Recently President Barack Obama called for more research into the link between violent video games and gun violence. More research isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t a bad thing at all. Since 1982 there have been 62 mass-shooting events in the United States alone. National tragedies, senseless acts of violence that each resulted in a tragic loss of life. News cycles target gun control, violence in films and music, and inevitably the discussion shifts to interactive media and video games.
For nearly thirty years we’ve been having this discussion, asking the question: do violent movies, music or video games make people violent? Well according to Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, yes. Based on the results of their research they concluded in 2001 that video games and violent media can make people aggressive and violent. Based upon their data and their conclusions, however, it’s safe to say that photos of snakes, crispy bacon, or a particularly rigorous game of chess can also make people aggressive and violent.
For all the vitriol on both sides of the debate, there’s a shocking lack of attention given to the research and scholarship of the last three decades. It’s a relatively small body of work, but despite its size some researchers – particularly North American researchers – have no problems with making broad, sweeping statements about their findings. Craig Anderson even likens the causal link between violent video games and violent behavior to the link between unprotected sex and HIV infection rates.
In 2004 the United Kingdom’s Home Office conducted a meta-analysis of available and relevant scholarship regarding aggression and violent media, in particular video games. In the largest behavioral research database in the United States they found only thirty-five relevant articles that dealt with aggression and violence in video games, out of one hundred sixty-four thousand. Only twenty-two of those were from peer-reviewed journals and only nine of those sources dealt directly with violent video games.
It took forty years and thousands of studies before scientific communities within the U.S. could confidently claim that cigarettes were harmful, but based on a single study Anderson, Bushman and a handful of other scholars feel comfortable claiming an that there exists an undeniable link between a single factor in an individual’s life and the development of aggressively violent behavior.
Unfortunately for Anderson and Bushman, the reality is much more nuanced.
The aggression they define in their study is a short-term increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and aggressive or competitive thoughts and actions. A reaction familiar to anyone who’s ever played a competitive sport. It’s also a familiar physiological response for anyone who’s ever seen a photo of a snake or dangerous predator; it’s a typical arousal response enhanced by competitive stimuli and excitement as indicated by any number of empirical studies on human autonomic responses. Music, films, TV, even books can elicit such a response from an average individual.
The Illustrative Power of Anecdotal Evidence,
The BBC series Child of Our Time began in 2000 and set out to document the lives of several different newborns over a twenty-year span. In 2005, a BBC film crew caught up with one of the children born at the beginning of the series. A young boy named Ethan, who was quite fond of violent video games, but who had an otherwise stable and supportive family life was observed before and after playing a round of the single player campaign in Halo.
Afterward, he was excitable, aggressive, argumentative, hyper-active and had difficulty settling down to go to bed. Clearly, the violence and excitement of an M-rated game had a negative effect on young Ethan. The next day at school, he was observed in the schoolyard.
What filmmakers saw was a well-adjusted boy who was very popular, likeable and played incredibly well with others. He exhibited above average prosocial behavior for his age and was described by his teachers as a bright and patient child.
Later, when Ethan played Halo against the inexperienced Professor Robert Wilson – one of the show’s creators – he was reluctant to hurt his new friend. Instead he preferred to show Professor Wilson how to interact with the virtual world and how to play the game.
The discussion should not focus upon violent video games or violent visual media, it should focus on risk factors that might cause media to affect different people in different ways. Clearly, Ethan is not a representative case; he comes from an upper-middle class family, he is physically, socially and mentally healthy as a result of his surroundings and upbringing.
Anecdotal evidence is certainly not an adequate alternative for serious research and scholarship. But in this case, the time BBC filmmakers spent with Ethan and his family suggests that at the very least, the questions we need to be asking are not the questions we have been asking. There is no single cause of violence and likewise no single study that would provide conclusive proof that violence in visual media is harmful to all people, or healthy for all people.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita is the story about a middle-aged man pursuing a sexual relationship with an under-age girl. It’s a story about modern romantic relations and the dangers of sexual temptation. But with such provocative subject matter, it becomes a very different story in the hands of a sexual predator than it is in the hands of a comparatively “low-risk” individual. Similarly, researchers like Jeanne Funk of the University of Toledo suggest that violent video games may provide a very different experience to children and adults with existing maladaptive disorders and other psychological risk factors. But because the bulk of the scientific research to come out of North America focuses upon experimental and lab-based research, and comes from a very narrow branch of academic psychology, there hasn’t been a substantial effort by the academic community to re-frame the question in order to find answers that are more helpful than simply observing physiological responses.
Media does not create appetites or behaviors, but it can attract people with certain appetites or behaviors for whom the experience may be a very different thing.
If nothing else, the body of scholarship regarding violent video games and violent visual media suggests overwhelmingly that more research needs to be done. As it stands, most North American scholarship finds their “causal” and correlational links between violent media and real world violence in short-term experimental studies conducted in a lab setting. While European scholarship finds little to indicate any connection between the two and instead places the emphasis on the social and longitudinal aspects of how violent video games fit into the lives of their subjects.
Guy Cumberbatch of the Video Standards Council, the leading media watchdog group in the UK, goes so far as to say:
“The evident weakness in the individual studies and the general pattern of inconsistent findings would not normally lead us to expect researchers to make any strong claims about video games. However, this is far from the case. As with other research on media violence, some of the strongest claims are made on the most flimsy of evidence.”
Like any serious matter of public health, the discussion and investigation of the effects that violent visual media have on children and adults needs to be carried out with a measured tone, allowing the data to speak for itself. Unfortunately, too many studies to come out of North America reach conclusions that are at best incongruent with the data they present.
If the body of existing research is inadequate to fully answer the question at hand, perhaps then we might find at least some correlational information in crime statistics over the past fifteen years – a period during which violent video games with exceptional levels of detail have come to dominate the holiday release cycles.
The world’s three largest markets for video games are the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the proportion of homicide or violent crime in the world’s three largest markets for video games might show some similar trends. The populations of the US, Japan and UK are very different in both size and composition, but if violence in visual media – in particular, video games – had a tangible effect on the rates of violent crime we could expect to see similar levels of violent crime in all three nations.
Fortunately, this is not the case. Over the past ten years homicide rates in the US, Japan and UK have declined significantly. Additionally, in 2012 the United States had 4.8 homicides per hundred thousand people, while Japan and the UK had .4 and 1.2 respectively. The raw numbers are more shocking but the proportional estimates are a bit more illustrative: the three largest consumers of violent visual media have some of the lowest homicide rates in the world.
Assuming the existence of the causal link suggested by the work of Anderson, Bushman and others of their school of thought, it would be safe to assume that the homicide rates of the largest consumers of violent video games should be proportionally similar, and certainly not a illustrate decade long downward trend in all reports of violent crime.
Still, the knowledge base that we have is woefully inadequate. More research needs to be done, if not with the intention of finding a causal link between violence and violent media then certainly in order to identify which individuals might be more sensitive to violent media. However inadequate our current understanding of violent media in modern society may be, statistics and good, thoughtful, scholarship can point us in the right direction if we give them the attention they deserve.
Edit: Corrected US Homicide rate for 2012.