Violent Video Games, Aggression & News Media: A Broken Cycle

Published 1 year ago by , Updated March 26th, 2014 at 5:30 am,

Trevor with bat in GTA 5

There is a pattern in the way that studies on the effects of playing video games are presented in the news media, and it’s a pattern with some serious flaws. It begins with academic publications boiling down long and detailed studies into a few short paragraphs for a press release, with a title that’s tantalizing enough to attract interest from editors (bonus points if the title rhymes).

If the press release does its job then it will get picked up by a number of news outlets. Very few – if any – of the writers charged with turning the press release into a story will actually read the full study, and will instead use only the quotes and results offered up by the publication. In turn, these are spun into something that the average reader will find interesting with a headline designed to get people clicking (or buying the newspaper, if you’re feeling old-fashioned).

Here’s a recent example. A team of researchers from Brock University conducted a study into the effects of violent video games on children’s attitudes towards violence and the maturity of their sociomoral reasoning. The results were mixed and inconclusive: on average, there was no difference in stages of sociomoral reasoning found between the children who played mostly non-violent video games and those who played mostly violent video games. However, children who played violent video games for more than three hours each day were found to score lower on the sociomoral reasoning test than those who played only one or two hours.

Since the words “mixed” and “inconclusive” do not look at all good in a headline, this study – the conclusion of which was well-balanced and recommended simply that parents and teachers better familiarize themselves with the games that children were playing – was inevitably going to get skewed to one side or the other. Somewhat predictably, it was skewed to make the effects sound clearer and more significant than they actually were. Any results that suggested video games might not have a negative effect were omitted from Routledge’s press release, and were subsequently left out of news reports as well. Add in a little bit of editorial embellishment and you get headlines like “Violent video games leave teens morally immature” and “Playing too much GTA can actually make you a sociopath.”

Assassin's Creed Freedom Cry screenshot

This week another study on violent video games has been making the headlines. Douglas Gentile and Craig Anderson, of Iowa State University, analyzed a set of data from a three-year longitudinal study of 3034 Singaporean youth aged 11-17. The children were asked about their gaming habits and also given questionnaires designed to measure their behavior and their attitudes towards violence. Overall the children’s reported aggressiveness decreased over time, normal for teenagers whose self-control is maturing, but those who played more hours of video games were more likely to demonstrate increased aggressive attitudes. For Anderson, it was pretty clear what had happened:

“What this study does is show that it’s media violence exposure that is teaching children and adolescents to see the world in a more aggressive kind of way. It shows very strongly that repeated exposure to violent video games can increase aggression by increasing aggressive thinking.”

Those who have studied sociology, psychology or statistics in any capacity are no doubt already raising their eyebrows at this bold violation of the “correlation does not imply causation” rule. It could just as easily be the case, for example, that children who were more aggressive were more likely to take an interest in playing violent video games. It’s also possible that the time spent playing violent video games and the attitudes towards aggression were both caused by another factor or mix of factors. It’s worth noting that another study of 11,000 children in Scotland failed to find even a correlation between time spent playing video games and behavioral problems, let alone anything to suggest a causal link.

XKCD correlation

Source: xkcd

Gentile and Anderson’s peers have levied their own criticisms of the study. Psychologist Christopher Ferguson, a familiar name in such debates, told Reuters that it is simply “not a very good study” and that “this data set has been criticized before.” Science Media Centre collected responses from several different academics, and none were particularly convinced. Andrew Przybylski, a University of Oxford research fellow who has previously studied attitudes towards violent video games, argued that the results themselves don’t seem to show the significant effect that the study’s authors claim:

“Working backwards from some of the statistics present in the figures and tables it appears that violent game play accounts for a very small amount of variability in self-reported aggressive behavior. Said differently, imagine a Venn Diagram. The circle on the left represents all the variability observed for violent game play and the one on the right represents all of the variability observed in self-reported aggression: This research suggests that the overlap between these circles is in the neighbourhood of half of one percent.”

David Spiegelhalter, a statistician and Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, criticized the study for claiming a causal link between video games and aggression without proper evidence of one:

“This study shows an association, of unclear magnitude, of violent video game-playing with subsequent aggressive behavior. It does not, and cannot, show that the association is causal. The authors assume from the start that violent game play is what is influencing aggressive thoughts — the possibility that kids with latent aggressive tendencies tend to play violent video games does not seem to have been considered.”

Patrick Wolfe, a Professor of Statistics at University College London, also criticized the paper for claiming that correlation implied causation, and for treating questionnaire answers as an accurate measure of real-world behavior:

“It is important to note what was measured: answers to questions about aggressive behavior — not the behavior itself… Of course, it could be that there is an additional unseen factor which is mediating both aggressive game play and the youths’ answers to questions about aggressive behavior. There is no way to tell from this study and so the study cannot justly conclude that video game play “influences” or causes aggressive behavior, or even answers to questions about aggressive behavior.”

It probably doesn’t need to be said that the majority of news reports on Gentile and Anderson’s study did not critique it in a similar manner or even include any of the criticisms from other academics. Sample headlines include “Violent video games makes [sic] children grow up into aggressive adults, “Violent video games teach children aggressive thought and behavior patterns,” and the straight-forward, “Kids learn violence from video games.”

Spec Ops the Line artwork

Science and journalism are two fields that are ostensibly dedicated to a similar pursuit: finding out facts and sharing them with anyone who will listen. When the desire for a clickbait-y headline takes priority over transparency and full disclosure, it creates a certain narrative about video games in the news media, and it’s a narrative that could have a damaging effect.

It scarcely needs to be said that there’s more to violent video games than just violence. Sucker Punch’s latest open-world superhero/villain game inFAMOUS: Second Son is set in a version of the USA where government fear-mongering over terrorism has led to some serious sacrifices of personal liberty. Upcoming Ubisoft title Watch Dogs has strong thematic links to the recent NSA scandals. Spec Ops: The Line takes the assumption that the crusading American soldier is always the hero and brutally subverts it.

When video games carry messages as strong as those in books or films, it’s unnerving to see headlines like “Little By Little, Violent Video Games Make Us More Aggressive” in the news media, because these end up being used as the fuel for video game burnings and calls for government control and censorship of the medium. All because the problem of violence – a problem that has been around for thousands of years – is rather dubiously being blamed on a medium that didn’t even exist until a few decades ago.

One thing’s for sure: until this broken cycle gets fixed, stock photos of children holding video game controllers and looking angry are where the money’s at.

  • DarthMalnu

    If it ain’t the Grand Theft Auto, it’s Elvis wigglin’ them dang hips!

    Violent video games aren’t a problem, ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY is. The generation that grew up playing violent video games are adults now. We are surrounded by the result of playing violent video games since childhood. Not only is society not comprised of sociopathic aggressive degenerates (Jersey Shore notwithstanding), but the world is progressing toward a more peaceful accepting place.

    In fact, for the most part the only people left that regularly condemn, attack and restrict the rights of others seem to be from the generation that grew up without video games… though, correlation does not imply causation. Only an idiot would think otherwise.

  • Andrew Lewis

    If you dont like it dont buy it but do not join in the new generation of nazis and try to force your beliefs on the rest of us. I honestly see it as a full fledged crime against humanity and also treason against god and the human race as we were given the right to choose for ourselves. And what im about to say may be disturbing but is completely honest and proves the ignorance of the censors. I have aspergers autism, adhd, bipolar disorder, and due to abuse and bullying all through school I had post traumatic stress dusirder by the time I entered high school. if not for video games which i used and still use to take out my utter rage and absolute pure hatred for the rest of humanity and also to help me cope when life gets hard I would have killed a lot of people in school and i mean a lot and yes I am dead serious about that. Having an outlet to take my hurt and pain out on which also doubled as a way to escape reality when things got too rough there would be possibly a hundred or more corpses at my school and I thank god every day that these games exist as I would never want to hurt anyone but wouldnt have been able to stop it. So the idea of banning an extremely effective tool to prevent real life violence and also a way for mentally handicapped people like me to be abvle to escape for a bit from a world we cannot cope with and giving us happiness and so very much needed moments of peace in our pain and fear filled lives would not just be cruel but stupid and a full fledged crime against humanity.

  • ex-sell69

    And the worst part is: if it weren’t for all the (fake) controversy about violence in video games (Mortal Kombat and Night Trap), we wouldn’t have a rating system, and today’s games would still be self censored (by Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo)… So today’s games are more violent because of the rating system! Back in the days (NES, SNES), games were either censored, or they weren’t released outside Japan due to content… And some people wish they could go back to those days when video games were about fun, and not about trying to be the most controversial. I guess video gaming will never be like it used to be… So all I can say is: nothing makes you do anything illegal, you have to do it yourself! But we live in a world where people like to play the victim… They think: it’s every things else’s fault, not theirs… And yes, I know, I know… If words could solve problems, someone better than me would had done it already.

  • Alky

    Well written article. I think as long as GTA (a kinda canary down the mine) ain’t banned, gamers needn’t worry too much

  • BlueCollarCritic

    As a parent of more then one pre-teen child I can tell you first hand that video games DO affect children whne played for extedned periods. My youngest is a very sweet child (compared to her classmastes and friends) and when she plays video games for too long (2 hours or more) it starts to affect her behaivor and it happens every time. Her older sister (1.5 years older) can play Halo with me for 3 hours and act no different unlike her younger sister. That said I can clearly see how playing teh game has somewhat decensitized her to violence and so I’m very careful to not let either play any game involving violence with people. ALines and robotys are not real where as people are and whether or not playing video games can change someone it certainly can decensitize them to violence just as prolonged expsoure to violent video in the form of movies or TV can do the same.

    That does not mean that every child who plays video games will respond the same way oir even in a negative manner but don’t try to argue that video ganmes have no affect on kids either.

    • DarthMalnu

      It all depends on if her behavior changes due to the content of the game, or out of frustration or aggressive competition. Most aggression from games stems from a feeling of inadequacy of being beaten, or not being as good as a co op player, or frustration of not being able to figure out a puzzle ect. There’s a huge difference between aggression from exposure to fictional violence, and aggression as a side effect of competition.

      A kid gets angry over a Call of Duty match= moral panic and censorship. A kid gets knocks another kids tooth out in a hockey game = that’s my boy.

      • DarthMalnu

        wow, I right bunged up that last sentence, but you get the idea.

    • Andrew

      Well, if a parent doesn’t want their child to play some of these violent games, then the parent should act like.. well, a parent and make sure they’re NOT playing these games. I wouldn’t allow a small child to play something like Call of Duty myself, but if some other parent does then they need to make sure they don’t play for too long, as you suggested.
      I tire quickly though of the news media and their fearmongering, where they try to get us to believe that all gamers who play violent games will turn into criminals later on. That’s simply not true, and the nanny state types need to stop doing that.

  • Hector

    Not only everything that everyone has said is a good point, but also this: what about tv, media, movies, kids in school. All of these things are responsible for increased aggression and desensitization. Parents complain that games make their kids violent… well hey, guess what, you’re the ones buying these games for them. Check the rating, know that if your kid is of an age where the behavior we see online is unacceptable then don’t expose that to them. Then the issue becomes parents who just don’t care. Parents who would rather their kids do whatever, as long as they didn’t bother them.

    I know for one, video games and media have not made me violent, but rather the rest of society. Not allowing another opinion other than your own to be right, is frustrating. Being stuck in your ways, is frustrating. Not being accepting of anything different, is frustrating.

    If you’re a good parent, then you should be able to let your kid play these games AND have them growing up like decent human beings. Not one thing is to blame. It is NEVER just one thing which holds the blame. When it comes to causation, there is often more than one thing which led to this cause. A combination of factors. This problem is not as simple as being caused by just one factor (video games). In fact, because of this bad connotation, people forget that games are about so much more. They offer people the chance to not only create an amazing world with many facets, but also allow people to live and experience these worlds outside a reality which could very much well be frightening (I’m not saying it’s ok to run away from problems, but it’s ok to have something to help).

    I ask to stop putting the blame on gaming, stop giving us biased results just cause you want games to be labeled as evil. Look at the other related factors.

  • Alky

    When tragedies like Sandy Hook happen, its only right that people want answers. And the culprits supposed passion of gaming is a good place to start. But I can tell you right now, adam lanza did what he did, not because of gaming, but because he was born a f****** ugly ****!

  • Kenny

    I feel it all really depends on who’s play rather than what games they are playing. I have been playing video games my whole life and I act much more passive, never aggressive. In fact video games have always encouraged me to do more good and help people out. I will state I play much more ‘non-violent’ games, typically Nintendo, but I play my fair share of shooters, Fallout and GTA and though it is fun to drive around on the sidewalks and shoot people, it’s something I’d never do in reality.

    On the other side of the argument I can see how adolescent teens between the ages of 13-17 can act violent. The majority of immature teens usually play video games and I feel that’s what this argument’s ‘concept grip’ is. when I was in the awkward ages between 13-17 I never acted as immature as the vast majority do, I still treated others with respect. Teens who bully or who act aggressive are often gamers, but that doesn’t mean video games are the causes of negative influences.

    Still the argument is completely ridicules. No matter what immature teens will always act aggressive, even before gaming was even a thing. While we’re at it might as well ban violent movies too if gaming is such a big deal. The Media is simply just trying to put a dot into the gaming industry so they can make more bang for their buck.

  • Dan

    “until this broken cycle gets fixed, stock photos of children holding video game controllers and looking angry are where the money’s at”