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Is the game to blame? Video game playing and anti-social behaviour

There are two opposing research camps in the field of gaming studies. There are those who believe there is a causal link between the effects of playing video games and subsequent behaviours and those that don't. But what does the science say?

Ever since I started researching the effects of video games almost 30 years ago, there has never been a shortage of debate as to whether the playing of video games influence people’s behaviour. A few weeks ago, Apple started rejecting mobile games from their app store if they displayed guns in the game’s promotional material or app store icons. Such action has again raised the issue of whether playing video games makes people more violent or makes them more likely to engage in anti-social behaviours (such as engaging in criminal behaviour).

Because of these concerns, many countries all over the world have video game rating classification systems such as the European PEGI [Pan European Gaming Information] rating system. PEGI has age ratings (i.e., games that are deemed appropriate for those over the age of 3, 7, 12, 16 or 18 years) as well as indicators of what’s in a game (for example, sex/nudity, violence, swearing, gambling, drug use, fear, discrimination). Most countries have systems of self-regulation in place but sometimes are banned by government authorities because of the game content.

This has included games like RapeLay (because of excessive sexual violence), Manhunt 2 (because it was excessively violent) and Postal 2 (because of gory violence). Sometimes individual stores will ban the games from being sold (such as Amazon refusing to sell RapeLay because the aim of the game was to rape a mother and two of her daughters). There are also constant stories where video games have been blamed for copycat crimes (such as games in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, including a teenager in Thailand confessing to robbing and murdering a taxi driver while trying to recreate a scene from GTA IV). Such stories keep the ‘video game violence’ debate alive. But what does the science say?

Broadly speaking, there are two opposing research camps in the field of gaming studies. There are those who believe their scientific research demonstrates a causal link between the effects of playing video games and subsequent behaviours and those that don’t. Many experimental (laboratory-based) studies and reviews carried out by Dr. Craig Anderson (Iowa State University) and his colleagues conclude that that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and a decreased empathy and prosocial behaviour. Furthermore, some researchers argue that the inherent structure of violent video games limit young people’s abilities to develop perspectives of victims and does not encourage affective sympathy in children, as any negative effects of being harmed or killed in the games are minimised ignored, or even rewarded. Studies carried out by my own research team have also shown that young people who play violent video games report less concern for victims of crime, and attribute more blame to the victims of crime.

In opposition to this, many studies and reviews carried out by Dr. Chris Ferguson (Texas A&M International University) and his colleagues conclude that claims made by Dr. Anderson and colleagues are methodologically flawed and fail to show that playing of violent video games has any association with serious aggression, violence, and crime. For instance, there is a lot of correlational evidence that as the sales of video games have increased over the last decade, the rates of serious youth crime have decreased. Furthermore, there may also be important cultural determinants as countries like Japan have high levels of media violence but have low levels of crime.

In fact, nearly all studies that claim the playing of violent video games leads to more anti-social behaviour highlight correlations and not causation. I don’t believe any study has ever demonstrated absolute causality between video game playing and anti-social behaviour. One of the major problems with all of the research (including all those that have examined the playing of violent video games) is that studies typically fail to take into account all the other types of violence that individuals are exposed to day-to-day (such as violence they see on the news, and violence they see in films and television, and the violence seen in their own lives and local community). Another problem is that many academic journals only publish studies that show statistically significant findings (meaning that they are more likely to publish a study that suggests a link between playing video games and aggression rather than those that do not).  

Another problem with most published research is that it doesn't follow players over a long period time. In short, most of the research is what we researchers call ‘cross-sectional’ – it only examines players at one particular ‘snapshot’ in time. Furthermore, much of the research has been carried out has been experimental and carried out in non-ecologically valid settings (typically a laboratory). In fact, all of the measures used to assess “aggression” are proxy measures that are not related to actual violent actions (because it is unethical to try and induce actual anti-social and violent acts within a research experiment).

Another problem in evaluating the scientific evidence is that some players may be predisposed towards aggression and seek games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty out. For instance, studies showing that delinquents play more violent video games than non-delinquents don’t in anyway demonstrate cause. Video games may have had an influence in informing how they might have done something and give them ideas, but they are highly unlikely to be the root cause of anti-social behaviour. If I played Grand Theft Auto all day every day, I really don’t think it would heighten the risk of me becoming aggressive or carrying out crime. Saying that, I'm a father to three screenagers and I don't let them play violent video games. Just because I think the scientific evidence is flawed, doesn't mean there isn’t any effect. It’s that science has failed to demonstrate a conclusive cause. As we researchers often note, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

For me, it's not about putting the blame on the game. At best, playing video games like Grand Theft Auto might at best be a minor contributory factor to anti-social behaviour. But it shouldn't be a scapegoat because all individuals have to take some responsibility for their actions.

(Please note: This article is a slightly modified and expanded version of an article first published in The  Independent)

Further reading

Anderson, C. A. (2013).  Games, guns and mass shootings in the US.  The Bulletin of the International Society for Research on Aggression, 35(1), 15-19.

Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological science, 12(5), 353-359

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B.J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H.R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151-173.

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 470-482.  

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 Psychologists, 68, 57-74.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression?  CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

Ivory, J.D., Colwell, J., Elson, M., Ferguson, C.J., Griffiths, M.D., Markey, P.M., Savage, J. & Williams, K.D. (2015). Manufacturing consensus in a divided field and blurring the line between the aggression concept and violent crime. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, in press.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Exploring attitudes towards victims of crime among video game players: A vignette study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(2), 13-33.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). The psychological effects of videogames on young people. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l'Educació i de l'Esport, 31(1), 119-133.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Violent video games and attitudes towards victims of crime: An empirical study among youth. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(3), 1-16.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.

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