Videos – only a game?

However widespread the assumption that video games are linked with real-life violence, research so far has failed to find any concrete link between the two.

Howard Fienberg

Topics Culture

The average teenager seemingly solves all his problems with guns in the virtual world of video games. So might video games serve as a ‘gateway’ device, turning players of violent games into real-life murderers?

The American court system is trying to find out. Relatives of victims in the massacre at Columbine High School have sued the makers of video games, saying that the games led to the killings (1).

However, research has so far failed to identify any concrete link between video games and violence. Indeed, the most recent studies indicate that we may never get the evidence locked and loaded.

Several old studies connecting virtual and real-world violence failed to control for differences between violent and non-violent games. Could mundane video games like Pong inspire violence the same as first-person shoot-‘em-up games like Doom?

Countless other experiments failed to control for important factors which potentially obscure what arouses a kid when he or she plays a violent video game, including violence, gore, speed, bright colours and difficulty level.

Better conceived than most, a 1987 study from the journal Psychology specifically selected games similar in dimensions of excitement, difficulty and enjoyment, yet could find no effect from violence. Professors Craig Anderson and Karen Dill admitted that ‘there is presently no empirical evidence on whether playing a violent video game increases accessibility of aggressive thoughts.’

In April 2000, Anderson and Dill published their two most recent research studies on violent video games in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2). In the first study, they concluded that playing violent video games was linked to real-world violent behaviour and delinquency. But this was based on correlation, not causation. They linked a personality type to a pastime, so the correlation could be simply that people who are violent and criminal play violent video games.

The second study was more useful. One group played the violent (but rather outdated) Wolfenstein, 3-D while another group played the non-violent Myst. Both groups were tested for aggression afterwards.

The first test measured the speed with which subjects could repeat aggressive words flashed on a screen in front of them. But psychologist Guy Cumberpatch, director of the Communications Research Group, disregards this measurement, since it is hard to tell if the violent video game speeded up responses – as Anderson and Dill claim – or if the non-violent game slowed responses.

The second test was held after a similar gameplay episode a week later, and checked subjects’ reaction times to sound. Those that reacted fastest were then given the opportunity to blast an opponent (which they thought was another human, but was actually a computer) with a loud noise and those that were too slow were subjected to a noise themselves.

The researchers found that those that had played the violent game blasted their opponent longer and louder than those that had played the nonviolent game. But the difference was actually minimal. The blasts delivered by subjects who had played violent games were longer, by all of two percent, and the average blast for all the students was about half a second – far too short for reasonable analysis.

So Anderson and Dill’s conclusion, that ‘playing a violent video game increased the aggressiveness of participants’, is not very convincing. They found an association, but are light years away from establishing causation.

If violent video games are part of the problem, they are not obviously the discernable cause of that problem. These games are at times more popular outside the USA, but youth violence is far more prevalent here than in other countries. While this does not preclude a link, it does usefully highlight that the issue is far more complex than we might expect. A measure of ‘aggression’ may not be a useful proxy for real-world violence, which, while troubling, is relatively rare.

The scientific jury cannot conclude that violent video games create violent offenders and the difficulties in researching the link will not go away. Researchers first had to understand that not all video games are alike. Next, they will need to realize that not all children are alike. Violent video games may cause trouble in a disturbed child while the average child probably just shoots the bad guys, and grows up normal.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-profit, non-partisan research organisation in Washington, DC.

(1) See Columbine families sue computer game makers, BBC News Online, 1 May 2001

(2) See Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviour in the laboratory and in life, by Anderson and Gill, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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