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Gaming and Anger

Yet another study relating violent behavior to playing violent video games. I try to shed some light on why studies like this are taken seriously and why they necessarily shouldn't.
Violent games do not create violent children. There. I said it.

A good researcher reports findings that support his or her position, as well as those that fly in its face. The October 2009 issue of Issues in Mental Health Nursing contains an article titled "Young Children's Video/Computer Game Use: Relations with School Performance and Behavior" by Erin Hastings at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL, and Tamra Karas, Adam Winsler, Erin Way, Amy Madigan and Shannon Tyler, all from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. As always, the abstract:

This study examined the amount and content of children's video game playing in relation with behavioral and academic outcomes. Relationships among playing context, child gender, and parental monitoring were explored. Data were obtained through parent report of child's game play, behavior, and school performance. Results revealed that time spent playing games was related positively to aggression and negatively to school competence. Violent content was correlated positively and educational content negatively with attention problems. Educational games were related to good academic achievement. Results suggest violent games, and a large amount of game play, are related to troublesome behavioral and academic outcomes, but educational games may be related to positive outcomes. Neither gender nor parental monitoring emerged as significant moderators of these effects.

There is a fairly sizable collection of research that supports the claim that violent video games (or television, for that matter) are related to higher levels of aggression, both in children and adults. However, speaking frankly, this is akin to saying that owning many books is directly, causally related to a high frequency of reading. There is very little support for a direct causal link between violent gaming and violent behavior. Reciprocation is more likely; a feedback loop. Violent is as violent does.

It's important to remember--and I say this with all sincerity--that the most important aspect of a child's development is the parents. No amount of video game or television curtailing by watchdog groups is ever, ever going to replace the effects of just one good parent. If a parent truly believes that violent video games will turn his or her child into a raving, homicidal maniac, then guess what: be an adult and say No to that child. Parental responsibility is nothing to be shrugged at. Television producers and game designers are not out to make upstanding paragons of civility out of your children; they're out to make money by producing consumer-based materials that people buy. Two things sell, unequivocally: sex and violence. That math isn't hard to do.

An interesting aspect of research like this is the number of variables involved. In just the article there are:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • GPA
  • School competence
  • Time playing games
  • Violence level of games
  • Parental monitoring of content
  • Parental monitoring of time
  • Social context
  • Previous behavior of child
  • Media type
Any researcher worth his or her salt, given that list of factors, would never try to make a causal link out of all that. This is not to say the authors did; I'm just pointing it out. The authors list a number of limitations on their study, as per usual in academic articles (all citations found on page 646 and are not found immediately following one another):

First is the fact that only parents reported on their child's video/computer game playing habits.
In addition, parents may misreport the amount of monitoring that they actually do.
Finally, to obtain child grades, parents were permitted to either (a) submit a grade report from school, or (b) report their child's grades. It is conceivable that the self-report option may have introduced some error, presumably due to parents inflating grades to enhance their child's academic standing.
Also, our sample was limited to generally high-achieving children from relatively well-educated, mostly middle- to upper-class families,
Another limitation is the correlational and exploratory nature of the study. Although links among game playing and children's aggression and academic achievement were found, the direction of the causality is unclear. It is likely that, as previously mentioned, the relationship between aggression and violent media is reinforcing.
When splitting the sample to analyze by gender, [the limitation of a small sample size] became clearer, as correlations that were significant overall with the enter sample only approached significance when the sample size was halved to look at boys and girls separately.

It is not my intent to rip apart this article and I apologize if it comes across that way. However, I feel it's important to point out that when articles like this are published (that show a correlation between one thing and another) it's all too easy for people to that correlation to causation and assume a causal link. We've all seen the Tipper Gores and Zackery Morazzinis and even the Hillary Clintons hell-bent on preventing violent video games from falling into the hands of impressionable, moldable youth.

It reminds me of an old George Carlin bit: "It's a great country, but it's a strange culture. This is a country where gun store owners are given a list of stolen credit cards, but not a list of criminals and maniacs! Where tobacco kills millions of people every year, so they ban artificial sweeteners! Because a rat died! And now they're thinking about banning toy guns . . . AND THEY'RE GOING TO KEEP THE FUCKING REAL ONES!"

Coming up next: addiction.


Hastings, E. C., Karas, T. L., Winsler, A., Way, E., Madigan, A., & Tyler, S. (2009). Young Children's Video/Computer Game Use: Relations with School Performance and Behavior. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 30(10), 638. doi: 10.1080/01612840903050414.

(This was originally posted at Teach Video Games on September 17, 2009.)

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