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An examination about communicating science on videogames to the public and gamers. What does it mean to social scientists and gamers alike.

Wai Yen Tang

March 7, 2014

16 Min Read

Gamers don't like bad news about them or gaming, whether it is about connecting videogames to mass shootings, acts of violence or scientific findings about its link to aggression.  The most vocal gamers would take it to the comment section and voraciously argued in its defence or attacking those named in the article, such as politicians, pundits, journalists and social scientists. Understandably, they receive these news for many years. Andrew Przybylski (University of Oxford) chimed in that the years have not been kind to gamers, as it reinforces harmful stereotypes and linking them with suspicion after mass shootings.

Indeed, this affect gamers' attitudes towards social scientists who studies videogames and has an impact on future scientific endeavours. Gamers may feel increasingly alienated as bad news continue to mount about them and their activities, this alienation could cultivate distrust towards anyone who wants to study them and perhaps this distrust might spread to the social sciences in general.

Recently, eight published studies have investigated this matter compelling me to tie in all these studies together and draw up the big picture. I solicited comments from Andrew Przybylski and James Ivory (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) who were authors on some of the studies.

Who believes in the connection between violent videogames and aggression?

Popular perception on who believes in the connection between violent videogames and aggression is often attributed to the older generation and those who do not or rarely play videogames. A 2013 Harris Poll found that 3 in 5 of American Adults believed in the connection between videogame and aggression, but it was noted that nearly three-quarters of older adults held such beliefs whereas less than half of young adults do.

Andrew Przybylski (2013) sought to explore this demographical topic through three nationally representative surveys in the U.S.,using Google Consumer Surveys. His findings revealed that while the belief is spread across demographics, such as gender and age,  65+ year old American adults who never or rarely played videogames compared to  18-25 year old adults were six times more likely to hold the belief. Notably, American men who never played videogames were 3.5 times more likely to hold such beliefs than men who frequently play whereas women across age and gaming experience were twice as likely as men to hold such belief.

Peter Nauroth (Philipp University of Marburg; 2014) and colleagues conducted experiments in Germany to examine how people who identify themselves as gamers can affect people's opinions towards videogame research. Across three experiments, participants who highly identified themselves as gamers tended to negatively evaluate violent videogame research.

We can see that people who never played videogames were more likely to believe that violent videogames cause real world aggression. Conversely, people who play a lot or strongly identifies themselves as gamers tend to think otherwise and reacted with anger. An observation from Przybylski and Ivory is that the population who plays videogames or grew up with them is growing, this mean that society's views on videogames are changing, can change IMO. At present, however, it begs the question how else do people form the belief that videogames cause aggression besides playing videogames? I point to the news media as one of many sources.

What does the news media has to say about violent videogames research?

The news media occasionally cover videogame research. How journalists write about research studies could translate into how people form their opinions about videogames, especially for those who do not play them. Reasonably, we can assume that the news media is their major source of information about videogames, as well for a lot of topics, from politics to science.

The popular perception about the news media's portrayal of videogames research and gamers is typically showing the link between violent videogames with adverse outcomes, from aggression to addiction. In my observation, university press releases are typically the catalyst for such coverage. There are two point of views to consider. The first point of view is that the news media is being sensationalistic and is fanning moral panic (Ferguson, 2013). The second point of view is that the news media is doing the opposite by adding ambiguity to the research by representing both sides of the videogame debate. This is motivated by a desire for objectivity and balance.

Nicole Martins and her colleagues at Indiana University (2013) conducted a content analysis of news print's coverage on media violence and aggression research. What they did is they pulled out news articles that covered on media violence and aggression. They do so through the LexisNexis database, from 25 highest-circulating newspapers in the U.S. and as far back as they could get to (1982 to 2012). This yielded 540 news articles.

They had five people read those articles and categorize each article based on several variables of interest. These variables include whether the article is a story or an opinion editorial; is it about general research or a specific study; which medium they are covering (i.e., TV, videogames);  characteristics of the journalists (i.e., sex); the article's sources (i.e., experts, interest groups, etc.) importantly the tone of the article, whether it suggest no link, neutral about the existence of the link or suggest a definitive link that media violence is link to aggression. What they found is that 52.7% of the news article suggested media violence can increase aggression, 37.7% were neutral about the link and 9.3% suggested no link at all. Interestingly, media violence research got peak press attention between 1997-2001 and also 60% of the articles during that time period suggested a positive link, something important must have happened. After that period, the articles took on a more neutral tone. Another finding is that male reporters more likely to suggest that there was no link whereas female reporters more likely to suggest that there is. Thus, the news media (at the least the printed ones) are not creating a moral panic, but Martins and colleagues noted this create a disconnect between what researchers have found and what is reported to the public.

James Ivory had this to say:

"The study by Martins and colleagues is a very useful descriptive analysis of media coverage, and I think we would do well to examine more about the psychology and sociology of public discourse about media effects.  Much of what is going on now in the "real world" with game effects is not about the research at all, but about how that research is presented and discussed in the media, in the U.S. Congress, and in the courts, and those conversations will have more impact on games' social role in the future than the scholarship will.  I have problems with the article's tone at times in that it seems to assume the "correct" media coverage would be to acknowledge a games/aggression link when "aggression" means something very different in different settings (i.e., much of the press coverage may be in the context of prominent murders, which the research still tells us very little about in terms of game effects, so assuming that trends in research findings on aggression should map onto trends in tone of press coverage is a flawed way of thinking given the different contexts), but the study's description of trends is useful regardless.  We could benefit from more such studies, because the way the game effects research is currently being communicated is probably not very representative of what we know.  A similar study related to the communication of the research in the policy and criminal justice arenas would be very valuable, I think, as one of the most personally disappointing and truly sad applications of the game research literature for me of late has been seeing the way is has been applied in some criminal trials in ways I would consider irresponsible."

How do gamers feel, react and think about research on videogames?

As we learned earlier from Nauroth and colleagues' experiments, gamers do not particularly feel agreeable about adverse videogame research. A closer look into their experiment, in particular to their second experiment, they found that strongly identified gamers who read news that supported a link between violent videogames and aggression, as opposed to those that does not,  reacted with more anger which in turn led to greater negative evaluation of said news article. This experiment gives us some clues about the angry tone in the comments section of news articles, especially those in gaming news sites [1, 2], on violent videogame research.

It is not just anger that gamers feel, but also feelings of stigmatization that lead to disregarding "bad" research. Gamers are a subcultural group centered around videogames. Rachel Kowert (University of Münster) posted about being a gamer. The point Nauroth et al. made was that belonging and identifying oneself to a group influence their behaviours, attitudes and thinking that goes along with the group's stance. Consequently, belonging to a group stigmatized by mainstream society would likely lead to defensive-hostile reactions against any stigmatizing forces, be it from politicians advocating videogame bans to scientists who found anything they found disagreeable.

A trio of experimental studies led by team leaders Julia Kneer (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Sabine Glock (University of Luxembourg) found supporting evidence among Young German men's cognitive processes related to videogames. The gist from all three experiments is that the youth who grew up with the internet and videogames, even amongst those who do not play videogames, do not readily associate cognitively videogames with aggression, rather more towards positive thoughts of social interactions and achievements, gamer motives.

Andrew Przybylski has this to say:" Nauroth et al., and the work of Kneer & Ivory begin to open the top off how gamers view the pronouncements handed down to them from the Ivory Tower (no pun meant there Jimmy). The past 25 years of research has not been kind to gamers, reinforces harmful stereotypes, and links them with suspicion following mass-shooting events. Understanding how to communicate carefully done scientific research to these populations (who have been stigmatized) will be key moving forward. "

James Ivory has this to say: " I share Andrew's sentiment that work like the paper by Nauroth and colleagues is beginning to unpack a little bit about for the agency of game users in both their own media use and experiences and as underutilized contributors to a better understanding of potential game effects.  The same can be said, to a degree, of the work by Sjöström and colleagues.  The dominant literature seems to have viewed them as pawns of a monolothic media-effects mechanism, which I believe is a poor way to look at a group that comprises much of the western population even if we do eventually find that there are substantial negative social effects of some patterns of game play.  Much of the research and policy discussion about video games seems to have been driven by people who know little about them, which is something that is changing.  I, for example, don't find myself in position to play many video games these days, and I definitely don't get very positive about celebrations of criminal violence in media from a personal standpoint, but I'd like to think that having been around some video games in my youth informs my minor contribution to the scholarship in ways that can't be summed up as simply as the narratives in the effects discussion I've often heard about how people familiar with games are being games apologists, exhibiting third-person effects, resolving dissonance, etc.  People who play a lot of games have a lot to say that we can learn from, and they are not militant defenders of games.  Julia Kneer, for example, has already taught us much about game players and is now leading some new research that seems to have promise for shedding light on how game users can help highlight risk factors for "addiction" and problematic use.."

Indeed, to simplify, the third-person effect is people's perceptions about adverse outcomes of something, like violent television's effect on aggression or the chances of an accident happening, to themselves and to others. James Ivory and his colleague, Sriram Kalyanaraman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; 2009) did an experiment on an aspect of the third person effect, namely how thinking concretely (i.e., a specific videogame) versus abstractly (i.e., videogames in general) would affect people's perception of violent videogames effects' on themselves and others. They found that thinking about a specific videogame led participants to think that violent videogames have lesser adverse effects on themselves and others than those who thought abstractly.

Andrew Przybylski's surveys tied in nicely with the experiments we explored so far and supported the idea that having some experiences with videogames can inform everyone and offer new insights.

Besides videogame aggression, I wonder how gamers feel about videogame addiction?

What are the impacts on videogame research from such media attention?

As a videogame researcher, the issue of how gamers respond to the works on videogame research is very important to me as it can influence how future studies would turn out, especially when I am attending to a very sensitive topic.

In experiments, from psychology to medicine, we must be very conscious of designing our experiments to arrive at a clear and accurate conclusion. Many factors can turn our results into noise or worse, misleading. One particular factor relevant to the conversation is participants' biases during the experiment, a more precise phrase is whether the experiment is sufficiently blinded. Much like in medical research, patients are given some new medicine which they will start forming ideas about its effects, and some might start acting upon these ideas without realizing it, thus a placebo effect ensues. Similar phenomena occur in psychological experiments, participants start forming ideas about the hypothesis and some might act upon those ideas. But sometimes, some experiments are very obvious, especially anything related to videogames. How would gamers form ideas about the purposes of videogame experiments?  How would they behave in such experiments?

Jens Bender and colleagues (University of Koblenz-Landau; 2013) conducted an experiment to answer such question. The researchers told a cover story to participants that the experiment is either about videogames effect's on a cognitive ability or about aggression. Then, participants complete a task related to aggression, but the researchers told the participants the task's purpose is either a test of cognitive ability that has to be done within a time limit or they did not told its purpose, but gave participants unlimited time and the test was obvious that it was examining aggression. They found that greater identification as a gamer led to lower score on the obvious aggression test, but not on the less obvious test. However, the cover story did not have an effect. Although it is quite a valuable lesson for experimenters like myself, but it is not something new (see Elson & Ferguson, 2013). It also begs the question about what the researchers themselves bring in.

Andrew Przybylski has this to say: " Expanding on all of these studies, I would like to know more about the preconceptions researchers bring to games, these are likely to affect participants' expectations, the conclusions they draw, and the extent to which they will be willing to generalize and communicate their conclusions to society more broadly. "

Andrew continued with a more positive note: " I am increasingly reading reviewer inputs (peers on papers I review) that reflect ideas/perspectives that were entirely absent when I started my PhD (e.g. competition, the use of surrogates instead of mods, practice time, genre differences, game structure etc.). I think there will be a higher level of skepticism of methods that will arise from direct experience with games and gaming culture. This will hopefully increase the psychological realism of lab studies and cool down some of the extreme things researchers have claimed"

James Ivory has this to say:" I share Andrew's view that it is more of a marker of a growing trend in research to try to explore games in the best way possible for the questions at hand rather than cramming games into a methodological paradigm better suited for a more unidimensional "stimulus.""

" I agree with Andrew that the common thread is that we are seeing incremental changes in the sophistication of research on games, their audiences, and their impact.  This is not a surprise, because science is supposed to follow such trends, but it's probably noteworthy that for whatever reason these advancements may have been retarded at times by rigid adherence to methodological and conceptual approaches that were never well-suited to the medium."

What will we go from here?

We can start by fostering a greater understanding between videogame researchers and gamers. Jamie Madigan (The Psychology of Video Games) is the psychologist that I can rank as a popular science educator. There have been several psychologists and communication scholars who communicate their findings to the public, but not on a regular basis. Establishing greater contact between gamers and scientists is very fruitful for both sides can share insights and fresh perspectives, more importantly to work collaboratively on creating a better social environment in gaming.

Bender, J., Rothmund, T., & Gollwitzer, M. (2013). Biased estimation of violent video game effects on aggression: Contributing factors and boundary conditions. Societies, 3 (4), 383-398. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/soc3040383

Elson, M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Twenty-Five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression: Empirical evidence, perspectives, and a debate gone astray. European Psychologist, 19 (1), 33-46. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000147

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of brown v. entertainment merchants association. American Psychologist, 68 (2), 57-74. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0030597

Glock, S., & Kneer, J. (2009). Game over? the impact of knowledge about violent digital games on the activation of aggression-related concepts. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 21 (4), 151-160.URL http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/jmp/21/4/151.html

Kneer, J., Glock, S., Beskes, S., & Bente, G. (2012). Are digital games perceived as fun or danger? supporting and suppressing different Game-Related concepts. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (11), 604-609.URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2012.0171

Kneer, J., Munko, D., Glock, S., & Bente, G. (2012). Defending the doomed: Implicit strategies concerning protection of First-Person shooter games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (5), 251-256.URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2011.0583

Ivory, J. D., & Kalyanaraman, S. (2009). Video games make people Violent—Well, maybe not that game: Effects of content and person abstraction on perceptions of violent video games' effects and support of censorship. Communication Reports, 22 (1), 1-12. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08934210902798536

Martins, N., Weaver, A. J., Yeshua-Katz, D., Lewis, N. H., Tyree, N. E., & Jensen, J. D. (2013). A content analysis of print news coverage of media violence and aggression research. Journal of Communication, 63 (6), 1070-1087. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12052

Nauroth, P., Gollwitzer, M., Bender, J., & Rothmund, T. (2014). Gamers against science: The case of the violent video games debate. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44 (2), 104-116. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.1998

Przybylski, A. K. (2013). Who believes electronic games cause real world aggression? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, (pp. 131120060135006+). URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2013.0245

Sjöström, A., Sowka, A., Gollwitzer, M., Klimmt, C., & Rothmund, T. (2013). Exploring audience judgments of social science in media discourse. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 25 (1), 27-38. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/1864-1105/a000077

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