Why are studies on violent video games so controversial? Let’s look into that and see why a 10-year long study found no links between video games and violence.
Here we go again. The topic of violent video games and how they might be influencing the behavior of a whole generation of gamers is always finding its way into our newsfeed one way or another. Often times, the media brings it up during roundtable conversations with experts, parents and concerned citizens to make sense out of a mass shooting, for example.
In the heat of these moments, such conversations are never conclusive and they commonly simply try to fill in the void left by the uncertainty and despair we typically find ourselves in as a society after a tragedy. In scientific research, on the other hand, this subject is not new and more investigations are brought to light even when the media is not directing our attention to it.
Academic studies have been trying, for years, to understand the correlation between aggressive behaviors and violent video game play. As a researcher within the game studies myself, I’ve seen dozens of papers either blaming or absolving the depiction of violence in video games from the accusation of being a bad influence for kids. In the end of the day, most of this controversy is still highly methodological.
That means, researchers disagree on the way their investigations into violent video games are conducted in first place. Earlier this month, another research paper was published on this topic. But, before we get to it, let’s take a quick look into how laboratory research is commonly conducted in psychology.
What goes on at Psychology Labs when violent video games are studied?
As in many studies in psychology, typically, groups of research participants are brought into a lab, preliminarily analyzed, exposed to a phenomenon, and then debriefed. Sometimes, heart rate sensors and electrodes for measuring skin conductance are also used to help identify any psychological arousal, anxiety and aggressiveness as the effect of a given phenomenon on the participants. For this specific case of violent video game research, consider the game itself as our phenomenon here.
To make things easier, picture a person who’s just arriving at a psychology lab. This person is just one from a larger group recruited to be part of the study. A researcher will (most likely) measure their heart rate and other levels of psychological arousal before they start playing anything. By doing so, they’re establishing a baseline of their psychological state for a later data comparison: the before and after the game session. After that, our gamer will finally play a violent video game while their body is monitored. Then the researcher might interview them or have them fill a questionnaire after their gameplay session is finished to better understand their reactions. Typically, the questionnaires are meant to read into players’ levels of aggression and prosocial behavior. This same procedure will be repeated for each participant of this group of study.
That sounds cool, right? But that’s not all. If violent video games are to be taken seriously as a cause to explain whatever the participants are experiencing after they play them, another group of players must be submitted to similar conditions while playing a non-violent video game. That’s right! The researchers need at least one more group to go through the same experimental conditions while playing another game. So, in the end, our researchers will have the same data set with different values from 2 groups (or more, depending on the method) of people: the ones who played a violent video game and the ones who played a non-violent one.
After a careful comparative data analysis of these two groups, if the data collected from the participants who played the violent game are deemed significantly different from the other group in terms of prosocial behavior, and aggressiveness then our researchers can make the case for the role of violent games as being the cause of their psychological “disturbance”, so to speak.
This is a very simple description of how research in psychology is done at a laboratory setting. Research based on very similar lab settings have indeed found short-term aggressiveness in players exposed to violent video games. We’re talking about the residual level of arousal a player is left with immediately after experiencing the excitement of a game such as Battlefield, for instance. But can lab experiments predict whether game players will become criminals later in life because of that?
Anyway, there’s also those who think labs are overrated when it comes to setting up the appropriate environment for participants to respond to. Maybe, under more natural occurring circumstances, researchers could have a better glimpse into how long-lasting the effects of violent video games are on the average players. Perhaps, this line of research could benefit from other methodological approaches, or different ways of collecting player data, for instance. This is when the most recent study comes in.
What’s new about the recent research in video game violence?
First of all, laboratory studies are very important in Psychology and thanks to them, we have learned a great deal about how humans and animals learn, think, and react to the world around us. But depending on what’s being studied, some researchers might find it better to use other methods to capture a broader spectrum of the problems they’re investigating. It could be that, for specific investigations, a laboratory research is way too restricted for what needs to be understood.
After all, how can we be confident that exposing participants to a violent video game at a lab can be compared to how they experience that same video game in other situations in their real life? How long do the effects of violent video games remain in someone’s life before they become harmful, if they do at all? In other words, if we want to say violent video games are indeed a cause of aggressive behaviors in general, we should be able to take a closer look at players’ lives out of the laboratory, for starters.
These concerns are at the core of the study published by Sarah M. Coyne and Laura Stockdale on Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking on December 18, 2020. Their paper reports the results of a 10-year investigation of kids as they grew up playing video games. So, instead of relying solely on laboratory findings, this research focused on following the effects of violent video games on the lives of 500 participants from 2009 to 2019.
Instead of having people sit at a laboratory for monitoring their bodies or asking them questions as they react to a game, the study by Coyne and Stockdale opted for using questionnaires and other standardized measurement tests to figure out what games those participants played during different periods of a decade and how that impacted their levels of aggression and prosocial behavior over time.
Coyne and Stockdale noticed patterns of behavior among participants later grouped by similarities. For example, playing habits of a certain group of people included some minor violent video game play during the first years, which later increased. However, they were considered the healthiest group among all the participants, since their levels of aggressive behavior and anxiety were not significantly high. In fact, when compared to another group of participants who started off playing highly violent games, their levels of aggressiveness and and anxiety were practically the same.
The most noteworthy phenomenon observed happened with the group of people who entered adulthood with the highest level of aggressiveness. They had the most moderate habit of violent video game play in the very beginning of the study, which makes it hard to link violent video game to their behavior. But would have they fared better in their lives if they were given the opportunity to play more violent video games?
These results corroborate the assumptions made on the book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones, which argues that there’s a cathartic value to violence in media. It could be that the more someone is given the chance to express symbolic violence, the higher the relief from the real urge to act with aggressive behaviors.