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Does Playing Violent Video Games Lead to Violent Behavior?

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President Trump was quoted the other day saying We have to look at the Internet because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds and their minds are being formed,” Trump said, according to a pool report, “and we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it. And also video games. I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” But outside of broad assertions like this—that playing violent video games cause violent behavior—does it stack up to what the scientific literature says about it? In short, no, it does not. (A lot of publication bias exists in this debate, too.) Why do people think that violent video games cause violent behavior? Mostly due to the APA and their broad claims with little evidence.

Just doing a cursory Google search of ‘violence in video games pubmed‘ brings up 9 journal articles, so let’s take a look at a few of those.

The first article is titled The Effect of Online Violent Video Games on Levels of Aggression by Hollingdale and Greitemeyer (2014). They took 101 participants and randomized them to one of four experimental conditions: neutral, offline; neutral online; (Little Big Planet 2) violent offline; and violent online video games (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). After they played said games, they answered a questionnaire and then measured aggression using the hot sauce paradigm (Lieberman et al, 1999) to measure aggressive behavior. Hollingdale and Greitemeyer (2014) conclude that “this study has identified that increases in aggression are not more pronounced when playing a violent video game online in comparison to playing a neutral video game online.”

Staude-Muller (2011) finds that “it was not the consumption of violent video games but rather an uncontrolled pattern of video game use that was associated with increasing aggressive tendencies.Przybylski, Ryan, and Rigby (2009) found that enjoyment, value, and desire to play in the future were strongly related to competence in the game. Players who were high in trait aggression, though, were more likely to prefer violent games, even though it didn’t add to their enjoyment of the game, while violent content lent little overall variance to the satisfactions previously cited.

Tear and Nielsen (2013) failed to find evidence that violent video game playing leads to a decrease in pro-social behavior (Szycik et al, 2017 also show that video games do not affect empathy). Gentile et al (2014) show that “habitual violent VGP increases long-term AB [aggressive behavior] by producing general changes in ACs [aggressive cognitions], and this occurs regardless of sex, age, initial aggressiveness, and parental involvement. These robust effects support the long-term predictions of social-cognitive theories of aggression and confirm that these effects generalize across culture.” The APA (2015) even states that “scientific research has demonstrated an association between violent video game use and both increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement.” How true is all of this, though? Does playing violent video games truly increase aggression/aggressive behavior? Does it have an effect on violence in America and shootings overall?

No.

Whitney (2015) states that the video-games-cause-violence paradigm has “weak support” (pg 11) and that, pretty much, we should be cautious before taking this “weak support” as conclusive. He concludes that there is not enough evidence to establish a truly causal connection between violent video game playing and violent and aggressive behavior. Cunningham, Engelstatter, and Ward (2016) tracked the sale of violent video games and criminal offenses after those games were sold. They found that violent crime actually decreased the weeks following the release of a violent game. Of course, this does not rule out any longer-term effects of violent game-playing, but in the short term, this is good evidence against the case of violent games causing violence. (Also see the PsychologyToday article on the matter.)

We seem to have a few problems here, though. How are we to untangle the effects of movies and other forms of violent media that children consume? You can’t. So the researcher(s) must assume that video games and only video games cause this type of aggression. I don’t even see how one can logically state that out of all other types of media that violent video games—and not violent movies, cartoons, TV shows etc—cause aggression/violent behavior.

Back in 2011, the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association concluding that since the effects on violent/aggressive behavior were so small and couldn’t be untangled from other so-called effects from other violent types of media. Ferguson (2015) found that violent video game playing had little effect on children’s mood, aggression levels, pro-social behavior or grades. He also found publication bias in this literature (Ferguson, 2017). Contrary to what those say about video games causing violence/aggressive behavior, video game playing was associated with a decrease in youth crime (Ferguson, 2014; Markey, Markey, and French, 2015 which is in line with Cunningham, Engelstatter, and Ward, 2016). You can read more about this in Ferguson’s article for The Conversationalong with his and others’ responses to the APA who state that violent video games cause violent behavior (with them stating that the APA is biased). (Also read a letter from 230 researchers on the bias in the APA’s Task Force on Violent Media.)

How would one actually untangle the effects of, say, violent video game playing and the effects of such other ‘problematic’ forms of media that also show aggression/aggressive acts towards others and actually pinpoint that violent video games are the culprit? That’s right, they can’t. How would you realistically control for the fact that the child grows up around—and consumes—so much ‘violent’ media, seeing others become violent around him etc; how can you logically state that the video games are the cause? Some may think it logical that someone who plays a game like, say, Call of Duty for hours on end a day would be more likely to be more violent/aggressive or more likely to commit such atrocities like school shootings. But none of these studies have ever come to the conclusion that violent video games may/will cause someone to kill or go on a shooting spree. It just doesn’t make sense. I can, of course, see the logic in believing that it would lead to aggressive behavior/lack of pro-social behavior (let’s say the kid played a lot of games and had little outside contact with people his age), but of course the literature on this subject should be enough to put claims like this to bed.

It’s just about impossible to untangle the so-called small effects of video games on violent/aggressive behavior from other types of media such as violent cartoons and violent movies. Who’s to say it’s not just the violent video games and not the violent movies and violent cartoons, too, that ’cause’ this type of behavior? It’s logically impossible to distinguish this, so therefore the small relationship between video games and violent behavior should be safely ignored. The media seems to be getting this right, which is a surprise (though I bet if Trump said the opposite—that violent video games didn’t cause violent behavior/shootings—that these same people would be saying that they do), but a broken clock is right twice a day.

So Trump’s claim (even if he didn’t outright state it) is wrong, along with anyone else who would want to jump in and attempt to say that video games cause violence. In fact, the literature shows a decrease in violence after games are released (Ferguson, 2014; Markey, Markey, and French, 2015; Cunningham, Engelstatter, and Ward, 2016). The amount of publication bias (also see Copenhaver and Ferguson, 2015 where they show how the APA ignores bias and methodological problems regarding these studies) in this field (Ferguson, 2017) should lead one to question the body of data we currently have, since studies that find an effect are more likely to get published than studies that find no effect.

Video games do not cause violent/aggressive behavior/school shootings. There is literally no evidence that they are linked to the deaths of individuals, and with the small effects noted on violent/aggressive behavior due to violent video game playing, we can disregard those claims. (One thing video games are good for, though, is improving reaction time (Benoit et al, 2017). The literature is strong here; playing these so-called “violent video games” such as Call of Duty improved children’s reaction time, so wouldn’t you say that these ‘violent video games’ have some utility?)

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