We Just Can’t Let It Die: Videogames and “Aggression”

18 Aug

It’s 2015. Two years ago, Chris Ferguson spearheaded a movement among game developers and academics calling for the APA (that’s the American Psychological Association) to review its statement (from 2000) that violent videogames were a cause of increased aggression in players. Shockingly, the APA agreed to do so. This month, the APA reconfirmed its original stance.

So that should be it, right? The APA says that violent videogames cause aggression–not violence, mind you, but “aggression”–so we should just accept that and move on.

Except not so fast. Let’s look at what, precisely, the APA chose to do here. They made a “Task Force on Violent Media” (that doesn’t sound biased at all, does it?) who looked into the APA’s original findings by rereading the experiments upon which the APA based those findings:

The task force conducted a comprehensive review of the research literature published between 2005 and 2013 focused on violent video game use. This included four meta-analyses that reviewed more than 150 research reports published before 2009. Task force members then conducted both a systematic evidence review and a quantitative review of the literature published between 2009 and 2013.

That’s right. The Task Force did not conduct new experiments, it just reread the ones that have already been done, experiments with rather odd understandings of “aggression” and which measure only short-term behavioral responses.

These “findings” are based on the results of other people’s experiments, namely, the experiments whose methodology so many psychologists, sociologists, and others have found deeply flawed and problematic. Experiments who measure “aggression,” for instance, based on (in at least one actual experiment) whether subjects pick up the interviewer’s pencil after playing a violent game.

Yup. Not picking up a pencil (when unasked) is a sign of aggression which is acceptable to the APA.

These experiments do not measure long-term results of exposure to or playing of violent games. They do not measure actual violent behaviors, only “markers” of “aggression.” So these studies do not actually suggest that playing violent videogames causes violent behavior. They do not suggest that violent videogames cause changes in personality that linger beyond the short-term. (Ferguson has more to say about this.)

Update (8/21): Ferguson issued the following statement to the Digital Games Research Association list:

Good morning:

 I’m sure many of you have heard the APA rolled out a new policy statement on video game violence. Controversy has quickly erupted over the policy statement, both regarding the perception that the task force was “stacked” with scholars with clear prior anti-game attitudes, as well as significant methodological shortcomings of their review (their meta-analysis included only 18 studies, for instance, seemed to kick out most null studies, and included at least one study with no violent/non-violent game contrast that doesn’t seem to belong at all).

 Here’s some representative coverage of the policy statement: http://www.newsweek.com/apa-video-games-violence-364394

 Many of the folks here signed the scholars’ open letter to the APA calling on them to retire their policy statements on media violence: https://www.scribd.com/doc/223284732/Scholar-s-Open-Letter-to-the-APA-Task-Force-On-Violent-Media-Opposing-APA-Policy-Statements-on-Violent-Media

 I appreciate the efforts of everyone who is working to keep the APA and other organizations like it “honest.”



I’m not going to say that playing a competitive–violent or not–game doesn’t increase adrenaline and, yes, aggression because all competition does that, whether you’re a football fan, a golfer, or a videogame player. Competition fosters aggressive behaviors because that’s what competition does. Notice we don’t hear the APA calling for parental regulations on football attendance or pee-wee baseball, although I can point to far more stories in the news about parents at those events getting into fistfights (actual violence!) than you can to any definitive causal relationships between violent gaming and violent action (and may I remind you that Adam Lanza’s favorite game was Dance, Dance Revolution, which is not at all violent).

So what can we determine from the APA’s findings? In essence, not a damn thing besides the fact that the individuals who made up the APA’s Task Force are sticking with the status quo. Nevermind that youth violence (unlike, say, police violence) is at an all-time low and has been steadily declining since the arrival of console gaming systems to households. Nevermind that Millennials are among the most socially conscious and conscientious generation (and, yes, the most narcissistic), and they all grew up playing videogames, mostly violent ones. Nevermind that gaming as a whole is shifting away from shooters and toward puzzle-solving, narrative, and emotional games.

Videogames cause aggression. Unlike journalists who don’t actually pay attention to what they report before they vomit up click-bait headlines.

(Just in case you missed it, that’s sarcasm.)

Here’s the core of it: Videogames cause no more or less aggression than any other popular media pastime with which human beings choose to occupy themselves. Are there instances in which one ought to regulate games? Probably. I wouldn’t advocate that a three-year-old play Call of Duty, but I also wouldn’t suggest that a three-year-old watch Saving Private Ryan or The Crying Game or read Hamlet. It’s just not designed for a three-year-old. In short, everybody–and I’m looking at you, APA–needs to calm down and recognize that people like media of all kinds, violent and non-violent, and that while some of it isn’t age-appropriate for children, our entertainment media haven’t killed us yet.*


*Special caveat for the Gladiatorial Ring in Ancient Rome. That killed people.