Video Games

Kill Pixels, Not People

Exploding the fake scientific consensus on violent video games


For decades it has been a shibboleth among some social psychologists that increasingly violent media-television, movies, and video games-increase the risk of violence in society. In a 2001 review article for American Psychologist, the Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson and the Ohio State psychologist Brad Bushman 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. And in 2007, University of New Mexico pediatrician Victor Strasburger estimated that 10 percent to 30 percent of the violence in society was attributable to media content.

As recently as October, Bushman and two colleagues reported the results of a poll of media psychologists and mass communication scientists in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture that there is a "broad consensus" among media psychologists and mass communication scientists that violent media increase aggression in children. 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.'"

What is the evidence linking media violence to aggression? A lot of it comes from experiments in which undergraduates view violent scenes or play shoot-'em-up 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 rarely pause to wonder if providing the opportunity for aggression actually licenses its commission in their experiments. According to proponents of this theory of media violence, 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.

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 the 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 a way to think about the plausibility of the "monkey see/monkey do" theory. "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. In October 2014 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." In November 2014, the FBI 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, asked to fill out a brief questionnaire about a local children's charity, and told they can donate some money on their way out. In the second, players are told that they are 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 writes, "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." Yet as violent video game consumption has increased nearly eightfold since 1996, the violence rate among Americans ages 12-17 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 engaged in inquiries they hoped would result in restrictions that would 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 them 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 2014 issue of Pediatrics, Bushman and his colleagues somewhat plaintively asked, "Why is it so hard to believe that media influence children and adolescents?" Ferguson and Elson's reply in the winter 2014 issue of the journal European Psychologist: "The most parsimonious answer to this question is, in fact, 'Because the data are not convincing.'"

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  1. You know, this used to be a country where, if some professor went off spouting nonsense, he would be mocked. Now we’ve developed a Cult of the Expert where the only way to counter a nonsense-spouting professor is to get a professor on the other side.

    If some “social science” professor insults our intelligence with some rigged “study,” mock them, don’t wait for some other professor to confirm that the first professor is full of crap, that just strengthens the cargo cult of the expert.

    1. Maybe it started going downhill when we elected a former Political Science professor to the Presidency in 1912.

    2. Actually, that is a narrative with very little historical basis. It has been pssoble for somebidy with an impressive academic title to convince a lot of people of a packet of absolute twaddle for as long as the U.S. has existed. Mockery happens, but it is after the exposure that it becomes that received Truth that only a few kooks believed.

      1. Hmmm…on second thought, maybe you’re right.

        They even used to call everyone with a doctorate a “Doctor,” not just physicians.

        I may need to reconsider my position.

        Am I allowed to say that on the Internet?

        1. Yup. Makes you as rare as hen’s teeth, though.

        2. The other thing to consider is that there are a whole lot more PhD academics out there than there ever were in the past. I’d say if anything, academics are mocked more now than in the past. But there are so many of them now that you can always find a credentialed “expert” to support whatever you want. So we have the luxury of just mocking the ones we happen to disagree with.

          1. Hey Zeb. Nice to meet you. We should talk some time. ???

        3. The other thing to consider is that there are a whole lot more PhD academics out there than there ever were in the past. I’d say if anything, academics are mocked more now than in the past. But there are so many of them now that you can always find a credentialed “expert” to support whatever you want. So we have the luxury of just mocking the ones we happen to disagree with.

          1. I don’t think there used to be this idea that mocking the experts made you anti-science and that being anti-science makes you unhinged.

    3. Cult of Expert is a good way to put it. The problem is that the “pioneers” in these new “sciences” are invariably activists.

      I have noticed that aggression scores are a big component of a lot of junk science (see also: anti-spanking studies). It’s a convenient metric, in that it allows the researcher do determine what constitutes aggression. The scientist can rig not only the methodology but the actual data itself. It gives them complete control of the narrative.

      1. I didn’t invent the term “cult of the expert,” and my reference to cargo cults is from Richard Feynman.


  2. In the April 2014 issue of Pediatrics, Bushman and his colleagues somewhat plaintively asked, “Why is it so hard to believe that media influence children and adolescents?” Ferguson and Elson’s reply in the winter 2014 issue of the journal European Psychologist: “The most parsimonious answer to this question is, in fact, ‘Because the data are not convincing.'”

    The data has simply been transferred into deep ocean water.

    Children do imitate much of what they see and hear. Some kids have killed their younger siblings doing wrestling moves. But I guess the overwhelming majority of kids that don’t harm anyone for any reason don’t make news.

    1. Boy watches wrestling, proceeds to overdose on Sriracha. News at 11.

  3. younger social scientists are questioning the ideology that underpins so much prior media violence research.

    Obviously because those youngsters have been brainwashed by the violent video games they “grew up” with.

  4. I appreciate Bailey’s reporting in this area, but has to be the 4th or 5th time I’ve seen this article, or one indistinguishable from it.

    1. It’s called “getting the story out there”

  5. I also don’t buy the violent media consumption leads to violent behavior argument.

    But what about a corollary argument that we hear from time to time, especially in Lenore’s articles: namely that the 24 hour news cycle, instant global media coverage and “fear” TV (like SVU & CSI) cause people to fear unlikely scenarios (or overestimate their probability) and therefore support draconian antisocial measures like mandatory helicopter parenting, affirmative consent laws and such?

    If there is no correlation between violent video games and violent behavior, is it also likely true that there is no correlation between news coverage of rare violent events and public fear of rare violent events? or is this a different type of phenomenon?

    If “media” isn’t to blame in one case, is it blameless in the other? I’m just thinking out loud. I’m not sure I have a position on it, yet.

    1. Interesting thought.

      Another aspect is that people in general are not that good at probability and statistics.

      1. If I was allowed to pick one, but ONLY one book that would be required instruction is all grade schools, it would be HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS.

        1. HOW TO LEARN TO READ IN THREE EASY LESSONS might be a better single book.

    2. I, for one, have consistently argued here that Ms. Skenazy has a bit of the Blarney to her. I get that it’s her schtick, and I don’t blame a sister for her hustle. But let’s recognize it for what it is.

      1. HM, I view you as one of the most consistently entertaining and erudite posters here (Episiarch was disqualified due to endorsing an incredibly shitty video game, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel) so I was hoping you could elaborate on this comment about Skenazy’s “Blarney”? Thank you.

        1. B:TPS is incredibly shitty? Poppycock. Bet you don’t like Mel Brooks movies, neither. I’ll be watchin’ you, son…

          1. I uninstalled it and just went back to playing Borderlands 2. Much better.

            Do you need reasons? I have a list.

            I love Young Frankenstein, also Blazing Saddles and History of the World: Part 1. Haven’t seen anything else of his.

            1. See the rest of them made before Life Stinks (1991) – at that point his career took a nosedive.


              1. I thought Spaceballs was pretty funny, never knew it was directed by him.

    3. I think the two situations are very different. News is (supposedly) true. Video games are quite obviously fiction, even to young kids. Simply because of that, it makes sense that the news shapes how people see the world and interact with it in ways that video games do not.

      1. Yeah, I think this is probably about right. Spending ask day reading the archives of the free thought project (or Mr. Balko’s articles) will affect one’s behavior at a traffic stop a lot more than spending all day playing GTA V.

    4. The actions taken by the media-influenced in each case are different, so the correlation could very well be different as well. I would imagine, for example, that after seeing a Sarah McLachlan ASPCA ad, the viewer might be more likely to, say, sign a petition or like a Facebook page than to, say, go protest at their local slaughterhouse. Panicking over a news story requires virtually no real buy-in. Going out and shooting a bus load of children because you played a 12 hour marathon of GTA V requires a lot more time, a lot more steps, and a lot more consideration.

    5. We’re talking about the difference between “the media turns us into serial killers” on the one hand and “the media affects our attitudes” on the other hand. I, for one, deny the first but believe the second.

    6. In order for those 2 arguments to be comparable, one would have to argue that news coverage of violent events causes people to imitate those events, not that it causes them to incorrectly assess risk.

      1. There is actually some evidence that suicide rates increase after prominent news accounts of suicides. I think it was described in one of the freakonomics books. I get your point though.

        As a counter point, news accounts of rampant & egregious campus sexual assault are strongly related to efforts to push affirmative consent policies on campuses. The news accounts may not inspire imitation, but they do seem to inspire counter action (or at least silence the opposition).

    7. There is a huge difference between the consumption of ficticious violence and the insistence of quasi authority figures that real violence or real illness–or some other real thing is going to happen.

      The operative word being, of course, ‘real’.

  6. How did social science go so wrong?

    When did social science ever get it right?

    1. Didn’t someone here in the commentariat once say that putting the word “social” in front of any given noun changes its meaning to the precise opposite (or something along those lines)?

      1. Eh, the term “social drinking” is pretty accurate.

      2. I’m sure I’ve said that, but doubt I was the first. I think this is true. ‘Social Science’, ‘Social Justice’, ‘Social services.’ Seems like a trend.

  7. Jesus Christ, the crime rate has been dropping significantly the last few decades. All along with the rise of video gaming. If one were to make a correlative argument it’s clear that video games lead to lower crime rates.

    Fucking douchebags.

    1. Rape & sexual assaults have also dropped as porn becomes more accessible.

      1. I can actually see that correlation making sense.

      2. Has it really become more accessible? Maybe to kids, but it was never particularly hard buying it in the 70s-90s.

        Maybe mildly embarrassing , but…

        1. The quantity and variety of porn has skyrocketed. In addition to the *format* changes – how much (and how easily was) full color, motion-with-sound porn was available before widespread internet access?

          Add in the ability to search for specific acts/performer types/fetishes.

          All in the privacy of your home, available at a whim.

    2. It’s actually an almost precise match. The first RPG, Doom, debuted in 1993, which was the peak year for violent crime. As games spread and graphics became more-well-graphic, real-world violence dropped.

      Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s still hard to argue that more games = more violence when it just ain’t happenin’.

      1. “The first RPG, Doom….”


        Can’t tell if trolling or not.

  8. Girls and lollie pops go together

  9. Any stats on how many people die while playing video games, terminally sedentary addicts included ?

    1. In the US, basically zero. In asia? Depends on if you *believe* the reports or not. ’cause according to the news, some dude’s keeling over at the desk after a 3 straight days of non-stop WOW.

  10. My cynical take is that the older generation of “Social Scientists” were not, in fact, scientists, they were propagandists. Now we get a generation that actually IS composed of scientists, and they are really setting the cat amongst the pigeons.

    1. It’s kind of like how nations with the word “Democratic” in them aren’t democracies. No field with the word “science” in it is scientific.

      The sciences arose when they still used Greek and Latin roots to coin new terms. Hence, they end with “ology”. Later fields tried to piggyback on the public’s respect for science without adhering to the scientific method.

      1. I think I have to ask you to make an exception for Materials Science, but otherwise you are spot on.

        1. Also, wouldn’t necessarily call sociologists, psychologists, epistemologists scientists in the proper sense of the word, despite the -ology.

  11. According to the national LP website, 1 in 15,000 Muslims attend a terrorist training camp. I highly doubt that ratio is as high for violent video game players. So, if someone believes we should ban violent video games, then reductio ad absurdum, we should also ban the Koran. Try that argument on a Leftist and watch his PC gears steam from going into overdrive.

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  13. my neighbor’s mother makes $69 an hour on the computer . She has been fired for 8 months but last month her payment was $18642 just working on the computer for a few hours. Check This Out…….

  14. Lets roll with it man.

  15. What’s interesting though is that violence is acceptable in video games, by and large, but sex is not. Even in the gaming community it’s largely shunned and mocked.

    Look at the recent game Huniepop for instance. Even the censored, Steam version is banned on Twitch.

    1. I think that is mostly to do with culture here. It’s the same reason why female nipples are still taboo in the media. In US games, sexual scenarios or mild nudity needs to be part of “larger narrative” to avoid being cast as OMG-porn as well as avoid being banned into ESRB’s AO land. There’s a sense that focus on titillation, even implied focus on eroticism makes it porn. This is also reflected in Twitch’s revised terms. Incidentally including boobs is ok, but you’ll be banned if your stream focuses on boobs.

      It’s ironic because even Huniepop’s uncensored version is entirely tame. It only has a small bit of nudity and that’s it; no sex. It’s interesting to contrast that the mores of Japan (Huniepop’s inspiration) and some European countries. For example Lula 3D is a restricted adults-only game in the US, but rated 16 and unrestricted in Germany. The problem is they’ve got the opposite situation there with violence being less acceptable.

      1. And this gets into the government’s role in coercing industries as well. Not many realize that the male nipple used to be taboo as well until the 1920’s or so, until the ban was lifted. If you look at old pics, you’ll see men at the beach all with tank tops. Without the FCC I believe mainstream media would be pretty different today. Likewise, without Congress creating the ESRB via Senate hearings (i.e. Joe Lieberman’s threat “If you don’t do something, we will”) then enforces it through the FTC, games and distribution would also be very different today. I remember the times before the ESRB when stores did not conduct any age checks whatsoever or put certain games behind the counter.

        1. I remember back before videogames when kids could walk into a hardware store and buy real guns to play with.

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  17. I notice that for about fifteen-thirty minutes after playing an intense multiplayer game like Counter-Strike or TF2, my adrenaline is pumping like crazy. I usually need to chill out after a game before I go and do social activities. I could absolutely see why people surveyed soon after games might respond more aggressively. My wife even mentioned the other day how flushed I looked after a particularly close competitive game.

  18. The United States military has already conducted a large experiment showing the efficacy of realistic portrayal of violence as a means of enhancing the performance of soldiers.
    During WWII, less than 50% of troops who sighted the enemy admitted to actually shooting at him. By incorporating simulated violence, in the form of video, present day performance has been improved to about 95%. The effect of video is not to “make” persons more violent. It is the desensitization to the otherwise horrifying effects of violence that appears to be the crucial factor.
    The Japanese trained their raw recruits in violence before and during WWII, by having them bayonet and kill living POWs, especially the hapless Chinese victims captured prior to U.S. involvement. The Japanese soldiers were renowned for their brutality.

    There are two distinctions between video violence and that which is real:
    Soldiers operate under strict orders, whereas teenagers do not.
    Video violence is actually much less gruesome than that which is real, to avoid the necessity of having to clean up the vomit of those being trained.

    Those who refuse to see the evidence, and remain deniers of what should be obvious to any observant human, are almost universally dependent in some way for their income, on the continuing portrayal of gratifyingly exciting violence.

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