Divided Mind: The Psychology Debate over Video Game Violence and its effects.

I wrote this for Edwin Evans-Thirlwell over at OXM in 2013 – but the article got lost in the great GamesRadar link destruction of 2014. Anyway, videogame violence is blamed for all of society’s ills – Ed had me look at the science.

The scene, to the average mind, is incongruous. The Supreme Court of America striking down a law backed by onetime action movie thug and then governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s people claimed that video games increase aggression, cause neurological damage and more, and were seeking to pass a bill restricting access to them for minors. They pointed to a huge corpus of peer-reviewed scientific evidence backing up this claim. Given the mainstream rhetoric about violent videogames, the pile of evidence and the conservatism of the court, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.

Yet the Supreme Court’s decision, by an unusual majority of 7:2, was to reject the bill, on First Amendment grounds – that is, if the bill was passed it would restrict individuals’ freedom of action. Unusually, they went on to comment further that the scientific claims themselves were without merit, so that the bill would likely still have been rejected. The court decision is so clear that it’s worth quoting at length:

“The State’s (California’s) evidence is not compelling. California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

The judges went on in a similar vein for many damning pages. As the judgement makes clear, this wasn’t the first time that a court has called into question the quality of psychology research into videogames. Amazingly, no court in the US has upheld a single law that seeks to regulate games on the basis of violence, with many of them being rejected on similar grounds.

So what’s going on with the psychology of video games? Why are these scientists claiming more than they should?And will we ever get to the truth about whether games do make adults and children act more aggressively than they otherwise would?

The divide

The key problem here is that there’s no consensus. There’s even a disagreement over the levels of disagreement. Psychologists like Christopher Ferguson of the University of Texas (see interview boxout) argue that neither the pro- or anti-videogames groups have been good scientists and that the field as a whole needs to be more careful in the strength of the claims it makes. From the viewpoint of an outsider, by making criticisms of the methods employed on both sides, he appears to be taking the middle ground. Yet the anti-videogames lobby lumps Ferguson in with the pro- lobby as an opponent.

The other problem is that, before any proper research was done, there was a consensus. With the advent of Doom and Mortal Kombat in the 1990s, games had taken on a more visually violent aspect. Combine that with a spike in youth violence (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2010) and school shootings (notably at Columbine High School in 1999), and it’s understandable parents looked to the new medium as a cause. The timeline below shows you that the consensus political narrative until 2005 was that violent media damages children and that studies, when they’re done, will show this.

That they haven’t shown it has meant that scientists have had to consistently overstate their results to fit with what they were expected to find. The claims mainly come from a small set of researchers, mainly American, including Dr Anderson. Now it’s not unusual in a scientific field for a single researcher to specialise to the extent of dominating that subject and Anderson has taken that role in the field of research into the effects of videogames. Starting from a background in aggression research, he’s been involved in the publication of over 190 papers (at our count), with a third of those since 2005. He’s been so prolific that when the California court rejected Schwarznegger’s bill (before he appealed to the Supreme Court), the decision noted that “approximately half the evidence was from a single scholar” – Dr Anderson, we presume?

His papers claim, as did many papers produced in that era, that video games cause aggression. Anderson himself has claimed repeatedly in the media, research and courts that they do. Many of his cadre have gone beyond that. Huesmann (2007) claimed that the effects were similar in magnitude to those of smoking and lung cancer. Strasberger (2007) claimed videogames could explain up to 30% of societal violence. In 2009, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, claiming erroneously that of 3,500 studies done, only 18 had not found effects of media violence. Even the American Psychological Association released a 2005 report explicitly linking video games with increased aggression. (Dr Anderson sat on both the AAP and APA committees that agreed these statements, having reviewed the literature produced mainly by… Dr Anderson.)

Yet this entire corpus, according to repeated court decisions, is erroneous and proved nothing. Listen to the ruling of the US District Court that struck down two Illinois anti-games laws in 2005. “Neither Dr Anderson’s testimony nor his research establish a causal link between violent video game exposure and aggressive thinking and behavior… researchers in this field have not eliminated the most obvious alternative explanation: aggressive individuals may themselves be attracted to violent videogames.” The court was also unconvinced that any demonstrable impact lasted beyond the short term. (Meanwhile the “expert” testimony by a Dr Kronenberger that gaming reduced frontal lobe brain activity was almost laughed out of court.)

To prove that games cause violence, after all, you must first show that exposure to violent media correlates with aggression, then that it correlates with violence and then that there’s a causative link. It’s a hard link to prove. So far the science, as evaluated by the courts and independent observers, has shown that there is at most a mild short-term correlation between gaming and aggression, with Dr Ferguson arguing that even this small correlation is down to statistical anomalies. This effect size is comparable, at Dr Anderson’s own begrudging admission to another court, to other violent media – such as when children watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon or play Sonic the Hedgehog. The sole qualitative difference between games and music, books and films is, after all, its fundamental interactivity; but is that any worse than my imagining a grisly death in a Stephen King book or seeing someone get dissected in a torture-porn film? The statistics don’t seem to show that.

So how did the causationist scientists end up claiming so much more than the evidence suggests? Of course, research into this area is a self-selecting process, so it’s understandable that it may have attracted researchers with preconceived ideas, who then verified each other’s positions. This applies to the other side too; researchers have been attracted to the field because of the overstated positions of the establishment, seeking to right the wrongs they see. And we’re not saying that this was deliberate; it’s more like a science teacher believing in the science he or she is teaching, even when half the class fail an experiment. 

Psychologists, on both sides of the debate have been stating their position with too much certainty, making “spurious comparisons with medical research” as Ferguson puts it, ignoring contradictory evidence, and claiming more than their data does.

The major problem is that few in the field are performing scientific enquiry as it’s meant to be done. Many psychologists seem to start with the assumption that certain things are true, then try to prove it – a circular argument. example. They ignore evidence to the contrary, such as the US department of Health’s 2001 report or the US Secret Service and Department of Education 2002 report, which found no evidence of a link.

They’re also not very good research. Possibly because of the failure of the peer review process, there’s been little push towards standardisation of measurements or methodology. For example, how do you measure aggression? Some studies measure it by acts of violence against inanimate objects (such as the Bobo doll experiments of the 1960s), others by word association games. Obviously, these measures are just not comparable.

Similarly, as the Australian Government’s 201 report points out “researchers have not devoted sufficient attention to the severity of violent content (e.g. cartoonish vs realistic violence) and whether it has differing effects. Some studies appear to show games featuring cartonish violence are just as harmful as games featuring realistic violence. It is not known whether socially acceptable violence (such as in the course of playing sports) has a different effect to antisocial violence.”

Further issues

The funding for the papers arguing that games cause violence is more dubious. At one time Anderson’s funding came from a now-defunct organisation called the National Institute on Media and the Family. The erratic NIMF produced misleading parental advice condemned by both the US National Parent Teacher Association and the national video games rating agency in the USA.

Another organisation that funds this research is The Centre for Successful Parenting. Despite their name, they exclusively fund research into the “effect of media violence on the brain development of children” (taken from their charity mission statement) and mainly the work of a group around Dr Vincent P. Matthews, who produces studies with results that match their agenda. We couldn’t find out much about this organisation because their two websites are full of dead links, missing pages and out-of-context rhetoric, and our emails bounced. The registered address of its website shows up on Google Street View as a boarded-up Indiana building and is also the registered address of many, many other companies. The only data we can find is on a charities site; this says it was set up by a Steve Stoughton, who seems to run a company which specialises or specialised in setting up campaigning websites (including Mediaviolence.org), and that the charity received an income of just under $400,000 in 2011, with $450,000 in assets.

Of course, the majority of research is not funded by organisations like these. Globally, the research is funded mainly by governments and universities, which is why these organisations concern us so. Imagine the outcry if Activision funded research into videogame violence?

Our conclusion

We are not scientists. We’re not equipped to assess all the data that’s out there, nor mediate the conflicting claims of different authors. From the papers we’ve read, particularly from the impartial Australian government meta-review of 2010, there is evidence that video games have short term effects on aggression, though that evidence has been very badly presented, with many methodological flaws. It’s worth noting that while that seems to be common sense, psychology is not about verifying or debunking common sense; common sense is not useful in science because many of the things it tells us are simplifications or plain wrong, such as the sun going around a flat, immobile earth.

And even if violent video games increase aggression, it has to be shown that this happens in more than the short term, in a way that’s of a significant degree, and that isn’t caused by other underlying factors. Indeed, Ferguson’s most recent research paper found that “depression, antisocial personality traits, exposure to family violence and peer influences were the best predictors of aggression-related outcomes”; violent video games didn’t get a look-in.

This field of science is extremely frustrating to research. If violent video games do increase aggression, we would like to know this, so we could act on it. After all, even a small effect can cause problems if you play several hundred hours of a game. Yet the work of scientists like Craig Anderson actually hinders this cause; if he were a more thorough scientist, if his review bodies actually reviewed his papers rather than acting as a claim to greater authority and if he dealt better with the criticisms of his peers, then we would have better data in this area.


A Timeline of Modern Moral Panic

  • 400 BC The father of philosophy himself, Plato criticises theatre and poetry for corrupting the population. (Ironic, as Plato’s idolised mentor Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens.)
  • 1954 The US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Deliquency takes an interest in comic books after moral crusaders blame them for poor grades, deliquency and drug use. Many comic publishers adopt a stringent moral code that drives other companies underground or out of business. Parents groups hold comic book burnings; some cities ban comic books.
  • 1964 A Canadian philosopher called Marshal McLuhan revives the term ‘moral panic’, meaning “intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order”, inadvertantly predicting the next fifty years of hyperbole about negative media influence.
  • 1969 A US National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence condemns, in mild terms, the rise of violence on television.
  • 1972 A report commissioned by the US Surgeon General’s office explicitly links TV / movie violence and aggressive behaviour.
  • 1980 and 1982. Two suicides of depressed children who happened to play Dungeons & Dragons convince several Christian fundamentalist groups and elements of the media that roleplaying games are satanic and damage children. Later findings show that D&D players are significantly less likely to kill themselves than the national average.
  • 1992 The book “Big World, Small Screen” wins plaudits from the APA for making a clear link between television and addiction / stereotyping.
  • 1999 The Columbine High School massacre is carried out by two children who play violent video games, notably Doom.
  • 1999 David Grossman testifies before Senate Commerce Committee that US Marine Corps uses the game Doom to train marines. His book “On Killing” says games are murder simulators giving children the skill and will to kill.
  • 2001 Indiana Amusement Machine Ordinance seeks to restrict children’s access to games on grounds of obscenity. It’s struck down by United States court of Appeal.
  • 2002 A Canadian scholar named Jonathan Freedman points out that youth violence has been declining as media violence has been increasing. He is mostly ignored by the media.
  • 2003 St Louis County Ordinance 20,193, restricting children’s access to games on grounds of psychological damage, is struck down by United States court of Appeal.
  • 2005 Two 2002 Illinois laws limiting children’s access to violent and sexual video games are struck down.
  • 2005 Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) to “limit the exposure of children to violent video games” and sponsored by Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman doesn’t make its way into law.
  • 2005 An APA resolution explicitly links video games and aggressive behaviour, thoughts, and decreased sociability.
  • 2011 The Supreme Court strikes down the California law, citing the Brothers Grimm, Looney Tunes and The Divine Comedy as other equally violent media, all of which have freedom of speech protection under the First Amendment.
  • 2013 The APA website still carries many articles arguing that all forms of media cause violence, many with Craig Anderson’s name on. The moral panic goes on.


On the couch with Chris Ferguson, Psychology & Communication Professor at The University of Texas.

What’s your background? What’s your interest in this field?

I’m a clinical psychologist and licensed as a psychologist in Texas. I’d actually been interested more in violent behavior in a general sense at the start of my research career. It was when I started to see people making extreme statements about media violence, like that the effects were similar to smoking and lung cancer or that all the debate was over, that my curiosity got piqued. Once I started to look at the data, I was startled by how little the data actually supported the kinds of extreme claims people were making. I knew that something was going wrong.

The field seems completely split. How did these two camps come into existence? What do they respectively have invested that makes them so fervent in their opinions?

Yes, the field is pretty split. I think there is an “opposite and equal reaction” kind of issue. Prior to the Columbine massacre, video game research was pretty calm, and most scholars acknowledged the research was inconsistent. Then after Columbine a group of scholars started to make more and more extreme statements. Eventually that invited a lot of scrutiny about those claims, and ultimately, harsh criticisms. I think some of those scholars stepped so far out onto the plank that it’s just difficult to retreat to more moderate language without losing face. A few have taken funding from anti-media advocacy groups too, but I think the main issue has to do mainly with personal egos, and a rigid ideology that has grown up about media violence generally over the past few decades and then was rigidly applied to video games in the 2000s post-Columbine.

Would it be unfair to paint this as the D&D and video nasties hysteria all over again?

Actually it’s a pretty direct parallel. I use the example of comic books in the 1950s, where psychiatrists and congress together made extreme claims about the “harm” of such media. Ironically, you’re seeing much the same pattern now. It’s not so much that the hypothesis is bad, or that you couldn’t even make an honest argument for negative effects. It’s that so often the arguments are dishonest, simply ignoring evidence against the speaker’s personal views. In one recent analysis of children, we included a list of things to look for when people are “moral panicking”…I’ll include that study, the list comes toward the end of the paper.

Were the repeated rejections by the various US courts of the anti-videogame lobby’s (for want of a clearer name) conclusions expected at the time? How did the lobby handle them? Have they reduced the strength of their claims?

Well I think initially I expected the typical “moral panic” to hold sway, so in a way I was indeed surprised by the savvy of the jurists. Particularly with the Supreme Court, I don’t think anyone knew what they were thinking. Fortunately they were able to see through the nonsense. The “lobby” as you say, hehe, did not handle it well. They have very clearly doubled-down making, if anything, more extreme claims. Before they used to be good, at least, about not extending their research to societal violence. Now they have dropped all such pretenses and have made direct attributions in the press between video game violence and even mass shootings despite no evidence to link the two. Some of them also have begun advocating scientific censorship…that journalists should not speak to scholars who disagree with them. I suppose this is to be expected…it is an ideology under fire, not an objective science.

Craig Anderson, in particular, seems to have produced much of the literature that drove these cases and was rejected by the courts. Can you point to any of his material, or the anti-videogames lobby’s material, that stands up to scrutiny? Is he a controversial figure in psychology?

Well, I don’t want to personalize it too much. No, I can’t point to any of his work though that would or should survive scrutiny. The courts were quite right to reject it. I suppose the whole field is becoming controversial.

The flaws in these papers seem to be mainly in methodology and standardisation. Does that seem fair, or is there more to it than that?

There’s certainly that, also the way video games are matched in experimental conditions. For instance comparing Modern Warfare to Tetris…sure one is violent, the other not, but they differ in multiple other ways. But perhaps more crucially is the language some of the “lobby” have employed…citation bias, ignoring work that differs with their views…as I understand it, that is an ethical violation, but few people have been courageous enough to call them on that. In general the extreme rhetoric they employ is as much a problem as anything else.

Has the pro-videogame lobby been culpable of similar problems? Your paper seemed to focus more on the egregious mistakes of the antis.

I sometimes see people claim, “No studies have ever linked video games with aggression.” That, of course, is not true. Some studies have, but other studies haven’t. It’s really a matter of the bigger picture…the studies are inconsistent, but combined with the societal data showing declines in youth violence, and a lack of a cross-national pattern of video game consumption correlating with societal violence, we can say that the evidence for a link there is pretty weak. But people on both sides have to be careful of avoiding sweeping generalizations. That having been said, I do tend to feel the antis, as you say, largely set this up by making the first set of extreme statements, provoking that “opposite and equal reaction.” In a broad sense, the scientific peer review process failed in this case.

Looking into the funding behind some of the research into this area seems to throw up shell organisations – for example, the Center for Successful Parenting which seems determined to obfuscate its funding and management. Is it normal in the USA for research to be funded this way?

No, not really, certainly not organizations as murky as the CSP. Most scholars actually do research based on local grants from the university and such. Some get large federal grants such as from NIH or NSF, and others from reputable private foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates, Pew Research, etc.) However advocacy groups, just like the industry, have a financial axe to grind, and as I make clear, I find this to be a conflict of interest when scholars take money from these organizations, just like taking money from the video game industry would be a conflict of interest.

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