Study Fails to Prove Early Exposure to Violent Games Creates Disturbed People

strafe 02-28-16-1STRAFE, a throwback shooter looking to recapture that ultra-gory feel

The golden goose of research is a longitudinal study that follows a participant’s life from the cradle to the grave.

Such a study could allow researchers to track growth and development of their participants, as well as understand confounding factors that might prevent a definite answer to many of life’s questions. For a researcher, this is the greatest chance to understanding the human condition. Sadly, this type of study is a mirage that often falls through due to various issues.

Such a comprehensive project requires a massive number of participants that would be willing to devote a portion of time to the study for the rest of their life. It also needs researchers that are dedicated to one goal, and have the extensive funding to support the entire project. If just one of these facets crumble, decades of work could be toppled in an instant.

If such a project came about with video game issues as one of the topics of interest, many riddles plaguing the industry could be solved.

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The original DOOM. You kill a myriad of baddies

This golden goose might have just appeared in the study titled ‘The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children’, or ALSPAC for short. From April of 1991 to December of 1992 pregnant women in the city of Avon were asked to have their new children participate in order to study various factors about the participants’ growth and life.

The participant’s parents were surveyed to determine if the family had a history of mental illness. The mother’s education level, and the family’s religiosity, as well as several other factors were considered in order to determine issues that could potentially confound the results of the study. This study was the start of a massive undertaking that involved many different fields of research.

Various projects became involved with this lifetime study to determine a slew of different ideas. One video game related project eventually came in to existence, and has been following a portion of these participants since they were 8 to 9 years old. This study is titled “Prospective Investigation of Video Game Use in Children and Subsequent Conduct Disorder and Depression Using Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children,” and is credited to Peter J. Etchells, Suzanne H. Gage, Adam D. Rutherford, and Marcus R. Munafò.

This study, while only a small section of the overall Avon study, has managed to stay financially afloat with interested researchers for nearly 8 years, and because of this it has been able to gather data from two important stages of life regarding the participants.

This research project was designed to discover the long-term effects of playing video games over a period of 7 to 8 years. Specifically, the researchers hoped to find if there was a correlation between playing violent games and Conduct Disorder or Depression. In order to do this, participants were asked what type of game they played, how many games they had, and how long they played at a young age.

Later, when the participant was 16, an interview was conducted to determine if they had the potential for clinical depression, and their parents were interviewed to determine if the participant had the symptoms of conduct disorder. Results were also observed from competitive games (racing/sports games) to determine if the level of aggression and ultimately conduct disorder was higher than in violent games (Shoot-em-ups).

Initially there were 14,551 pregnant women who participated in the first stage of the ALSPAC. Of the children born from this cohort, a sample of 2,453 children were interviewed about their video game habits making this one of the largest video game studies that I have encountered. Typically I would call into question a study with so many participants due to it potentially skewing the data, however in this case the large amount is a necessity.

While many participants may be interested in taking part in a study from the beginning, things might happen which could exclude them from participating later on in the study. They might have moved, died, or been thrown in jail, and so on. They also might have wanted to quit participating in the study, and while that can be a pretty bad thing for researchers, it is a completely legal and understandable situation.

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Wolfenstein 3D – a 90s shooter in which you kill lots and lots of Nazis

Despite all of these issues being completely legitimate reasons to back out of a study, if there’s not enough participants in the second half of the study it will fall apart at the seams. With a large enough original sample size the damage done by losing participants is minimized. In total only 1,815 participants took part in each step. For a study lasting 8 years having a sample this size can lead to robust results.

To choose their participants, the researchers created a series of questions that were used to determine if the child played video games. Children were asked the number of games that they played, how often they played, and what types of games they played. The problem with their selection process, and ultimately for the entire study, is how the researchers defined the different types of games.

Genres are a difficult thing to pin down from decade to decade. What may be a legitimate genre in the late 90’s might not exist in the mid-2000s. In particular, this study is trying to observe the effects violent video games have on children as they grow older, particularly shooters like rail shooters and first person shooters.

However, due to the fact that these games were few and far between in the late 90s and the term first person shooter hadn’t really been cemented yet led to some difficulties in classification. In this particular case the researcher decided to use the term “shoot ‘em up” to define games where the player shoots the enemy.

1942 02-28-16-1Capcom’s 1942

The hope was that when children saw the term they would instantly know that researches meant a shooter game, rather than the classic shmup game, 1942. Due to this discrepancy many researchers and critics may call into question the legitimacy of the research, but in my opinion this is just showing a bigger problem the field of video game research has, constant change and growth.

Video games are still fairly new and they are growing and changing with new game genres are being developed every couple of years. The ability for researchers to consider this aspect within their research is as difficult as trying to predict the lotto numbers. To make up for this, many researchers are forced to place game genres into categories that really don’t fit together.

It’s the reason most researchers will consider smart phone games to be equal with console and PC games. This wouldn’t be a problem for a study that only takes a few years, but for a research project that takes a considerable amount of time such as this study, categories can make or break your research.

In this case the researcher broke the genres into nine categories which are fairly consistent with the structure of video games in the 90s. The categories included “shoot-em-up” (which could actually be anything from Castle Wolfenstein, to Contra), “sports”, “racing”, “role-playing”, “puzzles”, “strategy”, “flight simulator”, “platform”, and “other (e.g., educational or learning games).

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Nintendo’s Splatoon – a far cry from a violent shooter

These categories were also used to regulate between which games were violent, and which games were generally safe. While this was the case when many of these genres were new and well defined, as time had passed many of the lines dividing genres began to blur. While shooter games were generally considered an easy way to show a violent video game where you can literally blow the heads off your enemies, this isn’t necessarily the case anymore once you factor games like Splatoon, Portal, and more into the mix.

The same could be said for the generally considered nonviolent puzzle games now seeing releases like Huniepop, Puzzle Fighter, and the Zero Escape series within their classification. It is this reason that video game research is so conflicted. A research article is made and tries to prove a point, but is contradicted by another article quickly after.

Both studies are legitimate but due to the fact that they’re not following the same guidelines on what genres are and how to judge what constitutes violence in video games, they come to two completely different conclusions. As a fan of video games I hate to say it, but this shifting, blending, and constant creation, is a nightmare for a researcher of the industry.

While this study showed examples of games fitting within each category, from a research perspective that can make reproduction difficult, because, outside a few cases, they don’t give clear cut examples of the games in the study. For research in this field to survive researchers need to understand the industry a bit better, clearly define genres while also utilizing systems already in place to monitor content in games such as the ESRB (which came into existence in 1994 so there’s no excuse). Granted the researchers in this project do explain that this is a problem with the research, and that future studies should take these issues into account.

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Activision’s Prototype. It’s quite bloody

These issues can have dramatic effects on the overall success of the study, but it’s only a small problem in the grand scheme of the research. After the participants turned 16 they were asked to participate in an interview survey where they were asked questions regarding their levels of depression. Their parents were also interviewed to determine if the participants had the symptoms and potential for conduct disorder.

These two interviewed responses were then measured against the results from when the participants were children to see the end results of this study. This study looked at various relationships to determine the long-term effects video games can have on children. The researchers had found children that played shoot ‘em ups were more likely to have conduct disorder like symptoms, but the strength of this relationship was extremely small.

Out of the 1815 participants only 26 participants had showed the symptoms of conduct disorder. This is roughly 1.4% of the entire population, and while 14 of these participants said they exclusively played shoot-‘em-ups, 11 of the participants also played puzzle games, so the if playing violent games can lead to conduct disorder the relationship is microscopic to say the least. The researchers were careful to note that while there was a relationship, the strength was nowhere near what other researchers have been claiming.

To further test this data, the results were compared to those that exclusively played competitive games like sports games or racing games, and found that only the shooting games group had any signs of conduct disorder. This would act to stand in contrast to the idea that it is the violence in video games that causes aggression (and conduct disorder).

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Capcom’s Street Fighter V

The problem with this, however, is that they didn’t consider all types of competitive games in their study. They failed to consider fighting games within their research at all (despite being a highly competitive genre) and they also failed to consider the competitive aspect of shoot ’em ups. While this may have been a problem of the generation, further research could show more conclusive reports.

The results from the depression survey also showed very little evidence to show any relationship between the use of video games and depression at all. There were 22 participants that showed symptoms of depression, but there was little to no evidence that any specific genre could be a factor in its development.

While this study has all the signs of being a golden goose, many issues prevent this study from realizing its true potential. The problems with this study are simple to make and are a problem for any long-term research project. It may seem disappointing for a researcher to have studied for several years to find nothing of value, but that in and of itself is useful in the grand scheme of the field.

26 participants showed signs of conduct disorder – 1789 participants didn’t, and of those 816 shoot ‘em up players didn’t develop the disorder at all. While significant results could have been helpful in deciding once and for all if video games can lead to violence, a lack of significant results helps show the industry that there is a long way to go before anyone can make that argument scientifically.


I encourage everyone to read this study and come to your own conclusions about the results. This study is publicly available here, and the link to the overarching study can be found for free here.


Editor’s Note: Twitter GIF was created from STRAFE’s Kickstarter video. You should check that game out.


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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