Video Game Violence: A Scientific 'Consensus' Cracks

Reel violence does not lead to real violence.


For decades it has been a shibboleth among most

Video Violence

social psychologists that increasingly violent media—violent television, movies, and video games—increase the risk of violence in society. As expressions of this alleged scientific consensus, professional societies have adopted various resolutions decrying the toxic effects of media violence on society. For example, the American Psychological Association adopted in 2005 a resolution declaring that "decades of social science research reveals the strong influence of televised violence on the aggressive behavior of children and youth." 

Two of the main proponents of the theory that violent media produces social violence are the Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson and the Ohio State psychologist Brad Bushman. In 2001, they claimed that media violence is nearly as significant a risk factor for social violence as smoking tobacco is for lung cancer. "Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," Anderson and some colleagues asserted in 2003. In 2007, the University of New Mexico pediatrician Victor Strasburger estimated that 10 to 30 percent of the violence in society is attributable to media violence.

As recently as October, Bushman and two colleagues reported that there is a "broad consensus" among media psychologists and mass communication scientists that violent media increases aggression in children. Affecting puzzlement about why anyone might reject this alleged consensus, a group of German media researchers concluded that "strongly identified gamers" reject media violence research results that threaten their views. Earlier this year, Bushman and a colleague denied being in the thrall of a "moral panic" over violent media, instead accusing dissenting researchers who "use violent media themselves" of being "biased by the force of cognitive consistency and experience a 'reactance' of 'regulatory panic.'" Dare to accuse my side of "moral panic" and I'll rebuke yours for "regulatory panic." Doubters are shills for Big Media.

What is the evidence linking media violence to aggression? A lot of it comes from experiments in which undergraduates view violent scenes or play violent video games for 15 minutes and then are tested for aggression in various ways. Other undergraduates view mild content or play nonviolent games. Typical tests for post-play aggression include how loud a noise blast a player administers to an unseen (fictitious) subject; how much hot sauce he or she adds to food that an unseen subject will eat; and questionnaires designed to find out if the viewers or players are having aggressive feelings or thoughts. Many of the studies do find that viewers of violent content and players of violent games will blast noise a bit louder, dollop a bit more hot sauce, and cop to having slightly more aggressive feelings and thoughts than those who view mild content or play nonviolent games. Interestingly, the researchers do not pause to wonder if providing the opportunity for aggression actually licenses its commission in their experiments. According to media violence proponents, these lab results are relevant to the real world.

Their basic theory linking media violence to real violence can (somewhat unfairly) be summarized as "monkey see/monkey do." They believe that media consumers have difficulty distinguishing between real and fictional mayhem. Violence on movie or video screens supposedly supplies behavioral scripts that viewers and players later act out. Reel violence leads to real violence.

Violence Before Video

But now the old guard is being challenged by a new generation of researchers who are calling their theories, methods, data, and sweeping assertions into question. Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson is one of their chief antagonists. In their drolly titled 2013 commentary, "Does Doing Media Violence Research Make One Aggressive?," Ferguson and his colleague German researcher Malte Elson invite readers to contemplate a thought experiment as way to think about the plausibility of the "monkey see/monkey do" theory of media violence. "Take 200 children and randomize 100 to watch their parents viciously attack one another for an hour a day, the other 100 to watch a violent television program an hour a day," they suggest, "then assess their mental health after one month is over." Surely they are right when they assert that "to suggest the mental health outcomes for these children would be even remotely identical is absurd." As the thought experiment makes clear, ordinary folks do recognize that people, including children, can distinguish between real and fictional violence and will react accordingly.

Recent research bolsters this common-sense view of how people actually experience media. Last month the Villanova psychologist Patrick Markey and colleagues published a study comparing trends in onscreen violence to America's murder and aggravated assault rates between 1960 and 2012. They report that movie violence has dramatically increased in the past 50 years, and that depictions of gun violence in PG-13 movies have tripled in the last 27 years. Controlling for possible confounders such as age shifts, poverty, education, incarceration rates, and economic inequality, they report, "Contrary to the notion that trends in violent films are linked to violent behavior, no evidence was found to suggest this medium was a major (or minor) contributing cause of violence in the United States." Earlier this week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that the violent crime rate has fallen by nearly 50 percent over the past 20 years.

With video games, players are not merely passive viewers but active participants in pixelated carnage. In the December 2014 Computers in Human Behavior, a team of researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia used the standard 15 minutes of play format widely adopted by video aggression researchers to assess whether playing ultra-violent, violent, and nonviolent video games had any post-play effect on two measures of pro-social behavior. In one, players are paid $5 and then asked to fill out a brief questionnaire about a local children's charity and told that they could donate some money on their way out. In the second, players were told that they were choosing the level of difficulty of a puzzle that another subject has to finish in a limited time in order to earn money. The hypothesis was that the more violent the game, the harder the puzzle and the lower the charitable donations would be. Instead, the researchers reported that there was no difference among the three groups with regard to pro-social behavior, although the players of the ultra-violent games did donate more. "There is now growing reason to suspect that playing violent video games does not impact prosocial behavior in a normal population," concluded the researchers. 

In the November Journal of Communication, Ferguson drolly asks "Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence?" Analyzing the trends in video game sales and youth violence, he notes that there is likely no incapacitation effect due to incarceration with regard to youth violence trends. "If media violence is a precursor to societal violence the introduction of violent video games in the United States would be expected to precipitate increased youth violence rates," he suggests. Yet as video game consumption increased nearly eightfold since 1996, the violence rate among Americans ages 12 to 17 fell from 35 to 6 per 1,000 people.

How did social science go so wrong? Ideology. As one parses the research, it becomes apparent that well-intentioned liberal social science researchers (and so are they nearly all liberal) engaged in inquiries that they hoped would result in restrictions that prevent school shootings, reduce the murder rate, usher in strict gun control, and, one suspects, elevate their fellow Americans' lowbrow tastes in entertainment. They continue to decry the alleged deleterious effects of violent media even as U.S. violence rates continue their steep decline. The old guard actually cannot see how their experiments and studies are a massive exercise in confirmation bias.

Fortunately, younger social scientists are questioning the ideology that underpins so much prior media violence research. Ferguson and Elson observe that media moral panics eventually abate, in part because the kids who grew up with new media become adults who are less inclined to identify it as a source of social ills.

As the old panic paradigm falls apart, Ferguson and Elson observe, "some scholars actively and aggressively attempt to quell dissenting views, disparage skeptics, question the motives of those who disagree with them, and enforce a highly ideological view of this field." In the April issue of Pediatrics, Bushman and his colleagues somewhat plaintively asked, "Why is it so hard to believe that media influence children and adolescents?" Ferguson's reply is that "the most parsimonious answer to this question is, in fact, 'Because the data are not convincing.'" That's correct.


My original column read: When the International Communication Association met in September, Douglas Gentile, another Iowa State psychologist, made a presentation titled "The Myth of the Fairness Doctrine: Why Both Sides of the Issue Don't Need to be Represented!" In it, he actually advised journalists to not to quote researchers whose work questioned the alleged consensus on media effects.

This was largely based on the statement in an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Communication that read:

Regarding news coverage of media violence debates, a recent article documented that news coverage of media violence has become more skeptical in recent years (Martins et al., 2013). The authors conclude that scholars should encourage journal- ists to make more conclusive statements linking media violence to societal violence. Other scholars (e.g., Gentile, 2013) have explicitly suggested that journalists should not speak to scholars who are skeptical of links between media and societal violence, thus appearing to endorse scientific censorship of scholars who disagree with their personal views. (emphasis added).

The Journal of Communication article references: Gentile, D. (2013, June). The myth of the fairness doctrine: Why both sides of the issue don't need to be represented! Presented at the 63rd Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, London, England.

As support for the claim, I linked to the abstract of the paper that reads:

Although no longer an FCC rule, a type of Fairness Doctrine exists when it comes to the issue of media effects and how the media presents these issues to the public. Whether it be the harmful effects of video games violence, food marketing to children and obesity, or sexual content, another viewpoint is always represented leading many to assume that there is still a debate in the academic community. Even if groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American Psychological Association note the harmful impacts of violent media, the press will find "someone" who says the opposite, leading to the assumption that the data are inconsistent and we are still "not sure" of the effects. Is it time to reconsider this approach by the press?  

I also checked the ICA's agenda and Professor Gentile was listed as giving the referenced talk (although I confused the dates).

After publication, Professor Douglas Gentile contacted me: "This statement is defamatory. I never made this argument.  Furthermore, I did not give the presentation that you suggest I did.  Even worse, I didn't even go to that conference!  (As an aside, I believe the conference was in July, not in September.)  Had I gone to the conference, I would not have made that claim. I request that you immediately publish a statement correcting the facts and retracting the claim that I advocate censorship of any kind. 

I work very hard to get the facts right and am eager to correct any mistakes in my reporting. I have no intent to defame anyone nor in any way to mislead readers. Consequently, all references to Professor Gentile have been removed from the article.