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A Hornet’s Nest Over Violent Video Games

When the relative peace and safety that many of us enjoy are blighted by horrific  crimes, like the recent shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, the public naturally wants to know why. In recent years, the urge to make sense of such crimes has led to the identification of a culprit: Violent video games, many people believe, cause violent behavior. Among social scientists interested in media effects, the topic is a hornet’s nest.

In 2005 the American Psychological Association released a policy statement claiming that research has consistently found that violent video games influence various outcomes like aggressive thoughts and behavior and “angry feelings.” As we write, a committee of psychologists appointed by the association is reviewing the statement to consider revising or replacing it. We are two of more than 200 scholars from psychology, communications, criminology, and other fields who have signed an open scholars’ statement urging the committee to repeal the 2005 document’s strong claims. We believe that the APA needs to tread more carefully into the politics of the public discussion of research.

The reason is simple: The evidence is mixed. There is a lot of cleverly designed research exploring potential effects of violent games on laboratory outcomes—such as whether a person completes an unfinished story with an aggressive ending or how much hot sauce a subject chooses to give a stranger to eat—that is only abstractly related to truly antisocial aggression. There are also large-scale surveys examining correlations between respondents’ game use and their reports of delinquency and misbehavior. Some studies find such relationships; some do not. Over the years, the latter have become more common in the growing body of research. Most relevant to social concerns, little or no evidence exists to show that violent video games can be identified as a unique contributor to serious violent crime.

But the research culture surrounding violent video games has become so contentious that scholarly differences of opinion have created an impasse that restricts reasonable discussion in public and in academe. Scholars disagree about what research should be considered to assess effects, who is competent enough to draw conclusions, and how much of a consensus on the topic exists. The imbroglio provides a case study in how the cold equations of science can be contorted by the human elements in academe.

What can we learn from this mess? For starters, there is a chasm between the answers about violent video games that society seeks and the answers that research provides. Society wants answers about antisocial behavior in real life; the mixed bag of laboratory studies can’t provide those. Society wants to know what to do; current research about violent crime and video games doesn’t add up to enough evidence to support policy recommendations. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for researchers to use terms like “aggression” loosely when they describe their findings about laboratory outcomes, allowing a lay audience and policy makers to misinterpret their conclusions.

Second, some researchers tend to selectively report findings, claiming that the effects of violent video games on aggression are as pronounced as the effects of smoking on lung cancer, or of condom use on HIV risk. In some cases, “average” findings from meta-analyses are used to support claims about consistent effects, but meta-analyses tend to “split the difference” among widely discrepant findings. That, then, is often misreported as a consistent pattern of results across a large number of studies. The fact that the social sciences are plagued by a publication bias (the tendency to publish conclusive studies over inconclusive studies) may further sway meta-analyses.

Lastly, and most troubling, there has emerged a pronounced tendency for some researchers to denigrate the competence—and even the character—of scholars who are unconvinced about the social harms of video-game violence. Sometimes skeptics are likened to deniers of climate change (an area where there is more consensus); at other times, they are called “industry apologists.” Articles have been written comparing career accomplishments and publication records of researchers supporting and challenging claims of negative video-game effects, mistaking quantity of publications and journal impact factors for quality of research, and asserting that early-career scholars with short résumés are unqualified to comment on the matter.

The lesson for those involved in any debated area of research is clear: When the arguments stray from the science to the résumés of those discussing it, we run the risk of perpetuating established views and celebrating former research accomplishments more than new knowledge.

Like many people involved in this debate, we want to support research and policies that lead to reduced violent crime. But that goal is not served by jumping to conclusions with public-policy statements that outreach the evidence, spurring mistaken efforts by legislators to exert political pressure on scientists and encourage specific outcomes. Even if we want a culprit to blame, we cannot ignore inconclusive research on video games and violence.

We can understand why violent video games have been a suspect in the search for answers to societal violence, but so far the research has not supported the indictment. It is therefore inappropriate to list violent video games as a known risk factor for social violence along with more proven factors like previous mental-health problems or a history of family violence. It is improper to portray games as presenting a public-health crisis.

While researchers continue to explore the topic, we would do well to keep our minds on the principles of science and maintain a healthy respect for all of those practicing it. Otherwise, we will let an important societal question become an aggressive academic game.

James D. Ivory is an associate professor of communication at Virginia Tech. Malte Elson is a research associate in the department of communication and doctoral student in the department of psychology at the University of Münster in Germany.

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