The debate has raged as long as video games have depicted realistic violence: Does playing violent video games make people more likely to be violent in real life?
According to a recent deep-dive by the American Psychological Association (APA), which looked into a heaping stack of reports published between 2005 and 2013, there is in fact a link between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior.
The report concludes: “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”
That doesn’t bode well for gamers, does it? Although there are more non-violent video games now than ever before (thanks in part to the rise of mobile and independent games), violence is still the primary action in many games. From shooters to open-world role-playing games, fighting and killing are how many gamers spend a good deal of the time with a controller in their hands. And if that makes them more aggressive and less empathetic people, we should probably stop playing all those violent games, right?
Not so fast. In 2013 when the APA began looking into the matter, a group of over 200 academics issued a statement questioning the APA task force and its methodology. The statement is a little complicated and jargon-y for laypersons, but in an interview with Game Informer, Stetson University psychology professor Chris Ferguson — one of the signers of the statement — said:
“As a researcher in this field, I thought you might be curious to know that there are actually a lot of problems with this report, how the task force was comprised, and the basis for its conclusions on research. Indeed, the evidence linking violent games to aggression is honestly a lot less clear than the APA report would have one believe. There are an increasing number of studies coming out now that suggest there is no link whatsoever. Further, the task force appeared to have been selected from among scholars with clear anti-media views (two had previously signed an amicus brief supporting attempts to regulate violent video games in the Brown v EMA 2011 Supreme Court case for instance).”
In fact, one study that focused on children with symptoms of depression or ADHD found that playing violent video games has just the opposite effect. Instead of making them more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors, playing violent games seemed to have a calming effect and make them less likely to bully other children.
Of course, as the APA task force points out, numerous other studies have found a link between the two. However, one of the problems with such studies is that aggression is hard to measure. As pointed out by Kotaku, here are some of the ways such studies have measured aggressive behavior:
A. The “short story” test, where a subject is given the beginning of a writing prompt (“A driver crashes into Bob’s car. Bob gets out of his car and approaches the driver.”) and told to fill in what happens next.
B. The “noise” test, where a subject is asked to press a button that delivers a terrible sound to another subject, then evaluated based on how much noise they deliver and how intense it is.
C. The “hot sauce” test, where a subject is asked to dole out hot sauce to another subject and is evaluated based on how much sauce they give and how spicy it is.
While those scenarios may be somewhat telling of how aggressive people are feeling, they’re hardly smoking guns (so to speak) that prove a direct connection between playing violent games and acting aggressively.
Which brings us to a pretty unsatisfactory conclusion. It’s still unclear how much of an effect playing violent video games has on players’ actions. Some studies find a correlation between shooting digital enemies and real-life aggression. Others don’t. None of the research seems entirely compelling, at least yet.
It’s a hot topic, so you can expect to see more studies in the future. Maybe one day we’ll have a consensus, but there’s reason to believe the APA’s findings aren’t the last word on the subject.
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