Ever wanted to know the scientific details behind violence and video games? Hop on our guided tour of one of the major debates of the past two decades.

Here’s A Look At The Major Scientific Studies About Violence in Video Games

Ever wanted to know the scientific details behind violence and video games? Hop on our guided tour of one of the major debates of the past two decades.

Studies focusing on the effect of violent media have been going on for decades. When video games rose to prominence around the same time as school shootings in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was only natural that many people, scientists or otherwise, attempted to draw connections between the phenomena. 

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The early scientific studies that arose in 2001 focusing on the link between aggression and violent video games are best characterized as desperate attempts to separate fact from fiction amidst growing public concern. Many of these studies contradict each other*, with arguments to be found for and against a link between violence and video games. 

Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association

The relationship between violence and video games was truly put under the microscope during the Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association (originally Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association) Supreme Court Case. 

Long story short, California and Schwarzenegger wanted to limit sales of violent video games to minors and the Entertainment Merchants Association didn’t want this to happen. Arnold’s probably just jealous of video games because he hasn’t blessed that medium with his own brand of violence (yet). 

Considering California used research that called Super Mario Bros. violent, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions holding the California law unconstitutional. Justice Antonin Scalia authored the majority opinion (7-2) writing,

Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas – and even social messages – through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection. 

In other words, every kid in California under 18 that has ever played a video game with some violence, should be thanking the Supreme Court for this decision. You should also thank the First Amendment for giving us the freedom of speech. 

Grand Theft Childhood

The Supreme Court decision seemed to put a damper on studies related to video games and violence for a few years. Yet in 2008 Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson released their book Grand Theft Childhood, which sought to define normal play patterns, unusual play patterns, and risk markers in an effort to aid parents, health professionals, and policymakers. 

This 1.5 million dollar study was able to establish how long children played each week, why children played games, and how children playing mainly M-rated games differentiated from others. 

Olson and Kutner’s key points regarding video games and violence found that boys who played M-rated games “a lot” were twice as likely to engage in aggressive behavior than boys who primarily played games with a lower ratings. Girls who played M-rated games “a lot” were four times as likely to be in a physical fight than girls who didn’t play M-rated games as often.

In a follow-up study in 2009, Olson, Kutner et al. note that the associations between violent video games and aggressive behaviors (bullying, fist fights) continue to be stronger for girls than boys. I’d like to hold myself up as an exception to this rule because I’ve never engaged in bullying or fistfights, but I also didn’t play M-rated games as a teenager. I was too involved with Final Fantasy X to care about Grand Theft Auto IV

Of course, this information doesn’t come without its caveats, namely that most teens who play M-rated games do not have a serious problem. Additionally, Kutner and Olson point out that,

Based on our survey results, the average 12-year-old boy plays at least one M-rated game “a lot”; in other words, by definition, some amount of violent game play is normal for young teen boys. 

The book also found that kids with certain characteristics are at higher risk of experience problems from violent video games. This is supported by several studies in 2010 which note that there are environmental as well as personality factors that attract kids to certain types of games. Common sense, right?

Honestly, this book is one of the better studies on violence and video games I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It does point to connections between delinquent behavior and violent video games, which I hate to admit to as a gamer, but the authors make nuanced arguments that take into account individual circumstances and outside factors. 

Anderson vs. Ferguson

Grand Theft Childhood proved a resourceful book for its target audience (parents, policymakers, health professionals) but the debate about the positive/negative of games still raged in the scientific community. While there were other notable studies between before and after

This debate can best be explained and understood by looking at the individual works of Craig A. Anderson Ph.D. from Iowa State University and Christopher J. Ferguson Ph.D. from Stetson University. Each man represents one side of the debate, Anderson’s work suggests a strong link between violence and video games while Ferguson’s work suggests that the link, if present, should be examined on a case by case basis without making sweeping assumptions. 

This great debate is best illustrated by the article Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries.” The article was published in response to several articles Ferguson had published in 2007 and 2009 that found that the influence of violent video games on serious acts of aggression was minimal; and that the field of psychology was rife with overzealous authors connecting the two. 

After reviewing nearly 70 independent effects in articles with over totaling 18,000 participants, Anderson et al. came to the conclusion that

Concerning public policy, we believe that debates can and should finally move beyond the simple question of whether violent video game play is a causal factor for aggressive behavior: the scientific research has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be “yes.”

That quote feels pretty definitive, right? In a response cleverly titled “Much Ado About Nothing: The Misestimation and Overinterpretation of Violent Video Game Effects in Easter and Western Nations: Comment on Anderson et al. (2010)”, Ferguson and John Kilburn lay out no less than five major flaws with the Anderson et al. study. 

  1. The study overstated the importance of the results. Factors such as poverty, physical abuse, and antisocial behavior are much more likely to cause significant levels of violence in children. **
  2. They did not include studies that disagreed with their results. 
  3.  67% of the manuscripts analyzed were written by one or more of the authors, and 75% of conference presentations analyzed were the same. 
  4. Publication bias. Violent video games is a hot area of research that has become overly politicized, leading to bias within the entire field. 
  5. Youth violence rates have plummeted in the last twenty years while violent video game sales have rocketed. 

If you can make it through the jargon and numbers, both these articles are hilarious examples of scientists throwing shade at each other. When it comes down to it though, it feels like Ferguson has the stronger argument. 

Clearly there are more factors involved with youth crime rates than the effects of violent video games, but other studies such as “Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric Versus Data” back up these claims.Also, I feel like if video games were as bad for us as Anderson and friends seem to think, we’d be in a national crisis of some sort by now. 

Post-Debate: The Future of Video Game Studies

Instead of focusing on if there might be a connection, current research is beginning to focus on what that connection is. Hint: it’s not what you think. Andrew Przybylski and Richard Ryan suggested in a 2014 study that aggressive behavior related to video game’s is actually due to frustration and difficulty rather than violent images. 

There are still scholars trapped in the past debate, but as new scholars rise through the ranks we should see more meaningful studies and less moral outrage. I hope. 

*Not that there aren’t quality studies pre-Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association. I’m particularly fond of Tracy Dietz’s “An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior

**In Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court critiques Anderson’s work, citing that it “suffers from significant, admitted flaws in methodology” 

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