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I think the debate centers around two key issues: The first is, are violent video-games causing violent behavior? The second is, is the link between violent video-game playing and actual violence strong enough to warrant law and policy changes regulating video-game violence? Let's get right to the evidence after the jump break!
Does violent video-game playing cause actual violence?
Before we get to the evidence about this, let me deal with the issue of correlation versus causation. A lot of lay theorists and armchair psychologists will say, "I knew that [insert name of violent person] was going to snap because he played violent video games such as Halo or Call of Duty," but here's the thing, that is just a single example, and a correlational one at that. All a correlation tells you is that two things go together, not which one causes the other. The only way to know if violent video-game exposure really causes violence, is to randomly assign people to two different video-game contexts of equal arousal level, but with only one of the conditions containing violent action. After participants are placed in two video-game contexts, their aggressive behavior and emotion can be measured to determine if indeed playing a violent video-game increases violent acts.
The good news is that many studies have been conducted already where researchers experimentally manipulate video-game violence-- in the manner in which I just mentioned-- and measure violent acts and emotions subsequently. I won't get into all the gory details of each study. Instead I'll tell you the results from what I view as the very best meta-analytic review of these studies. The meta-analytic review, conducted by Anderson and colleagues, is ideal because it takes the results from all studies (rather than just a single study) examining video games and violent behavior and averages them to give us the best estimate of the true effect of violent video game playing on actual violence using all the available evidence.
The review is unequivocal: there is a clear causal link between violent video-game playing and actual violent behavior, aggressive emotion, physiological outcomes associated with aggression, and aggressive thoughts. Moreover, the review contends that the better the design of the study (e.g., the more tightly controlled the experimental procedures) the stronger the causal link!
To be fair, this conclusion is not without its detractors in the academy. A separate research group, led by Christopher Ferguson, contends that the actual size of the link between violent video-game playing and actual violence is much smaller of an effect than Anderson and colleagues contend. Basically, Ferguson and colleagues argue that the procedures the aforementioned review used caused bias in their meta-analysis.
My personal opinion would be to ignore this criticism for three reasons: (1) Both research groups agree that video-game violence is a causal risk factor for violent behavior. (2) The meta-analysis by Anderson and colleagues represents a larger collection of studies than any other previously conducted review on the same topic. And (3) there is a large history in social psychology research suggesting that exposure to violence increases violent acts, especially among children (Go here to see video from a famous psychological study in which violent behavior towards a toy, modeled by adults, led to violent behavior of children toward the same toy). In essence, the idea that exposure to violence is a causal factor in violent behavior is not a new or controversial idea.
So, we've now established that violent video games are a causal risk factor for increasing violent behavior. That's fantastic knowledge, but what-- as policy-makers-- should we do about it? This I admit, is a hard question, and one I'm afraid psychological science is not ready to answer yet. The reason is simple: It's one thing to show a causal link between violent video-game exposure and violent intentions, actions, emotions, and physiological profiles, but, it is a whole new issue to determine how exactly specific types of violent acts are linked to video-games AND how to prevent those violent acts. Right now, the science is in the initial stages and I think researchers are just beginning to understand the strength of the causal risks of video-game violence.
The next step for the media and for researchers is to move beyond the simple debate regarding whether video game violence (or violence of any kind for that matter) begets more violence. We already know that based on more than 30 years of research. Instead, new questions should include, for example, (1) understanding how much exposure to violence in media is too much? (2) what the long-term effects of violent video-games include? (3) what are the personality risk factors that make people particularly likely to seek out violent media and respond to it violently? and (4) how young is too young to be playing violent video-games?
Do you or your children play violent video games, or watch violent media? How do you handle these situations in your home? We'd love to read your comments!
Anderson CA, Shibuya A, Ihori N, Swing EL, Bushman BJ, Sakamoto A, Rothstein HR, & Saleem M (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 136 (2), 151-73 PMID: 20192553