Only two days after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut became the second-deadliest school shooting in American history, the connection between violence and video games has once again been thrown into the public spotlight. The debate never fades away entirely, as parental groups, academicians, and games industry enthusiasts actively debate the long-term affects of the interactive entertainment medium.
Now, a new study from the UniversitÃ© Pierre-MendÃ¨s-France, with assistance from Ohio State University and University of Hohenheim analysts, finds that regular videogaming can lead to an increase in aggressive behavior as well as a more violent worldview.
Understandably, gamers will be defensive of any study that claims the games they love are unknowingly turning them into aggressive and potentially violent individuals but there's no doubt that, if for no other reason than to dismiss anti-video gaming activists, studying the long-term affect of any regular activity is a worthwhile endeavor. Considering that the gaming community is increasing rapidly, especially with so many portable devices on the market, as is our ability to render near-photorealistic violence, co-author of the study, Brad Bushman (an Ohio State University professor of Communication and Psychology) has a reasonable enough argument for testing long-term gaming affects:
“It’s important to know the long-term causal effects of violent video games, because so many young people regularly play these games. Playing video games could be compared to smoking cigarettes. A single cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression.”
Bushman and his colleagues studied seventy French university students who agreed to participate in the study under the guise that the researches would be analyzing the effect of the games on visual perception, not post-playtime aggression. The researchers then divided the students into two groups: one that would play a selection of violent titles (Condemned 2, Call of Duty 4, The Club) for 20 minutes over three days and one that would play a selection of non-violent titles (S3K Superbike, Dirt2, Pure) over the same time period.
Following each play session, the researchers had the participants engage in a pair of exercises that would help researchers determine whether or not gaming lead to increasing aggression in the violent title group. In the first exercise participants were tasked with estimating how characters would respond throughout a tension-filled story scenario (such as a fender bender) and researchers made note of potentially aggressive and violent reactions. In the second exercise, participants were instructed to compete against a concealed opponent in a game of perception, first person to see a visual cue onscreen wins, and after 25 rounds the champion elects how severe a punishment the loser would receive (specifically the duration and volume of an "unpleasant" sound effect - ex. fingernails on a chalk board, dentist drills, and sirens). However, there was no opponent and researchers were actually studying whether the violent game-playing group would dole out a harsher punishment to the non-existent loser than the non-violent game group.
The results of the study show that, in the case of the violent game group, not only did "hostile expectations" increase each day, shown by an increase in aggressive or violent expectations for characters in their respective story scenarios, after each play session the participants also elected to punish their visual cue opponents with longer and louder noise blasts. For the record, participants of the study in the non-violent gaming group showed no increase in aggression.
With regard to the first exercise, Bushman and the other researchers concluded:
“People who have a steady diet of playing these violent games may come to see the world as a hostile and violent place. These results suggest there could be a cumulative effect.”
As a result, if players of violent video games see their environment as more hostile than non-players, the researchers argue that individuals are more likely to react aggressively to others - which could be reflected in the results of the second exercise (i.e. longer and louder punishments).
“Hostile expectations are probably not the only reason that players of violent games are more aggressive, but our study suggests it is certainly one important factor. After playing a violent video game, we found that people expect others to behave aggressively. That expectation may make them more defensive and more likely to respond with aggression themselves, as we saw in this study and in other studies we have conducted.”
However, Bushman freely admits that it's possible increased aggression could level-off at some point. Meaning that while gamers might become slightly more aggressive, there's no indication that the increased hostility levels would continue to compile ad infinitum.
"I would expect that the increase in aggression would accumulate for more than three days. It may eventually level off. However, there is no theoretical reason to think that aggression would decrease over time, as long as players are still playing the violent games."
The study only claims that perceived increases in aggression are statistically significant and does not directly state the variance between non-violent gaming participants and those that played violent titles. In the end, there's no reason to doubt that certain games could lead to increased "hostile expectations" but, without statistical context, it's premature for anyone to take the study as proof that violent video games lead to a dangerous increase in violent real-world actions. Especially considering that we've seen similar studies arguing that the connection between violent video games and violent behavior is nominal.
Additionally, it's worth noting that most gamers don't simply consume "a steady diet of playing these violent games," since most gamers enjoy a variety of narrative and gameplay experiences - experiences that can be mentally stimulating, emotionally impactful, humorous, and downright stress-reducing. That doesn't mean that some players don't gravitate from one hardcore shooter to the next but, in a world where many parents and industry critics simply assume that most video games are brain-rotting celebrations of anarchy that lead to real world violent tendencies, it's all the more important that gamers and non-gamers alike help us celebrate the titles and experiences that push the boundaries of narrative, character interaction, and multiplayer engagement. Admitting that video games can be art might be a good first step.
We realize that gaming and violence are touchy subjects (especially right now so), if you choose to comment, please be respectful of each other and the recent tragedy in Connecticut.
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