Posted By Mark B. about 2 years, 5 months ago
Top 5 Reasons Why I Don’t Believe Games Make People Violent,
Recently, Eli C. wrote an article on site which made reference to a mildly depressing though not entirely surprising statistic.
According to a survey, 54 per cent of Americans believe that playing violent video games is linked to violent behaviour. If a similar poll were conducted in the UK where I am based, I expect that a similar proportion of people may well share that opinion.
And why wouldn’t they? Whenever your obligatory haunted-looking loner shoots up his school or does something terrible to a classmate, there’s almost always a subsequent claim that a violent game had something to do with it.
Politicians and social commentators often express concern on this issue and, furthermore, for years psychologists have reported findings which have been widely reported as credible scientific evidence of a causal link.
However, I have to say that I genuinely do not believe that playing violent video games makes people violent. And I remain thoroughly unconvinced by claims to the contrary.
Here are the five main reasons why:
Very few scientific studies actually provide evidence for a link with violent behaviour
On the face of it, this may sound ridiculous. Countless studies conducted by psychologists have been reported as providing evidence for a causal link, and many academics have published papers or meta-analysis setting out the harmful effects that playing violent games may have – particularly on children and teenagers.
However, in practice, what nearly all of these studies are actually measuring and reporting is a link between the playing of violent games and short-term increases in ‘aggression’, ‘hostility’, or ‘anti-social behaviour’. Not violence.
The distinction is an important one. The kinds of measures employed in these experiments might involve participants playing a violent game, and then self-reporting aggressive or negative thoughts, being observed on their subsequent interactions with others, or being tested on their willingness to co-operate, demonstrate empathy etc. Very few studies actually measure behavioural aggression – the intentional infliction of physical harm – which would ultimately be classed as ‘violence’.
Even so, I can already hear people arguing that aggression, hostility and anti-social behaviour aren’t exactly desirable attributes – and may lead to violence in any case. However, I would suggest that many findings to this effect should be taken with a pinch of salt. Many of the methods used to measure aggression in these studies seem fairly dubious and there are plenty of researchers who are sceptical of them.
A comprehensive review of such studies published by Professor Christopher Ferguson in the Journal of Pediatrics last year reported that less than half the studies examined used well-validated measures of aggression (i.e. it’s possible that they weren’t truly or accurately measuring aggressive thoughts or behaviour), the most unreliable methods produced the largest effects (so the stronger the experimental design, the weaker the findings), and the evidence was less persuasive when aggression was measured over a long period (so long-term negative effects don’t seem to be as readily observed).
Most tellingly, Prof Ferguson also found that the closer aggression measures actually got to violent behaviour, the weaker the effects observed by researchers were. Hence, the vast majority of scientific studies are not actually providing evidence for a link between playing violent games, and violent behaviour.
The evidence that does exist is seriously flawed
Some experiments do purport to show a causal link between violent video games and physically aggressive behaviour, which could be termed violence. For example, Bartholow and Anderson (2002) had one group of students play Mortal Kombat, and another group play PGA Tournament Golf. Immediately afterwards the students were asked to take part in a reaction time task, and set ‘punishments’ for another person on that task in the form of noise blasts.
And guess what? Those who had played Mortal Kombat administered higher levels of noise blasts than those who had played PGA.
This type of study pops up again and again in the literature. And the problems are numerous. Firstly, the measure of violence is somewhat abstract, and the whole situation is quite artificial. Therefore, it’s hard to see how this particular finding is relevant to everyday life. People don’t just walk around blasting each other with bursts of noise do they? Secondly, if you were a student in this experiment, and someone asked you to play Mortal Kombat and then administer ‘punishments’, might you not quite easily figure out what hypothesis the researchers were working on, and oblige them? Unconsciously or not, people often act to meet the expectations of experimenters in studies such as these. Thirdly, the measure of ‘violence’ takes place immediately after the game has been played, so there is no evidence of any long-term increase in violent behaviour, desensitisation to violence or adverse changes in personality.
Indeed, there are very few studies which have actually assessed the long-term effects of playing violent video games – generally because such longitudinal research is complex, time-consuming and potentially more expensive, so many researchers are less inclined to attempt it.
And when the issue has been examined, the findings haven’t always been music to the ears of the ‘video games cause violence’ brigade. Ihori et al. (2003) found that exposure to violent games was linked with reduced pro-social behaviour in Japanese schoolchildren over time, but they also reported that it was not linked to increased levels of violent physical behaviour. And Williams and Skoric (2005) concluded, after monitoring a group playing a violent online game over a long period of time, that playing the game did not result in increased violent tendencies in real-life.
Links to shocking crimes are often built on unsubstantiated rumour, and fall down under closer scrutiny
One of the most common ways in which concern over the influence of video game violence flares up is as the result of media reporting on a horrific, high-profile crime – usually perpetrated by a teenager or College student.
Campus massacres such as Columbine and Virginia Tech have been linked with video games, with some claiming that the perpetrators were obsessed with violent games, and even trained for their actions by using them.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a huge wave of anger whenever such claims are made. But when we’re confronted with crimes of such horrifying brutality committed by people so young, the easiest thing to do is find a scapegoat and blame it on the influence of violent movies, TV or games, rather than face up to possibility that all might not be quite well with the society in which we live.
In the UK, the savage murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah became known as the ‘Manhunt Murder’ after the game was blamed for the killing. But the police rejected any link with Manhunt, revealing that they had found a copy of the game in Stefan’s room – not his attacker’s – and that the motive was simple robbery.
Suggestions that the murderer behind Virginia Tech had been obsessed with Counter-Strike seemed a little bizarre given that he had not apparently played the game for years before the massacre, and the idea that Columbine had come about because the kids had played a little too much Doom didn’t stand up to closer inspection either.
An official report on high school shootings conducted by the US Secret Service and Department of Education in 2004 found that ‘immersion in violent video games’ had been present in only 12 per cent of cases. And even in those where it was present, it’s quite possible that such immersion could be symptomatic of underlying psychological issues, rather than a cause.
When the FBI released an official report on the risk factors associated with the perpetrators of high-school shootings ten years ago, an interest in violent media was just one of 28 traits highlighted. And just this year, an FBI study into College campus attacks in the US suggested that the most common factors triggering such assaults involved the fallout from an intimate relationship, retaliation for a specific action, refused advances or obsession with a person, and response to academic stress or failure.
This suggests that there are far more compelling psychological and social explanations for such shocking crimes, which brings us on to the next argument…
There are much more powerful factors at work in determining violent behaviour
Recently, a British politician by the name of Keith Vaz (who has real form on this issue), claimed that a spate of racist shootings in Sweden had been convincingly linked to the game Counter-Strike.
So increasing racial tensions in that country, and a recent notable surge in far-right political influence, might merely be a secondary factor I take it? Presumably Mr Vaz knows little of the perpetrator’s own psychological history or background either, and in line with the previous argument, there’s little or no evidence as far as anyone can tell that Counter-Strike was actually involved in any tangible way.
When you think about it, it’s actually quite astounding that some people think that violent video games can play more of a role in shaping somebody’s violent behaviour than, say, their upbringing, personal history, peer group, social circumstances, ideological outlook, psychological profile and emotional state.
Could violent imagery, in games or other media, perhaps contribute to or exacerbate somebody’s personality disorder, psychosis, or general aggressive tendencies? It’s possible. But play a major or even key role in determining such things? I doubt it.
In the horrifying ‘campus shooting cases’ mentioned above, perpetrators are typically found to have had profound psychological and social problems which would seem to far outweigh any influence that violent media may have.
And there are so many powerful factors at work in determining violence in society generally. An official 2008 report commissioned by the UK Audit Office suggested that the most important determinants of violent crime in the UK include drug and alcohol use, peer group, relationships and poverty and inequality. The influence of violent games doesn’t even get a mention.
Similarly, a 2001 report by the US Surgeon General looking at risk factors for youth violence highlighted major factors such as substance use and delinquent peers, followed by moderate factors such as poverty and the influence of antisocial parents, and then a whole raft of less serious factors – of which exposure to TV violence (and not video games specifically) is mentioned, but ultimately drowned out by numerous cultural, psychological and familial concerns.
Many millions of people have been playing violent games, but violent crime hasn’t increased
As simple as it may seem, this is the real elephant in the room that should, by rights, give crusading politicians and moralising newspapers some real food for thought.
Video games, including the violent variety, have dramatically increased in popularity since the early 90s, and have never been more widely consumed. And it’s fair to say that many of the most high-profile and popular titles are quite violent. Modern Warfare 2, ‘no Russian’ level and all, was bought by 7 million people on the first day of its release last year, and for years millions of people have spent hours on end playing first-person shooters and infamous best-sellers such as the GTA titles. Video game violence has been prevalent in our homes for much of the past two decades.
Given this, if violent video games made even 0.1 per cent of people who played them violent (or more prone to violent behaviour at least) we would surely expect rates of assault and murder to have risen along with the surge in popularity of these games.
Instead, the evidence seems to point to quite the opposite pattern. It isn’t just that violent crime hasn’t gone up as more people have taken to playing violent games – the crime rate actually appears to have gone down.
In the US, general violent crime rates, murder rates and instances of youth violence have been steadily declining over the past few decades, recently hitting 40-year lows. In the UK, both statistics from the Home Office and the British Crime Survey suggest that incidences of violent crime fell dramatically in the period between 1995 and 2009. And even though violence committed by strangers in the UK has remained stable, rather than falling as it has in the US, it has not increased either.
If I were ignorant of the limitations of correlation, I might even be bold and foolish enough to suggest that the increasing popularity of violent video games has led to this apparent decline in violence. But let’s not get carried away. No, what this really demonstrates is that violent video games simply cannot be contributing to a monumental increase in violent acts – because there hasn’t been one.
I’ll accept that statistics can be manipulated or made to ‘look good’ by governments, but as the shifts have been so marked, and the trends backed-up by victim surveys as well as official data gathering, this seems a pretty compelling argument to me.
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