In 1976, a small video game publisher, Exity, produced Death Race, a “vehicular combat” arcade game that allowed players to deliberately run over a “gremlin” that bore an uncomfortable, monochrome resemblance to a human stick figure.
Maybe it was the fact that the game was originally called “Pedestrian,” or the fact that each successful impact was marked with a tombstone, but in the 70s, this was considered a violent video game.
It was featured on 60 Minutes and in the National Enquirer. As national media attention grew, arcade owners became reluctant to feature the machine, and it faded out of national consciousness.
As it turns out, Death Race would be the predecessor of a growing and increasingly realistic class of video games famous for their violence. The early ‘90s saw the introduction of games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Upon seeing a copy of the (now classic) fighting game Mortal Kombat, Senator Joe Lieberman announced his intention to introduce legislation that would prohibit the sale of such games to minors.
Regulation never materialized, and the game industry would eventually begin placing age recommendations on its products.
The assumption embedded in this story was that violent video games — especially in the hands of children and adolescents — may cause aggression. This refrain tends to become particularly popular in the wake of any mass shooting (such as Columbine or Sandy Hook).
But do violent video games actually cause violence in everyday life? Probably not.
A close examination of the literature reveals that what the American Psychological Association (APA) once called “one of the most studied and best established” links known to psychology is tenuous at best, with no appreciable real-world consequence.
Dispelling the Myth
First, let us dispense with the myth that we can causally link violent video games to mass shootings: Yes, many mass shooters play violent games extensively. However, the number of people who commit mass shootings is so small that this data point is uninformative. Moreover, the vast majority of people who regularly play violent video games will refrain from engaging in any real physical violence — let alone commit mass murder.
To understand why the relationship between video games and real-world aggression is so weak, it pays to closely examine the methods psychologists have used to study aggression in a wide variety of contexts. As it turns out, universities and grant agencies such as the National Institute of Health take a rather dim view of experimental research that results in actual acts of violence being inflicted on others. As such, researchers rely on proxy measures of aggression, such as the amount of hot sauce a person will put on the food of an adversary (for example, someone who wrote an essay critical of their worldview).
In one of the most common methods, psychologists measure the amount of time subjects will spend blasting an adversary with a loud noise.
In addition to being indirect — and therefore, highly susceptible to error — measures of aggression, the way these techniques are implemented and analyzed is highly variable. Malte Elson, a researcher at Ruhr University Bochum, has cataloged no fewer than 156 ways in which the noise paradigm has been employed.
This kind of flexibility is a serious liability for the research that uses it, since it allows researchers to pick and choose the ways they analyze their data (and presumably go with the method that gives them the result they are looking for). Studies that fail to find a headline-grabbing link between video games and aggression are less likely to be published, so scholars have a significant incentive to analyze their data in a way that confirms this hypothesis.
Advocates of a video game-aggression link point to meta-analyses as the strongest evidence for their view. A meta-analysis is a quantitative “study of studies:” researchers comb through databases looking for studies on a topic, standardize the findings, and statistically analyze the results. The APA’s most recent task force on gaming and aggression relied on this technique and concluded that there is, in fact, a link between gaming and aggression.
But meta-analysis itself has come under scrutiny as of late. The problem is twofold: first, if you do an analysis of hundreds of poorly-designed studies, all you have is artfully-analyzed noise. It’s much akin to making a giant stew with rotten ingredients — simply adding more rotten ingredients doesn’t improve matters.
Second, meta-analysis suffers from a phenomenon known as publication bias: because scientific papers that fail to find an anticipated result are almost never published, researchers usually file them away, never to see the light of day again. Therefore, these “null results” are often left out of meta-analyses.
No Correlation, Either
Setting all that aside, there is an additional, excellent reason to reject the video game-aggression hypothesis: over the last 30 years, video game sales have skyrocketed, and the games themselves have become both (a) more realistic, and (b) more violent.
Gone are the days when simple monochrome graphics, cheesy music, and a silly premise about running over pedestrians was sufficient to produce controversy. The newest games allow for visceral simulation of all manner of violence, and do so with unparalleled realism.
And yet, over the same period — in western countries, where games are widely available — violent crime has decreased substantially. In fact, when Death Race was introduced, the homicide rate in the U.S. was roughly twice what it is today. If one were to ignore warnings against inferring correlation from causation, one might be tempted to conclude that violent video games actually reduce aggression.
Interpreting the data this way is not difficult: humans — particularly males — have aggressive tendencies that are reduced through the cathartic effect of acting out violence through gaming. (An important side note: I don’t believe this to be the case — it’s just important to recognize that the argument can go either way.)
Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed at the judicial level. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that video games qualify for 1st Amendment protection. In a 7-2 majority opinion, Justice Scalia recognized the flaws in the research on video games and violence, stating:
The State’s evidence is not compelling.… 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).… 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.”
That the late Justice Scalia possessed a more cohesive understanding of the scientific literature than the American Psychological Association should serve as a wakeup call to social scientists attempting to influence policy: get your intellectual house in order before trying to restrict other people’s freedom to buy, sell, and do what they wish.
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