Can playing violent video games cause violent behavior? After the massacre at Columbine, it was revealed that the shooters spent much of their free time playing Doom, and James Holmes, who shot 71 people in a theatre in Aurora Colorado, was also an avid gamer. High profile cases like these seem to confirm the belief many people already hold – that the simulated violence enacted in these games is projected into the real world, with real life and death consequences. Many studies in social psychology (see work by Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman) also support the conclusion that violent video games beget violent behavior. But in a 2011 case (Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was not convinced. This week in SWAG, we read an article by Christopher J. Ferguson in American Psychologist, describing the SCOTUS decision and the role of social psychology research in making the case against video games.
Ferguson himself has conducted research investigating the effect of video games on aggression, but has found only minimal effects. In the past, Ferguson has criticized Bushman and Anderson for making claims that go beyond their data. He continues those criticisms here, noting that many studies are correlational, and others have small effects. He also points a finger the APA for issuing an official resolution calling for a reduction in violent content. The APA, Ferguson argues, was responding in part to moral panic in the media, and putting theory before data. But in the end, SCOTUS was not persuaded by the APA resolution or the evidence against video games. The 7-2 opinion stated that the research did not confidently demonstrate any true harm to youth. And even if there was some effect, it was not enough to override protection of video game content under the First Amendment.
In SWAG, we had varied responses to the paper. First, there was some concern that social psychology may have lost its influence and credibility. Very little our research in social psych is intended to have real applications, what does it mean even our applied research cannot affect any real change in the law? But others suggested the SCOTUS decision was more about free speech than a statement about the state of social psychology.
We also discussed the importance of having strong dependent measures. Often in social psych we use measures that are easy to administer and analyze, but can sometimes seem too far removed from the behavior we are really interested in studying. The SCOTUS opinion questioned the particular value of a word-stem completion task, where people were more likely to complete words with “explode” rather than “explore”. Surely people are more likely to see explosions in video games- do measures like this make an effective case for the effects of violent games on violent behavior?
We also considered the difficulties in drawing a straight line between gaming and violence. Violence is certainly determined by many factors. Whatever effect video games may have, it may depend on a host of other social, personal, and genetic factors. It is possible that the effect of video game violence is also elicited by exposure to other kinds of media. If there is a unique effect of video games on violence, it may be rather small and obscured by other variables. Some of us thought that we may be better off spending our resources identifying those people most at risk for violence, rather than issuing any unilateral censorship on video game content.
We did not finish with any final conclusions about video games and violence, but we did finish the box of donut holes.
Now, I must return to my game of Plants vs. Zombies, so that when the zombie revolution comes I will be ready to take them down with corn cobs and strategically placed squash.
Jesse Preston is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jesse received her PhD from Harvard University and in her research, she examines topics related to religion, morality, and the mind. She is director of the Psychology of Religion, Agency, and Morality Laboratory (here).
Ferguson, C. (2013). Violent video games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist, 68 (2), 57-74 DOI: 10.1037/a0030597