In a Dec. 21 press conference that broke a week of silence following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre was unequivocal: another industry held more blame for the killing.
There is, he said, a “dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.” That industry, he explained, was the one that produced video games like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, Splatterhouse, and even one called Kindergarten Killer (a low-grade web-based game developed for shock value that is, indeed, about shooting children who, in turn, try to shoot you).
Immediately, voices from around the media chimed in with their own counter-truths, just as unequivocal. Writing for The New York Times’ Arts Beat blog, writer and video game critic Chris Suellentrop stated that “There’s no evidence that video games cause — or even correlate with — violence, and that can’t be stated often enough.”
So which is it? They can’t both be right, can they?
In an effort to ostensibly set the record straight, several news outlets have tried to present readers with the latest science on violent video games and real-world violence, including Daily Kos, PBS, and the Christian Science Monitor. Each has neglected some of the most current research available. We examined some of that research here on Motherboard earlier this month -- coincidentally, just days before the Sandy Hook shootings.
I would like, then, to update the record a bit—to further separate fact from conjecture by drawing upon some of that overlooked research, among other things. I by no means claim to exhaust the subject. I'm leaving aside, for example, the ample scholarship suggesting that gaming leads to increased visual cognition and greater sociability and more confidence in creative problem solving. The links I’ve included here offer a starting point for that research. But a bit more clarity, it seems, is in order, so let's look at the issues claim by claim.
Prolonged exposure to video games have been linked to accumulating aggression.
Perhaps the most important distinction to make in this discussion is a clarification of terms—the difference between violence and aggression. Violence cannot be ethically replicated in a laboratory setting, so determining causality between violent video games and actually shooting, clubbing or raping someone is more or less impossible.
Scientists have, however, been very recently able to create something close to causality between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior. The most persuasive evidence I have seen comes from a study released just this month (right before the Newtown shootings) by an international team of scientists, including psychologist Brad J. Bushman at Ohio State University.
In the study, 70 subjects were divided into two groups and asked to play video games for 20 minutes a day for three days. One group played violent video games (Condemned 2, Call of Duty 4, and The Club) and the other played non-violent but competitive games. The groups were then tested each day in a series of tests to measure aggression and hostile expectations. The study found that subjects who played the violent video games exhibited hostile and aggressive tendencies that the control group did not. What’s more, that aggression and hostility increased with each subsequent day. For more on that study, read here.
Aggressive behavior—in this study’s case, demonstrated, among other ways, by a subject’s willingness to assault an opponent with ever longer and louder blasts of unpleasant noise through a set of headphones—must of course be separated from violent acts like killing, physical assault, and rape. But there is a bit of violence embedded in every act of aggression, even if that violence is only enacted on someone’s ears or psyche. In this context, claims that like those made in The New York Times (and many, many other places) seem at least slightly disingenuous. Video games may not cause violence, but they may help prime someone already on the edge with a fresh shot of aggression and hostility, in a culture already beset by violence and easy access to guns.
High levels of video game play do not correlate with more violent societies.
In that same New York Times post, Suellentrop rightly notes that a correlation between violent game-play and violent societies does not exist when examined on a country-to-country basis. As evidence, he cites a simple Washington Post study from earlier this month, which looked at the rate of gun murders per 100,000 people among the ten countries with the world’s largest video game markets. As one might expect, the United States is a major, major outlier. Canada, China, South Korea, Japan, and several Western European countries all hover around the same, relatively low rate.
Data source: UNODC, others; graphic by Max Fisher/Washington Post
Looking at the above graph, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the problem is guns, not video games. This is a mostly fair conclusion. An important point gets left out here, however.
The difference between the US and those other countries is that if a violent video game does in some way incite (or at least desensitize) someone to violence, it's only in the US that he is so likely to have easy access to a gun. A country-to-country comparison does nothing to prove that violent video games can't encourage gun violence where conditions for gun violence are already optimal. It's a non-correlation among apples and oranges.
It leads one to the unexpected conclusion that, although such comparisons make a very important point, we must continue also to perform studies isolated to the United States to understand how violent video games, aggression, and violence interact under unique, American conditions. Which is to say, uniquely permeated by gun show loopholes, assault weapons sales, and the, by most estimates, around 300 million guns in private hands.
The family that slays together, stays together.
A slight bit of literary interpretation, perhaps. But it’s true that another study, this one also tied to Ohio State, found earlier this year that when subjects are asked to play violent video games with a partner in which the two are asked to perform as a team (instead of competing against one’s partner for points, or competing to “kill” their partners first), those subjects were the most likely to exhibit cooperative tendencies in a real-world game with their partners later on. If cooperation can be viewed as something like the anti-aggression, one may somewhat counterintuitively conclude that violent video games could actually be used to temper aggression. (The military has already begun testing a virtual reality programs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.)
When I wrote about the accumulated aggression study, I asked Bushman, a co-author, about his colleague’s study about cooperation. In an email, he noted first that Bushman noted first that subjects in his study played alone. “I would have predicted smaller or even nonsignificant effects had they played in cooperative groups,” he added. This is a very, very important point. Killers like Adam Lanza, aside from being mentally ill, are almost always described as loners. Violent video games probably aren’t making them loners, but one can persuasively argue that playing video games alone isn’t doing their already anti-social tendencies any favors.
The study is encouraging because, as Henry Jenkins, director of comparative studies at MIT, notes in an essay on the impact of gaming for PBS, almost 60 percent of gamers play with friends; 33 percent game with siblings and 25 percent say they game with parents or spouses. Jenkins rightly adds that “games designed for single players are often played socially, with one person giving advice to another holding a joystick,” and that “a growing number of games are designed for multiple players—for either cooperative play in the same space or online play with distributed players.” The latter is an obvious point, perhaps, but worth restating. Most people aren't gaming alone, even if they’re the only person physically in the room.
In terms of mental health, it also underscores the mitigating influence of friends and family in a person’s emotions and behavior. Some would argue that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were friends when they shot up Columbine High School together, and they would be right. But most mass shooters we've seen acted alone. And it's probably better to have friends to play video games with, however violent, than no friends at all.
All boys play video games.
Well, not all. But a whole lot do. And when we talk about shooters, we are only talking about boys and young men.
With regard to the accumulating aggression study, it’s important to note that that there is nothing to indicate such effects are lasting, or that they actively re-shape a person’s worldview or propensity toward aggression over time. Taking such measurements, though perhaps not impossible, has proved elusive so far.
Critics of violent video games often point out that pretty much every mass shooter you hear about also plays violent video games. Violent video games, they conclude, must lead to violence.
The problem with that is that almost every boy plays video games. Jenkins notes that “It's true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But,” he adds, “young people in general are more likely to be gamers — 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play.”
Still his point underscores the basic propositional fallacy wielded by those who persist in noting that killers play video games. It’s called affirming the consequent. It’s saying “all mass shooters play video games; I play video games, therefore, I’m a killer.”
It’s important to note that Jenkins references “video games” here, not “violent video games,” which is its own bit of logical fallacy—an incomplete comparison.
The jury is still out regarding long-term effects.
As Bushman et al. note, prior research indicates violent media of any kind “should have a cumulative effect over time.” One model they cite (Huesmann 1988, 1998; Huesmann & Eron 1984) suggests that scripts in human memory, like scripts in a play, tell people how to behave. “Scripts can be learned by direct experience or by observing others, including mass media characters,” they explain. “According to this theory, repeated exposure to media violence results in the practice and rehearsal of aggressive scripts, and the creation and reinforcement of a hostile worldview over time.”
Other research, they go on to note, supports a related theory about attribution (e.g., Dodge 1980; Dodge & Frame 1982; Fite, Goodnight, Bates, Dodge, & Pettit 2008). According to that theory, people attribute explanations to why things happen. Why did that person step on your toe? Was it intentional, or was it more likely an accident? Research, they say, indicates that “people who consume a heavy dose of violent media eventually come to view the world as a hostile place.”
But there’s another, also related, factor at play: desensitization. It’s common for people to claim that violent video games—indeed, all violent media—desensitize people to real-world violence. Jenkins points to research by NYU professor Eric Zimmerman (a game designer, it is important to note) suggesting that people understand the difference between real world action and play action—what Zimmerman refers to as entering the “magic circle.” Testing aggression in a play setting (i.e., a lab setting) only demonstrates that “violent play leads to more violent play,” Jenkins explains, noting earlier:
Media reformers argue that playing violent video games can cause a lack of empathy for real-world victims. Yet, a child who responds to a video game the same way he or she responds to a real-world tragedy could be showing symptoms of being severely emotionally disturbed.
This may be true. Again, there is a counterpoint. In 2009 Bushman et al. published another paper based on two experiments: In the first, subjects were divided in half and asked to play a violent or non-violent video game for 20 minutes. While completing a long questionnaire, a loud fight was simulated in which someone was injured outside the lab. Those who had played the violent video game took longer to respond.
In the second study, researchers created groups to attend violent or non-violent movies. Outside the movie theater, an actress faked dropping her crutches and struggling to pick them up. Participants were timed to see how long it took to respond to the woman’s feigned distress.
One group of violent movie watchers was tested before the movie; another was tested after. A group of non-violent movie watchers was tested before the movie; another was tested after.
As predicted, the group who had just finished watching the violent movie was slower to respond than the other three groups. The study says nothing about long-term effects, but it may belie the idea posited by Jenkins and Zimmerman, at least on some level.
Again, it’s worth noting that this article doesn’t claim to offer a complete compendium of the extant science on violent video games and violence. In some areas, we’ve barely scratched the surface. But the evidence presented here should stand as a reminder to all of us to at least avoid pat responses about a complex subject, in which definitions are important, and truths exist along a graded spectrum.