Are Violent Video Games Linked to Aggression?

As long as video games have been around, parents and government officials have raised multiple concerns on whether video games are too violent. After certain mass shootings, such as Columbine and other more recent incidents, similar questions were raised as well. Are video games linked to aggression and violent behavior in these recurring incidents?

   Courtesy of undadog4eva on holyculture.net

Courtesy of undadog4eva on holyculture.net

According to a review released in August and conducted by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media, experts concluded violent video games are indeed linked to increased aggression. It reviewed almost a decade worth of scientific literature and widdled down their assertions to 18 major studies. The APA Task Force reported that video games also “desensitize” players leading to “decreases in socially desirable behaviors.”

“The APA Task Force report is a pretty obvious sham, to be kind of blunt about it,” said Chris Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at Stetson University in Florida, who studies media effects on human behavior with a special focus on video games. Ferguson was also awarded a Distinguished Early Career Professional Award from the APA and is one of their biggest opponents to the Task Force report.

I spoke to Ferguson after reading his 2014 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Communication. I had noticed his conclusions, both for video game and movie violence, were not linked to violence or aggression.

According to Ferguson’s article, “data comparing video game violence consumption to youth violence in society demonstrate an inverse relationship, at least for the years 1996 through 2011.” Ferguson noted that this isn’t a causal relationship, but it is significant information that says something very different from what the APA Task Force reported and debunks some of the claims that linked mass shootings and violent video game.

Ferguson told me he and 238 other academics opposed the APA Task Force’s review process in 2013, and they apparently still don’t approve. “The meta-analysis they conducted was woefully inadequate,” he said. “They engaged in a kind of voting procedure that eliminated many studies including most null studies and thus, introduced bias.”

Ironically, he also told me, the Task Force used his colleague Mike Schmierbach’s study as a support for their claims. But his study doesn’t necessarily have “a violent or non-violent game contrast, so it's not clear what that study is even doing there,” Ferguson said. 

Schmierbach agreed, and he was also another academic that signed the letter in opposition to the Task Force’s poor review process.

Ferguson made a point that most people might have missed in early news coverage, which is also a big reason why much of the review proved to be biased: “The task force members had too many clear conflicts of interest, and none of them were among generations likely to have had experience with games.”

Some major news outlets that picked up this report were able to thoroughly investigate and pinpoint major flaws in methodology and find that much of these claims were “highly sensationalized.”

The last two years have received a huge body of literature that points the other way – video games are not linked to increased violence and tendencies for aggression. To Ferguson and other experts in the field, it’s not a simple cause and effect situation. Too many factors play into behavior and violence and saying “video games caused these negative behaviors” would truly be false.

When all is said and done, the APA Task Force does say there needs to be a thorough analysis of video games and more room for long-term studies to properly test these effects.

But still, “overall this was a clumsy effort.” – Chris Ferguson