The APA did a review of research that has been conducted on gaming, violence, and aggression, and their conclusions are fairly disappointing on a number of levels. From my perspective, it seems that they could have done a lot more to clarify their findings. I did an in-depth analysis of their review and here’s what I found.
The APA found that violent video games are linked to aggression in players, though they did acknowledge that that doesn’t mean aggression leads to violent activities or “delinquency.” (Though they later backpedal on this, confusingly.) “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression,” the APA report says.
“Scientists have investigated the use of violent video games for more than two decades but to date, there is very limited research addressing whether violent video games cause people to commit acts of criminal violence,” said Mark Appelbaum, the task force chair. “However, the link between violence in video games and increased aggression in players is one of the most studied and best established in the field.”
“No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently,” the report states. “Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor.”
Problems with the Conclusion
As many have pointed out, including the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) and the Supreme Court of the United States, there actually isn’t any conclusive evidence that video games contribute to violent behavior. And in fact, more recent research—the APA report only covered research up until 2013—has found that violent video games can actually increase prosocial behavior. Also telling is the fact that violent crime has gone down in recent years, seemingly at odds with the rise in gaming.
Moreover, aggression itself is an ambiguous concept. When we pair it with words like “violence” and “delinquency,” it brings to mind potentially heinous acts—but aggression can be induced by all kinds of things. Stubbing your toe on a dresser certainly doesn’t lead to thousands of youths committing crimes across the nation, but it does increase aggression. And how do we measure it? One famous study used hot sauce—if participants gave other participants a hotter packet of sauce, that was deemed ‘more aggressive’ than those who used milder hot sauce. Technically what this tells us is that playing violent video games may cause players to offer spicier food to their comrades—we can make suppositions about what this means, but in the end, it says virtually nothing about violence in games leading to violence in real life.
Do video games potentially cause aggression in players? Very possibly. Certainly competition does—but we know that from a millennia of playing sports and other kinds of games. In fact, there have been a few studies that posited that competition is the source of any increase in aggression in players, and it rang true for a lot of gamers. Embarrassingly, this research was covered back in 2011…by the APA.
Another area that gets overlooked in favor of violence in games is frustration. Frustration can make anyone upset, and in my experience, angry outbursts in response to gaming are almost always because someone is stuck, or lost, or annoyed at teammates. Personally I’ve never been as angry at a game as I was doing math homework, but the frustration was the same. (If you’ve noticed kids pounding on keyboards or throwing controllers on occasion, wait for them to cool off and ask them why they got so angry. Chances are they’ll say it was because they couldn’t figure out how to ‘blank;’ not because they were incensed by the gratuitous blood spatter.)
Perhaps more worryingly, the APA has come under fire for its methods. Members of the task force in charge of this report have been anti-video games for years (even decades), despite piles of research showing the cognitive and social benefits of games, their potential in educational environments, and their use in medicine, psychology, and therapy. And in September 2013, a group of 230 academics, researchers, and psychologists penned a letter expressing serious concerns about the APA review process. They said the APA’s original 2005 resolution came to “several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence…research subsequent to that 2005 statement has provided even stronger evidence that some of the assertions in it cannot be supported.”
What It Means For Games
So what does all this mean for the games industry and for players? The APA has called on the industry to design games with better parental control over the degree of violence in games. This would actually be fantastic—no complaints there. More choice is always a plus in my book. The APA also plans to meet with the ESRB in an attempt to get it to refine its video game rating system “to reflect the levels and characteristics of violence in games, in addition to the current global ratings.” This is frustratingly vague, so there’s not much to say here until we find out more about what the APA means by it.
Finally, the resolution urges developers to design games that are appropriate to each player’s age and psychological development. This one is also frustrating, if only because it reveals how little the APA understands about the entire process. Developers can create a game targeted at any age they choose. The group that actually assigns a rating is the ESRB—if the devs have done a good job, that rating will match the age intended. If they haven’t, well, then that game earns a higher age rating. Asking developers to design games that are more age-appropriate for the ages they are targeting is an empty request. It’s like asking a baker to please bake bread that tastes better. That’s always sort of the goal, isn’t it?
The APA is also encouraging more research to be conducted on violence and gaming, which is also welcome. The last twenty years of research has yielded little in the way of connecting games to physical violence, but if future research gives evidence for it, then we’ll by all means listen.
The problem with the APA’s report isn’t that it has concluded that gaming leads to violence (though that would be depressing, certainly). It’s that their conclusions are based on so little evidence and so much hyperbole—things we’ve heard about games from the media for decades, unfounded, for the most part. I would welcome comprehensive research into video games and violence. I would want to also examine what effect violent media of other types has on people, and whether those effects are of the same quality. I want more research on how competition and frustration impact our game playing, and how those responses mimic those of football players or families playing Monopoly or Risk.
One last point that needs to be addressed, I think, is gaming’s connection to misogyny and racism and harassment, especially in light of Gamergate—the widespread campaign to shut down criticism of gaming using horrific silencing tactics, almost exclusively aimed at women, queer folks, and people of color. This doesn’t shed games in a positive light, certainly. But I’m not convinced violence in games is the cause of it. There are many bastions of society that hold onto toxic beliefs and enact those beliefs in truly awful ways. Again, I would welcome more research into this, but I prefer not to make spurious connections just yet.
It is entirely possible that violence in video games does impact us negatively, or in ways we haven’t yet considered. Perhaps constant exposure to gratuitous blood spatter does numb us to its meaning. But it’s also possible that fake violence is, in fact, a positive force—a stress reliever, or, as the prosocial study showed, a way for us to explore guilt and consequence. The point is, there is evidence on both ends, and virtually no research connecting the effects of gaming to the effects of anything else we do in day to day life.
My feeling is that, regardless of what you personally believe about violence and gaming, it is urgently important to contextualize any and all media with kids (well, all people, really, but kids tend to need more outside help). Get them to think about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it makes them feel. Ask questions—a lot of questions. Media is important, and it truly does affect us in profound ways. Those effects don’t have to be negative.