Violence in the Digital Realm does not Lead to Violence in the Physical One.
Controversy over the possible negative effects of violence in video games has been around almost as long as the medium itself. The first game to cause a significant outcry from the public was the arcade cabinet Death Race released in 1976. Despite the morbid name, the content was fairly pedestrian, especially by today’s standards: an 8-bit car runs over stick figures that turn into a gravestone when hit. Referring to these figures as “Gremlins” did little to assuage the fears of the public, and the game was scathingly reported on in magazines like the National Enquirer and Newsweek. 60 Minutes even did a investigative report on the psychological dangers of video games.
The next major instance of video game controversy happened in 1993, with the release of the game Mortal Kombat. The use of digitized models for the characters meant they looked much more realistic then any previous games, and this combined with more graphic violence then had been seen in a game before did not engender it well to the press. The backlash was so bad against this game that a Congressional Hearing was held to determine whether the video game industry should be regulated. This led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an organization designed to give details on content and restrict the sale of the more objectionable games to minors. In spite of this regulatory agency, the flames of controversy over this subject have not burned out, and every year brings a fresh slew of politicians and news agencies claiming that violence in games is the cause of a wide variety of crime and other tragic occurances.
With such strong feelings on display, it would be logical to assume that these groups had strong studies which proved that violence in games causes definite harmful negative effects. The main theory is that viewing or playing violent video games induces increased aggression in the user, and this increased aggression leads to more violent action. While it is not outside the realm of possibility that this is the case, the studies seeking to prove it have numerous faults. They are plagued by unreliable testing methods, from measurement scales that gather incorrect data to the lack of control over significant variables. Further, the analysis of the data garnered in these studies makes a key assumption based on a theoretical model that has been refuted, and thus makes claims the data does not support. Finally, there is little evidence that violence in games produces a greater effect on aggression then many other common activities. There is also little consensus in this area, with an equal number of studies concluding that violence in video games does not even cause an increase in aggression. Taking these factors into account, it is incorrect to state with any degree of certainty that violence in video games causes negative effects based on current evidence.
Proper testing methods are essential to any field of study. If the initial gathering of data has faults, then any of the results the study draws are tainted by that incorrect data. The hallmarks of a good test are repeatability, accounting for as many variables as is possible, and using the correct testing tools to gather the data. The majority of the studies on the effects of violence in video games fail on the latter two. They employ unreliable methods of gathering data that do not test solely for negative aggression, and fail to account for a major variable directly relating to their tests.
The most common test for increased aggression is the twenty-nine question Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire, which was first published in the sixty-third Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It tests for physical and verbal aggression, as well as anger and hostility. Physical aggression measures the likelihood of provoked as well as unprovoked violent physical contact between the subject and either people or objects; verbal aggression measures the subjects tendency to argue and disagree with others. Anger measures the subject’s temper and how often they get angry, and hostility tests what the subject thinks of their friends and strangers (Buss-Perry Questionnaire). On the surface, it appears to be very complete; however, by examining the questions themselves, it is clear that they have numerous faults and should not be used as evidence for increase in negative aggression.
The first major problem with the Buss-Perry Questionnaire is that a majority of the questions ask about past actions without giving any context. For example, in the first nine questions relating to physical aggression, 3 of them ask about controlling the urge to strike people, if the subject gets into fights more than the average person, and if they have threatened anyone in the past (Buss-Perry Questionnaire). In a short term study, the answer to these questions changing does not indicate an increase in aggression, because these actions are in the past and thus cannot be changed by any current actions. Rather, it shows a change in perception regarding past actions. While a study over a longer time period could track a change in these questions, the fact that they have no context or timeframe attached to them mean that it is equally possibly that a change in perception is to blame for the changes, not an increase in aggressive actions. The other sections have the same problem, with the questions relating to anger and verbal aggression being composed almost entirely of this type of questions.
The next fault that quickly becomes apparent when reading the questions is that they do not necessarily show an increase in aggression that causes harm. The 5 questions on verbal aggression are a sterling example of this, because responses that are more aggressive can usually be seen as a virtue rather than a fault. For example, question ten reads “I tell my friends openly when I disagree with them” (Buss-Perry Questionnaire). But being unafraid to voice a personal opinion is highly prized in many individual-oriented cultures, and the question provides no context to help determine if this is a situation that would be better served by remaining silent. The lack of context on this and many other questions necessarily leads to different subjects relating to them in different ways – question 10 can be applied equally to disagreeing about the tastes of food and disagreeing about significant social and moral issues such as gay rights or abortion. All of the verbal aggression questions are in this same ambiguous vein and the section on hostility fares little better. Two questions in the hostility section, “I am suspicious of overly friendly strangers” and “When people are especially nice, I wonder what they want” are taught to children from an early age to avoid them being taken advantage of, and can easily be seen as a virtue as well as a fault.
The second commonly used test is the Hot Sauce Paradigm. In this test, the subject is given a bowl and four different types of hot sauce ranked by spiciness, and to give select the type and amount to be given to a person down the hall who explicitly does not like spicy foods. This test is generally seen as more persuasive because it measures a direct act of aggression rather than simply asking questions and trying to determine the aggression from the subject’s responses. One major issue with this test, as posited by Dominik Ritter and Mike Eslea in the study “Hot Sauce, toy guns, and graffiti: A critical account of current laboratory aggression paradigms” is that there is no alternative to giving hot sauce. Thus responses are not testing if an aggressive response would occur, but rather the severity of a forced aggressive response. There is also a significant disconnect between the subject and their supposed victim. If the subject was considering taking aggressive action that would hurt someone physically or verbally, in almost all situations they would have to take into account the reaction from that person. With this increased distance from the person, it becomes much more likely that the subject will chose a more aggressive response, since they have more emotional distance as well as less danger to self (Ritter). The final problem with this test is one of scope. Giving someone too much hot sauce is a less grievous offence then physically hurting someone or even verbally deriding them. It is incorrect to assume that these two situations are analogous, because the stimuli needed to convince a subject to give someone more hot sauce may be very different then the stimuli needed to move them to more aggressive or violent actions.
Since the two most common tests for aggression fail on any number of levels, this next point is also relevant. When possible, a study should seek to test for aggression using the maximum amount of feasible tests. For example, compare the study in Singapore by Sorick et. al. to the study on German adolescents performed by Moller and Krahe. In the first study, four different measurement scales and questionnaires are used (Skoric). In contrast, not only did the second study only use two methods of measuring aggression, but one of those methods was taken from another of the author’s studies and had not been tested for reliability by an outside source. Both of these experiments used the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire, but the first study used all 29 questions and the second study only uses 7 questions mixed with another 7 questions from a scale used for measuring a completely different type of aggression (Moller). Since the Buss-Perry is already mired in problems with the full 29 questions, choosing only seven of them erodes any potential effectiveness to the point of near uselessness.
Just as vital as using reliable testing tools is controlling for all significant variables. Obtaining an accurate measure of aggression means little if the aggression is caused by a factor other than the violence in a game. One of the most glaring examples of failing to control for all important variables is shown by Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, who conducted a two part study to test the effects of violence in a video game versus the effects of competitiveness, difficult, and pace of action. The first part of the study found that both the violent action game and the nonviolent racing one produced an equal increase in aggression. The second study concluded that between four games, 2 violent and 2 nonviolent, the violent and nonviolent game that were judged to be more competitive showed a much greater increase in aggression than the two less competitive ones (Adachi). Though it may only be one variable, this is of paramount importance. If it is not violence in video games but rather competition that causes adverse effects, then any study that does not take this into account cannot give fully reliable conclusions.
The second major error is in the area of results analysis. Even if the study used reliable testing methods to gather data, incorrect analysis of that data leads to conclusions that the data simply does not support. In the field of violence in video games, the problem lies in a contested theoretical model regarding over what period of time the results of a test can be applied.
In general, studies are split into two timeframes: short-term or long-term. Short-term studies take place anywhere from fifteen minutes to roughly a day; the benefit is that they can conceivably control for all significant variables and thus narrows down any change in results to just the single variable they’re testing. Long term studies take place over anywhere from over a few days to a few years, and while they cannot exercise the control that short-term studies provide, they show effects over a longer timeframe, and are generally regarded as being more accurate in how a variable would affect actual life. Normally there is no problem regarding the timeframes of studies, because the results of short-term studies are used to prove that a certain effect occurs, while the studies over a longer timeframe are used to show what affects that effect has. In video game studies, however, there is a theory called the General Aggression Model (GAM), which breaks this barrier and attempts to allow the results of short-term studies to apply to longer time periods.
The GAM states that “media violence exposure not only leads to an immediate increase in aggression in a particular situation but also contributes to the development of an aggressive personality of the game player over time” (Moller). Following the GAM model would mean that even studies done in only a few hours would be relevant because any increased aggression found there would carry over into a long term effect. The problem is that GAM is not certain to be effective, with one study — “Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test Of Aggression In An Online Game.” – finding results that directly contradict it. Over a month, the testers found that there was no difference in result between the group who played the same violent game for at least 56 hours and the control group that did not, whereas the GAM method would only be validated if there was a increase in aggression observed over this time (Williams).Another study titled “How long do the short-term violent video game effects last?” tests for aggressive thoughts and feelings after playing a violent video game using the standard questionnaires, as well as employing the hot sauce paradigm at either zero, five, or ten minutes after violent game play has ceased. After 10 minutes the measured levels of aggression spike sharply downward, indicating that the effects of video games only last this amount of time (Harris). While these two studies do not completely disprove the GAM, they cast doubt on studies with results that depend upon it. Without being conclusively proven, this model should not be used to extend the results of a short-term study into a longer time period. This error alone does not invalidate all of the results from any studies that adhere to the GAM, just the conclusions based on it.
The final point against the argument that violence in games causes negative effects in real life is not designed to refute any particular group of studies. A particularly determined individual may not be swayed by the above arguments against many studies being composed of unreliable testing methods and faulty result analysis Regardless of the issues with these studies, this individual may simply assume that more research could solve the problem. However, even if violence in video games is conclusively linked to an increase in aggression, one major problem still remains – a multitude of other things are also believed to increase aggression. Violence in television broadcasts has been linked to increase aggression for years, with many studies, such as one by Paul Haridakis, taking this for granted and instead trying to determine what causes the difference in aggression changes by examining the motivations and backgrounds of the participants (Haridakis). Playing sports has also been linked to increase aggression, as a study published in the Ovidius University Annals showed that 300 secondary school students who were involved in sports generally tested higher on aggression scales than 300 who were not (Arslan). One study even compared the level of aggression between those playing violent video games and those who ascribe to a traditional masculine ideology and found that both correlate with a higher level of aggression (Thomas). This means that just being exposed to the traditional gender roles has the chance to increase aggression, something that is nearly unavoidable. Despite this similarity in effect, many see sports and males conforming to traditional gender roles as healthy for children while simultaneously deriding television and video games for corrupting youth. And while it is certain that sports and television do produce a benefit, not much research has been done on what benefit video games produce nor how much they affect aggression compared to other media and activities. Without this additional research it is difficult to judge video games in relation the great number of other media and activities that also appear to cause increased aggression.
It is evident that there is little support for the claims that violence in video games causes lasting harm through increasing aggression. The two most common tests for measuring aggression are flawed in several major ways; the Buss-Perry measures perception of aggression more than aggression itself and the hot sauce paradigm is ill suited to replicate situations in real life. There is also little evidence that the aggression measured here would only be channeled to negative pursuits. Many studies seeking to find a link between violence in video games and aggression also do not use the full scales for measuring aggression, further skewing the results. At least one very significant variable – the level of competition in each game – is rarely controlled for, so it is not known if it is the violence or the competition that causes any potential increase in aggression. Many of the short-term studies on the effects of video games have their results erroneously extended to applying over a longer time period by using an theoretical model which has at least two studies that completely refute it. There is also little evidence comparing the effects of video games to the increased aggression caused by a variety of other sources, nor video games potential in positive effects such as removing aggression gained from other sources. Finally, though this essay focused mostly on studies that did find an increase in aggression, there are an equal number of studies that dispute this claim. In conclusion, there is little solid, reliable evidence that claiming that violence in games causes increased aggression, and even less evidence that the increased aggression leads to harm in life. Thus, it is incorrect to herald video games as contributing to any percieved increase in violence and decline of society,and anyone that does so on this amount of evidence in indulging in fearmongering more then espousing any reputable position.
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