particular report is perhaps less trustworthy than it sounds:

  • Anderson referring to the ISRA's report is something we call "echo attribution." He in fact nominated all the individuals to sit on the committee, and simply didn't include any scholars who had been critical of the "video games = aggression" link. If I put together a committee and stack the deck, I can get it to say almost anything. That statement has no credibility whatsoever.
  • As for using my study, they absolutely misused and misrepresented my meta-analysis in that report. My data should, in no way, ever be used to support links between video game violence and aggression. We have done a number of studies of video game violence with both children and adults and find no evidence to support links between video game violence and youth violence. Furthermore, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows, not gone up in recent years.

Two years ago, on Techdirt, Mike Masnick also questioned Anderson's legitimacy, citing another report by two Harvard Medical School professors that came to the exact opposite conclusions about video games and aggression:

  • In the last 10 years, video games studies have been overwhelmingly popular compared to studies on other media
  • Less than half of studies (41%) used well-validated aggression measures.
  • Poorly standardised and unreliable measures of aggression tended to produce the highest effects, possibly because their unstandardised format allows researchers to pick and choose from a range of possible outcomes.
  • The closer aggression measures got to actual violent behaviour, the weaker the effects seen.
  • Experimental studies produced much higher effects than correlational or longitudinal studies. As experimental studies were most likely to use aggression measures of poor quality, this may be the reason why.
  • There was no evidence that video games produce higher effects than other media, despite their interactive nature.
  • Overall, effects were negligible, and we conclude that media violence generally has little demonstrable effect on aggressive behaviour.

I read up on Anderson several years ago for a Reason book review and came away very sceptical. Take this study from 2003, "Violent Video Games and Aggressive Behavior in Young Women" as an example of his research.

Anderson had young women play two video games, one violent (Street Fighter II), one not (Oh No! More Lemmings). Afterwards, he tested their willingness to administer "aversive stimuli" in the form of "loud noise blasts." Anderson found that the women who played Street Fighter "deliver[ed] more very loud noise blasts" than the ones who player Lemmings.

Thus, the conclusion that violent video games prompt aggressive behaviour.

Well, maybe.

But perhaps it just indicates that Street Fighter II is more exciting and immersive than Oh No! More Lemmings.

The study seems to indicate that video gamers experience a short-term adrenaline rush after playing an exciting game, but it requires a logical leap to connect this with any real-world violence at all, and an even bigger logical leap to then believe that video games are in large measure responsible for real-world violence.

Anderson's work has also been supported by a group called the National Institute on Media and the Family, which, before it closed in 2009, was essentially an anti-gaming lobbying group. I'm no psychologist, and I certainly haven't read everything Anderson has ever published.

I'm confident, though, that there's good reason to be sceptical of his claims - and of the people who use them as a way to avoid addressing gun control.