THE AMPLIFIER MAGAZINE

Societal Violence and Video Games: Public Statements of a Link are Problematic

The News Media, Public Education and Public Policy Committee

Christopher Ferguson (Chair), Malte Elson, Frank Farley, Mary Gregerson, Jerri Lynn Hogg, Jimmy Ivory, Dana Klisinan, Deborah Linebarger, Patrick Markey, Andy Przybylski, Shahbaz Siddiqui, & June Wilson

In December 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut began an 11-month societal debate regarding whether violent video games contribute to societal violence. Evidence for such beliefs is absent, but considerable evidence to the contrary exists.  However, many pundits and “anonymous sources” still reference this association.  After the 11-month investigation was completed the state of California revealed that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, played mainly non-violent games like Dance, Dance Revolution.

Misinformation regarding game effects has the potential to distract society from such more pressing issues as mental health reform, social inequalities and poverty that can contribute to criminal behavior. Because of incidents like Sandy Hook revealing poor information flow regarding game effects, the News Media, Public Education and Public Policy Committee has investigated the research on this issue.

Based on our review of research evidence, we conclude it is not possible to make causal links between playing violent games and homicidal behavior. We are concerned that public statements asserting such links may cause more problems and misinformation than benefits.  On the issue of lesser acts of aggression (such as laboratory aggression tasks), committee members differed in individual views and noted that there are studies to support and contradict beliefs in such effects.  Thus, the committee has maintained a neutral position with respect to the potential for such effects considering the current evidence.

We have posted the Committee’s statement in the Amplifier Magazine to invite your comments.  Please send your comments directly to Christopher Ferguson: cjfergus@stetson.edu.

The Committee’s Statement

Criminologists who analyze mass homicides have either excluded the issue of video games (Lankford, 2013), or have explicitly referred to links between violent games and mass homicides as a “myth” (Fox & DeLateur, 2014). Yet, very commonly, after young males commit high-profile violent acts, politicians and news media may seek to “link” such crimes to violent video games or other violent media.  Such claims, not based on research evidence, may distract society from real/substantive causes of violence.  With this statement, the News Media, Public Education and Public Policy Committee recommends that Division 46 take a position to advise policy makers, community officials, and news media not to attribute or insinuate blame for acts of violence on video games or other fictional media.  A summary of this evidence indicates the scientific wisdom behind this injunction.

Mass Shootings and Video Games

A wide body of research has examined the impact of violent video games on relatively minor acts of aggression, such as the administration of hot sauce, ice water or bursts of white noise in laboratory experiments. Whether such studies provide conclusive evidence for a relationship between violent video games and these minor forms of aggression remains a matter of reasonable debate (Anderson et al., 2010; Ferguson, 2015a; Hilgard et al., in press; Kanamori & Doi, 2016; Sherry, 2007).  Even among members of American Psychological Association Division 46 Society for Media Psychology and Technology, opinions regarding the impact of media violence on aggression differ considerably.  This document focuses upon the less publicized, more scientifically sound view that little evidence exists that playing violent videogames produces violent criminal behavior.  Scant evidence has emerged that this debate uncovers/predicts what background elements lead to violence in society.

By contrast, research evidence available to date indicates that violent video games have minimal impact on violence in society. Correlational and longitudinal studies of youth suggest that violent video game exposure does not meaningfully predict youth physical aggression or violent crime (DeCamp, 2015; Przybylski & Mishkin, 2016; Surette & Maze, 2015; Ybarra et al., 2008).  Some research has suggested that youth with more aggressive personalities may seek out violent games; however, violent games do not increase assaultive behavior among such youth (Breuer et al., 2015).  Indeed, no evidence has emerged for an “at risk” group of vulnerable youth prone to committing violent crimes following exposure to violent games (Ferguson & Olson, 2014; Engelhardt et al., 2015.)  Further, evidence from societal data examining video game violence consumption has failed to document that such consumption predicts violent crime (Ferguson, 2015b; Cunningham et al., 2016; Markey, Markey & French, 2015).  Similar absence of predictive relationships has been observed for violent movies (Dahl & DellaVigna, 2009; Markey, French & Markey, 2015.)

Analyses of mass homicide perpetrators have not identified substantial links with violent video games.  A 2002 analysis by the US Secret Service suggested that school shooters tended to consume relatively low amounts of violent media compared to normative levels for same-age peers.  This finding suggests that no link exists between school shooters and their videogame habits.

Why Do Perceptions of Links Persist

Why do these logical fallacies persist? Efforts to “link” violent crimes to violent video games and other media may persist due to a well-known phenomenon called “confirmation bias.”  That is, when perpetrators are young males, news media and policy makers often pay extraordinary attention to their media habits.  However, when a perpetrator is an older male or, more rarely, a female, the issue of media violence is typically ignored.  By attending only to those cases that fit the assumption that violent media exposure is universal among criminal perpetrators and ignoring those cases that conflict with this narrative allows for the perception of a correlation to take hold where no correlation exists.  Particularly for individuals whose only source of information is news media, this may create the impression that there is evidence for links between media and violence, despite the lack of clear evidence for such claims.

Linking video games or other violent media to crimes among the young, ignores that consumption of violent video games and movies is both nearly universal and developmentally normative, particularly for young males and for young females (Olson, 2010). Discovering that young crime perpetrators also happened to play violent video games is no more illustrative than discovering that they happened to wear sneakers, or watched Sesame Street.  This is a classic error of trying to predict a low base-rate behavior (i.e., rare violent acts) using a high base-rate behavior (i.e., common; violent media consumption).  Confirmation bias has often resulted in the preservation of the false belief that some shooters who, upon investigative review were found to be minimal consumers of violent games, or were significantly linked to such games (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007; State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury, 2013).

Recommendations

Given that the weight of research evidence is unable to support links between violent video games or other violent media and societal violence, the News Media, Public Education, and Public Policy Committee of the American Psychological Association Division 46 The Society for Media Psychology & Technology make the following recommendations:

  1. Public officials and news media should avoid stating explicitly or implicitly that criminal offenders were caused by violent media. This would extend to implicit language such as “it was as if they were playing a video game” or “the offender was obsessed with violent video games.”
  2. Public officials and news media should refrain from erroneous statements implying all or most perpetrators of a particular class (such as school shooters) have been influenced by violent video games or other media. Similarly, claims that media effects research can be compared to medical effects research in terms of societal impact or effect size are unwarranted.
  3. Scholarly organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, when asked about video games or media and criminal events, should state explicitly that research in this area is ongoing; however, thus far evidence has not provided support for such beliefs.
  4. Should discussions of media effects extend to “aggression” rather than “violence” news media officials should solicit views from scholars on both sides of the media effects debate to give the public a well-rounded view of the issue. Public figures are well advised to recall that while violence refers to a narrow class of behaviors intended to cause serious physical harm, aggression is a much broader category of behaviors, including many very mild behaviors and some (such as sports aggression, competition or debating) which are socially sanctioned. Hearing both sides of the debate permits viewers to make up their own minds.  News media should be careful to differentiate the type of abstract “aggression” typically studied in the laboratory (e.g., the administration of hot sauce, ice water, bursts of white noise, responses on a questionnaire) experiments from the physical aggression and violence typically of interest to the general public.
  5. Public officials, news media and scholarly organizations, such as the APA, would do well to focus on scientifically valid “real” causes of violence ranging from poverty to mental health issues to educational and social disparities and to families in need of help. Focusing on video games or other media can inexcusably distract from real causes of violence and do harm.
  6. News media benefit from remembering that discovering a young male perpetrator of a crime also happened to play violent video games or watch violent movies is not remarkable given the commonness of such media use among young males. Such disclosures should not be treated as significant or as causes.

References

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., & … 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. doi:10.1037/a0018251

Breuer, J., Vogelgesang, J., Quandt, T., & Festl, R. (2015). Violent video games and physical aggression: Evidence for a selection effect among adolescents. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4, 305-328. doi:10.1037/ppm0000035

Cunningham, S., Engelstatter, B., & Ward, M. (in press).  Violent video games and violent crime. Southern Economic Journal.

Dahl, G., & DellaVigna, S. (2009).  Does movie violence increase violent crime? The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124, 677-733.

DeCamp, W. (2015). Impersonal agencies of communication: Comparing the effects of video games and other risk factors on violence. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4, 296-304. doi:10.1037/ppm0000037

Engelhardt, C. R., Mazurek, M. O., Hilgard, J., Rouder, J. N., & Bartholow, B. D. (2015). Effects of violent-video-game exposure on aggressive behavior, aggressive-thought accessibility, and aggressive affect among adults with and without autism spectrum disorder. Psychological Science, 26, 1187-1200. doi:10.1177/0956797615583038

Ferguson, C. J. (2015a).  Do angry birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game Influences on children’s and adolescents’ aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 646-666.

Ferguson, C.J. (2015b).  Does movie or videogame violence predict societal violence? It depends on what you look at and when. Journal of Communication, 65, 193-212.

Ferguson, C. J., & Olson, C. K. (2014).  Video game violence use among “vulnerable” populations: The impact of violent games on delinquency and bullying among children with clinically elevated depression or attention deficit symptoms. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43, 127-136.

Fox, J., & DeLateur, M. (2014).  Mass shootings in America: Moving beyond Newtown. Homicide Studies, 18, 125-145.  doi:10.1177/1088767913510297

Hilgard J, Engelhardt, C, & Rouder J. (in press).  Overestimated Effects of Violent Games on Aggressive Outcomes in Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin.

Kanamori, F., & Doi, S. (2016).  Angry birds, angry children and angry meta-analysts.   Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 408-414.

Lankford, A. (2013). A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010. Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17, 255-274. doi:10.1177/1088767912462033

Markey, P. M., French, J. E., & Markey, C. N. (2015). Violent movies and severe acts of violence: Sensationalism versus science. Human Communication Research, 41, 155-173. doi:10.1111/hcre.12046

Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N., & French, J. E. (2015). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4, 277-295. doi:10.1037/ppm0000030

Olson, C. K. (2010). Children’s motivations for video game play in the context of normal development. Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187.

Przybylski, A. K., & Mishkin, A. F. (2016). How the quantity and quality of electronic gaming relates to adolescents’ academic engagement and psychosocial adjustment. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 5, 145-156. doi:10.1037/ppm0000070

Sherry J. (2007).  Violent video games and aggression: Why can’t we find links? In R. Preiss, B. Gayle, N. Burrell, M. Allen, & J. Bryant, (Eds.) Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-analysis (pp 231-248). Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum.

State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Dansbury. (2013). Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street, Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.  Danbury, CT: Office of the state’s attorney judicial district of Danbury.

Surette, R., & Maze, A. (2015). Video game play and copycat crime: An exploratory analysis of an inmate population. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(4), 360-374. doi:10.1037/ppm0000050

United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. (2002).  The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Retrieved 7/2/12 from http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf.

Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2007). Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. Retrieved 11/11/07 from: http://www.governor.virginia.gov/TempContent/techPanelReport.cfm.

Ybarra, M., Diener-West, M., Markow, D., Leaf, P., Hamburger, M., & Boxer, P. (2008). Linkages between internet and other media violence with seriously violent behavior by youth. Pediatrics, 122, 929-937.