Be Aggressive: Recent APA Video Game Study on Violence Fails to Find Anything

asura's wrath 08-31-15-1
Asura’s Wrath, a game filled with gods, violence, and revenge.

This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

For decades there has been an ongoing debate about the effects games have on gamers. We have seen it in many different forms, from tabletop games causing you to become a cultist (which could be seen as remarkably false), to the hysteria of the late 90’s where it was thought that violent video games created mass murderers out of kids. Even now this debate continues under the guise of video games causing sexism. While the face of the argument has changed and mutated throughout the years, the question it asks has remained the same. Does the media cause a difference in our core behavior? Sadly the answer will have to wait, as another study has come out, with the question framed as “do video games cause aggression?”

This latest round of questioning came about from the school shooting at Sandy Hook elementary, where 28 people were killed. After the tragedy it was determined that the killer had several serious mental disorders, but more importantly he had a history of playing video games. This led President Obama to declare a need for more research on the effects of video games and violence, offering 10 million dollars in grant money to encourage further research.

After this was announced, the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to create a task force whose purpose was to determine if the results that the APA obtained in 2005 on video games were still accurate and if recent research was enough to determine if there were links between criminal violence and video games. After 2 years of work, the task force has now released their results for the general public to observe. While the results have led to a multitude of articles lauding its findings, there has also been an outcry against the study by numerous academics from various disciplines.

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Grand Theft Auto V, a game commonly associated with game-related violence.

The study itself is exceptionally dull, weighing in at 47 pages long with sources, and 28 pages without. A large portion of these pages are devoted to trying to resolve 6 questions that were not addressed by the 2005 taskforce, in hopes of gleaning a more accurate understanding of the effects video games have on people. The questions were:

  1. Is this research applicable to children and adolescents?
  2. Does this research address the developmental trajectory of potential effects or the possible course of vulnerability to potential negative effects? (Basically does the study look at possible long-term effects of violent games on kids?)
  3. Do outcomes for males and females differ?
  4. Does degree of exposure matter?
  5. What is the role of other known risk factors for aggression in moderating or mediating the effects of violent video game use?
  6. What is the role of other game characteristics?

Asking questions like these are important to researchers because the answers will shape our understanding of the effects video games have on how people think and interact with each other, and ultimately deepen our understanding of the central question “Does media affect the way we behave?” These questions were then used by the taskforce to assess if the current research is sufficient in determining a causal link between aggression and violent video games.

Due to the vast amount of research that has been done on video games since 2005, the taskforce used several methods to filter their data. From a technical standpoint, filtering the amount of studies seems like a good idea. It removes bad studies that have low reliability, and don’t meet the criteria for the study, and include strong studies with high validity and reliability. While this process can be very long and drawn out, when properly performed it improves the overall quality of meta-analysis studies.

However, under closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that not all of their filtering methods were beneficial. In an attempt to control the type of research they were using for their meta-analysis, the researchers decided to stick to a few search choices. These search choices included things such as violent video games, violence, violen*, aggressive behavior, aggression, aggress*, prosocial*, prosocial behavior, computer games, video*, game*, and video games and media.

hatred 04-29-15-1
Hatred, a game that received copious amounts of resistance due to its brand of violence.

Sadly their concentration on mainly negative terms means that research that typically would have spoken against such things may have been missed due to the fact that their search terms would have been different. They also restricted their scope of scientific studies to those that studied violent video games separate from other forms of violent media such as television, movies, or music. By doing so they lose comparative research that is key in building context. For example, if a study were to find that the “aggression” that resulted from playing a violent video was equivalent to the “aggression” generated by reading a violent passage in a book, it would be excluded from the meta-analysis. While this is not to say that the research is absolutely wrong, it does show that the results are potentially skewed.

Using these filtering methods, the taskforce was left with 170 studies. From there they further refined their pool of viable studies by only accepting studies that:

  • Included at least one empirical analysis addressing video game violence separately from other media violence.
  • Included complete statistics.
  • Included at least one of the outcome variables: aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, aggressive affect, physiological measures, prosocial behavior, reduced empathy or desensitization, delinquency, or violence.
  • Included some measurement of violent video game exposure.
  • Included some description or assessment to determine that the violent video game is, in fact, violent.
  • Was published in a peer‐reviewed academic journal.

Which resulted in 68 studies that fit all six criteria. Each of these studies were then rated on if they fulfilled the taskforce’s goal by two randomly chosen members of the taskforce, a process that is not only subjective but also very vulnerable to personal bias. From all of this the taskforce was left with a total of 31 studies that were accepted and used in the meta-analysis. Such a sample introduces a strong possibility for conclusions to be heavily influenced by the biases introduced by the methodology of the meta-analysis and drawing conclusions about society from such an analysis could have damaging effects on an industry that’s thriving. It is important to note that while these studies might individually be valuable to the research community, the research showed little context of how the studies were used to draw the conclusions they give.

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God of War 3, another game featuring gods, violence, and revenge.

From these 31 studies the taskforce then attempted to draw some conclusions to the six questions with the results being as much as one would expect. For the first question “is this research applicable to children/adolescents?” the taskforce concluded that there is not nearly enough research on children to determine if games affect children differently than adults. However, they do note that 10 of the studies used point to video games having a similar effect to children as their adult counterparts have.

For the second question the taskforce concluded that there is no way to determine if playing video games has any effect on the developmental trajectory on children. This means that while there might be an effect on how children develop, the research is either non-existent, or is unable to prove this information whatsoever.

Gender was also typically not found as a potential factor for behavior in most of the recent research that was conducted. Most of the studies believed that gender would have no effect on how video games would affect people. While gender may still play a factor in the effect aggression has on gamers and should be studied in the future, the taskforce failed to find conclusive evidence to show gender as a factor in the 31 studies used.

One thing they did find was that a large portion of their studies (7 studies) did look at the effects of the duration of exposure and its effects on aggression. Out of the studies that looked at these effects, 5 supported the idea that aggression is linked to prolonged exposure to violent video games. However, only a few of the studies actually looked at the specific amount of exposure needed to produce an effect, leading the researchers to conclude that more research is needed before anything firm could be said about a correlational link, much less a causal link.

Mortal Kombat X, the latest in the fighting game series known for ultra-violence.

Much less could be told of other risk factors contributing to aggression when observed in combination with video games. Only 5 of the 31 studies observed actually considered outside risk factors, such as economic situation, stress, parental conflict, or deviant peers as a mediating factor for violent video games and aggression, with only three of the studies checking for an interaction between these risk factors and violent video games when looking at aggression. While the researchers claimed that the studies that observed outside risk factors were robust, only education had a slight interaction with violent video games. Like most of the other questions on their list, not much could be determined from the studies used. While no factors were determined that could help mediate the effects violent video games had on aggression, no factors could be found that exacerbated the situation either.

Finally, factors that played a major role in video games such as player perspective (1st person, third person, etc.), plot of the game, moral of the game, and morality of the game were looked over in this meta-analysis. While a game where you are forced to make difficult moral decisions may impact the way you consider difficult situations in the real world, it wasn’t observed in this meta-analysis. Overall, none of the studies that were used in this meta-analysis discussed critical factors such as character motivation as having anything to do with violent video games having an effect on aggression.

Out of the 6 questions that the taskforce asked, only one was answered and that was based on an analysis of just 5 studies.

At best, this meta-analysis has failed to show that significant efforts have been made towards answering the overarching question that has been plaguing the medium for decades, “How do video games affect our behavior?” We haven’t seen evidence that there is a developmental effect, we need more research to prove it one way or another. We haven’t seen if gender plays a significant factor in how video games makes us more aggressive, we need more research. We haven’t even shown there to be any outside risks that increase the likelihood that people that play video games will have an increase in aggression. Most of the data found by the taskforce was found to be inconclusive at best and has shown that research into video games has a long way to go.

Bethesda's DOOM remake
Bethesda’s DOOM remake

While the research analyzing the faults in both previous and current research shows a desperate need for more research, this wasn’t the only purpose of this meta-analysis. In order to determine what effect violent video games have on people, the researchers performed an analysis on several potential negative effects that the 31 studies discussed. The taskforce argues that through their analysis and the data from previous meta-analysis they found that violent video games can lead to a decrease in pro-social behavior, empathy and sympathy towards aggression, and increase in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive affect.

While the argument could be made that their search results and filtering methods biased their findings considerably, the end results do show that there may be a correlational link between these factors. Without personally looking at the research I can’t say one way or another. What I can say, is that most of these factors aren’t damning to gaming. Aggression in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are two different definitions of aggression, “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront” and “forceful and sometimes overly assertive pursuit of one’s aims and interests.”

If you’ve ever played a competitive game online, then you will know that frustration at another player. Trying to beat your opponent necessitates the first definition of aggression. You want to beat them. It is designed to be part of the game. I’ve become aggressive when I’m trying to kill a camping sniper that sits right outside of the starting gate. It doesn’t even have to be a person when it comes to video games, you are competing against the computer. That is one of the essences of playing video games and its set up in a safe environment where no one really gets hurt. Aggression is nothing to be ashamed of. It only becomes a problem when that aggression is brought into the real world and not dealt with in a positive way.

While I do concede many points to this study, I still have my own personal biases against this study. As a gamer, I worry that this study will be used to prove the point that playing video games is bad for you by many newspapers, magazines, and news websites. I believe that individual similar to Jack Thompson can use this study as a club to demand certain games be pulled from stores in the same way that Grand Theft Auto 5 has been pulled from some Australian stores, or to justify further use of the Australian Classification Board as a tool of censorship. I can see politicians using this meta-analysis to show that there needs to be strict regulations on video games.

Within the last few paragraphs of this study, the task force recommends the ESRB to change their rating systems to be more empirical and explain just what type of violence is shown in the game. This is ridiculous because there is no way a person can calculate how “violent” an act is, there is no equations proving that the amount of “violence” generated by 3 stabbings are equal one shooting, it is all subjective.

To me, requesting this of the ESRB is unacceptable, especially when most of the questions that needed answering couldn’t be answered due to a lack of research. I’m not alone in this opinion, when this study was published within the APA more than 200 academics, researchers, and counselors spoke out against the findings. These 200+ good men and women wrote a response to this study discussing the potential weaknesses and failings of the researchers and signed their name and livelihoods to the document.

In their response the academics pointed out that the members of the taskforce had a significant bias due to the fact that they have written a substantial amount of research against video games already. If this information is true it can heavily slant the conclusions of the study towards one perspective. They also argue that much of the original meta-analysis from the 2005 APA statement, which was used by the new taskforce, has weak and inconsistent evidence that can significantly damage the reliability of this study.

They continue with the statement that by focusing only on studies that show an effect, the taskforce undercut the meta-analysis and doesn’t show the entire set of data that is available. By limiting the amount of contradicting data, the taskforce leads readers to conclude that these effects are happening on a consistent basis, rather than the actual statistical likelihood of such an event occurring.

Finally, the academics call into question the concerns that the community at large has towards violent video games when criminal youth violence is at a 40 year low. If the argument that video games cause criminal violence in youth and young adults is to be taken at face value, we would see it reflected in a growth in the amount of criminal violence year after year as video games become more popular. They go on to say that while it is important to research the effects video games might have on aggression and violence, it is hardly the epidemic media and congress make it out to be.

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Shadow Warrior 2

I don’t believe this study will have much of an effect on video games outside of potentially convincing congress to give more money for research. What I do believe, however, is that this study will be utilized by those with an agenda to attack video games as a medium.

This has happened before in another form of media, western comics, which resulted in the formation of the Comic Code Authority, which censored artists and destroyed many of the comics on the market upon its inception.

I don’t want to see this happen to an industry that I care about deeply. Therefore, I encourage everyone reading this to learn how to spot bad data in scientific articles and call it out whenever possible.

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I am a research student with a history in psychology. I am a fan of tactical rpgs and I love to travel. I hope to one day be a clinical psychologist.

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