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Fighting talk: How much should we worry about the playing of violent video games?

The following blog is based on an article I had published in the October 4 (2013)  issue of video game magazine MCV Interactive Entertainment Weekly. 

The issue of video game violence has once again arisen following allegations that Aaron Alexis, the man who killed 12 people last month (September 16, 2013) at the Washington Navy Yard, played violent video games for up to 18 hours a day. I was asked to comment by various national newspapers on whether the playing of violent video games had any role in the subsequent killings.

While there’s a growing body of research (particularly in America) that claims there’s a link between the playing of violent video games and subsequent behaviour, the problem with most of it is that it doesn’t follow people over a long period time. In short, most of the research is what we researchers call ‘cross-sectional’ – it only examines players at one particular ‘snapshot’ in time. As a result, I don’t think that there is any scientific research shows a definite link. Furthermore, much of the research has been carried out has been experimental and carried out in non-ecologically valid settings (i.e., in a laboratory setting). In fact, all of the measures used to assess “aggression” are proxy measures that are not related to actual violent actions (because it is unethical to try and induce actual violent acts within a research experiment).

The published survey studies – including my own – are mostly of a correlational nature and none of these demonstrate causality (only that – at best – there may be an associative link). One of the major problems with all of the research is that studies typically fail to take into account all the other types of violence that individuals are exposed to day-to-day (such as the violence they see on the news, the violence they see in films and television, and the violence seen in their own lives and local community). Another problem is that many academic journals only publish studies that show statistically significant findings (meaning that they are more likely to publish a study that suggests a link between playing violent video games and subsequent aggression rather than those that do not).

Personally, I believe people like Alexis were pre-disposed towards violence to start with and there was probably something inherently wrong with him in the first place (particularly as some reports claim that he often heard hallucinatory voices suggesting some kind of psychosis). Therefore, someone like Alexis would choose or seek out the most violent video games to play, and to watch the most violent and bloodthirsty films.

Someone like Alexis may have had an inherent trait towards violence that meant he sought those particular activities out. Video games may have had an influence in informing how he might do something and give him ideas, but they are unlikely to be the root cause of any actual violence. If I played those games all day every day, I really don’t think it would turn me into a homicidal maniac. Alexis may have been exposed to violence when he was younger because research shows what we’re exposed to in our childhoods has a great influence in later life.

I must have watched thousands of violent events (both fictional and real) and I have played the occasional violent video game but it hasn’t changed my behaviour in any way (at least I don’t think it has). Saying that, I’m a father to three screenagers and I don’t let them play violent video games. Just because I don’t personally think the evidence shows there’s a link, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any effect. It’s just science has failed to demonstrate a conclusive cause.

It’s not about putting the blame on the game. At best, playing violent video games is at best a contributory factor to violence. But it shouldn’t be a scapegoat because all individuals have to take responsibility for their actions.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Anderson, C.A., Gentile, D.A., & Dill, K.E. (2012). Prosocial, antisocial and other effects of recreational video games. In D.G. Singer, & J.L. Singer (Eds), Handbook of Children and the Media, Second Edition, (pp. 249-272). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B.J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H.R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151-173.

Bartlett, C. P., Anderson, C.A. & Swing, E.L. (2009). Video game effects confirmed, suspected and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation and Gaming, 40, 377-403.

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 470-482.

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologists, 68, 57-74.

Ferguson, C. J., San Miguel, S. & Hartley, T. (2009).  Multivariate analysis of youth violence and aggression: The influence of family, peers, depression and media violence. Journal of Paediatrics, 155, 904-908.

Gentile, D. A. & Stone, W. (2005). Violent video game effects in children and adolescents: A review of the literature. Minerva Pediatrics, 57, 337-358.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Video games and aggression: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4, 203-212.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Video game violence and aggression: Comments on ‘Video game playing and its relations with aggressive and prosocial behaviour’ by O. Weigman and E.G.M. van Schie. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 147-149.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression?  CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). The psychological effects of videogames on young people. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 31(1), 119-133.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Violent video games and attitudes towards victims of crime: An empirical study among youth. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, in press.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.