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Psychologists at odds over effects of video game violence

The American Psychological Association says violent video games are linked to aggressive behaviour in children. But it also says there isn't enough evidence to answer the burning question: does virtual violence lead to real life violence?

APA says violent video games linked to aggressive behaviour, but some psychologists disagree

This photo provided by Electronic Arts shows a scene from the video game, "Battlefield Hardline." (AP Photo/Electronic Arts) (Electronic Arts/Associated Press)

For almost as long as there have been video games, there has been concern over video game violence. And for decades psychologists have tried to determine whether violent video games inspire children to behave violently.

This month, the American Psychological Association concluded that playing violent video games is linked to aggression in children. However, the APA says there is insufficient evidence to link video games with acts of outright violence.

Christopher Ferguson is an associate professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. While the APA was compiling its research, Ferguson helped draft an open letter to the association, signed by more than 200 fellow academics, questioning the APA's approach. 

Ferguson questions the relevance of laboratory studies involving video games and aggression. He also feels that if decades of research can't prove a link between video games and youth violence, researchers should look elsewhere.

(The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.)

What do psychologists mean by "aggression"?

Well, that's actually a great question, because the APA report never really defines it. But aggression in most of the studies that we're conducting in this field have very little to do with how "aggression" is thought of in the general public.

People in the general public probably think of aggression as being, at the very least, arguments, pushing and shoving, fist-fights, things like that. Whereas, in these studies they're really looking at how loud of a burst of noise do you give another person you're playing against? Or, if you fill in the missing letters in a word, do you fill them in as KILL rather than KISS? Or, if you're going to give somebody some hot-sauce, how much hot-sauce do you give them?

They're really not behaviours that, quite frankly, anybody really cares about. They never really tell us what they mean by aggression, and that's really unfortunate.

If there's been so much research over so many years, why are there no firm conclusions about the significance of the influence of video games on violent behaviour?

Part of it is simply because the studies really are not consistent.

There are some studies that find evidence for an effect, there are some studies that find no evidence for any effect. There are even some studies that suggest video game violence might reduce aggression or hostility or stress or other negative outcomes.

So from that, it's very difficult to say anything definitive one way or the other.

You're a psychologist, you're a member of the APA, you do academic research. Don't take this the wrong way, but if decades of psychological research can't seem to answer a simple question like 'does media affect behaviour?', what good is all that research?

I'm not offended by that at all — actually, I think this is something that I would encourage people to think about.

I think that the problems we are having with video game violence research, and it is a field that has many problems, are not unique to video game violence research. Psychology as a whole is going through something called a "replication crisis." 

What that means is there's a lot of ideas in psychology that we thought were absolutely true, that are now proving difficult to replicate. So more recent studies are disproving things that we thought were absolutely true about the way people behave.

And we're not really good about sharing our data openly. We're not very transparent as a field. We use these unstandardized measures across psychology that allow researchers to pick and choose outcomes that best fit their hypotheses.

There are a lot of us that are becoming aware of this and that it is a big problem, and are trying to fix it. But if listeners come away from this with a healthy skepticism of psychological science, and demanding that social science adopt more rigorous methods, I think that would be a wonderful thing.

What have you found about the relationship between the prevalence of video games and violence among children?

By and large, I've found very little evidence that suggest that violent video games contribute meaningfully to negative outcomes in kids, whether we're talking about aggression, violence, or mental health.

Of course, that's part of the debate. There are other groups that argue differently. But we're just not seeing consistent evidence that this is something we should worry about.

If anything, what we do tend to find is that video games, whether they're violent or not, tend to de-stress people. They tend to make people feel better, particularly after they've been through some acute stressor. You hear a lot of gamers say, if they had a tough day, they come home and play Call of Duty for a while and they feel better afterward.

That seems to be fairly accurate, that these games can reduce stress — at least in the short term. Whether that has any long term impact on violence or aggression, we haven't been able to document that.

Overall, the accumulation of evidence as far as I can see it suggests that violent video games have very little impact one way or the other on either increasing or reducing aggression in the real world. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview


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