Video games, violence, and common sense

Violence_pic1Media violence research waxes and wanes like many other research topics. Focusing events train the collective gaze of the world on single point. When Facebook changes how it shares our information, we discuss our tenuous grip on privacy. When Twitter aids in the coordination of a revolution[1], we discuss the awesome power of social networking. Similarly, when violent tragedies occur involving youth, many look toward the research surrounding violent media—video games in particular. Unfortunately, this body of research often elicits more confusion than clarity.

One of the central questions at hand is if violent video games cause elevated levels of aggression. A great deal of research suggests that they do (see Anderson et al., 2010). But aggression is a tricky concept and measuring it is a challenge for even the most savvy media violence scholars. Identifying satisfying evidence of aggression is the principal challenge of violence research (Olsen, 2013). Is filling in letters, hangman style, to create aggressive words (e.g., H-I-T) rather than benign words (e.g., H-A-T) good evidence? Is it being more selfish with money and choosing not to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma and ultimatum games? Is it authoring aggressive solutions to story stems? Perhaps. Measures such as these drive many of the conclusions linking violent games to aggressive outcomes. Yet this is problematic, as some question the validity of these metrics under the tenant that these tasks are arbitrary or too abstract (Ferguson, 2007). Although this is an understandable criticism, these measures operate as theoretical linkages to aggression. In the short-term, violent content can increase the availability of aggressive thoughts via priming and spreading activation. In other words, after viewing violent content, many types of aggressive thoughts become readily accessible due to their relatedness. This is why people are more likely to write H-I-T rather than H-A-T, to be selfish rather than cooperate, and to compose aggressive rather than benign conclusions to ambiguous stories (Bushman, 1998).

But all of this merely encapsulates the short-term and the link between primed aggressive thoughts and violent behavior is uncertain. Long-term effects are another challenge and their assumptions are arguably more intriguing. The two primary concepts that underscore long-term effects are desensitization and habituation. The first concept assumes people have an automatic, negative emotional response to violence. This is not to suggest that we can’t enjoy violence. The success of gore movies and our species-long history with violence trump the notion that violence is not enjoyable by default. Nevertheless, we consider it abhorrent in most situations. We punish those who commit violence and often find the motives of violence acts impossible to comprehend.

Despite our built-in aversion to violence, desensitization argues that repeated exposure to violent content mutes our automatic revulsion (Bushman & Huesmann, 2006). Unfortunately for video games, no medium is more densely-packed with violence. Thus, many researchers see violent games as a powerful desensitizer.

Violence_pic2Similarly, habituation plays a powerful role due to the interactive nature of games. Video games challenge players with a wide array of tasks: defeat combatants, negotiate, find the Sword of 1000 Truths, and so on. In other words, games give you conflicts needing resolutions. Very often, the solution to the problems at hand is to carve a red line from one point to another—to commit violence. According to habituation research, repeated exposure to violent video games teaches players that aggression is an effective and acceptable way to solve problems that yields few negative consequences (Bushmann & Huesmann, 2006).

What does the short and long-term research mean for the real world? Simply put, violent content does not lead to a world full of murders. Rather, it suggests that when a conflict arises that has both aggressive and non-aggressive solutions, those influenced by the short-term effects of violent content are more likely to think of aggressive solutions and those influenced by the long-term effects may be more likely to choose aggressive solutions to the problem. Even though this sounds dire, it may not be too concerning because even with these effects the vast majority of the population maintains a natural aversion toward violence. Although violent media may communicate violent solutions to problems, the behavior of most people remains regulated by morals and norms. Nevertheless, desensitization and habituation may become more serious for those with aggressive tendencies and mental or social disabilities.

Despite the conclusions drawn from academic work, it’s important to highlight the limitations of media effects research. As detailed above, many of our current measures operationalize aggression in ways few outside academia would recognize as aggression. Surveys and experiments form the basis of most of our knowledge regarding violent video games. Surveys are great for asking people focused questions about their day-to-day media use but they can’t reveal causation. In other words, surveys are unable to say whether video game usage cause aggression or aggressive people like playing video games. The direction of influence is hidden. On the other hand, experiments can reveal causality but lack ecological validity (i.e., real worldness). Some media researchers argue that the artificiality of experiments calls into question any subsequent conclusions.

What remains for video game violence research is a cloudy landscape. This in lieu of the recent tragedies is fueling the current media buzz on the topic. It has motivated the action of the White House and other policy entrepreneurs. The call for more research is resounding.

pic3Where do we go from here? How do we conduct smarter research?

There is no right answer to either of these questions. However, it’s clear that future research would benefit from a better way to measure aggression. To be sure, aggressive feelings and thoughts are important, but aggressive behavior is the product in question. The field would benefit greatly from developing a reliable, valid, and agreed upon method for evaluating aggressive behavior.

Additionally, since much of our research on game violence relies on short-term effects studies, future work should incorporate more long-term, longitudinal designs. Although short-term studies are great for observing the immediate priming effects of violent content, long-term studies are able to provide more compelling evidence on the cumulative effect of violent content.

Finally, there’s massive research neglect on the pro-social effects of video games. Insights into this area may reveal a wealth of positive influences that could outweigh adverse effects.

Regarding effects in general, decades of research on media have shown that people aren’t as pliant as one might think. Long gone are the “magic bullet” days of media effects. Propaganda doesn’t automatically persuade the populous. Seeing beautiful people on TV doesn’t devastate one’s self-esteem. Similarly, witnessing mediated violence doesn’t inevitably make one violent. Media effects aren’t that simple. The impact of any given message depends on an array of variables such as context and motivation. Nevertheless, concerns about the effects of media abound—especially regarding children.

If reducing adverse effects of violent content on youth is the goal, then research identifies a handful of options. Instilling media literacy is one avenue. This involves teaching the distinction between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately, this is only effective for children with the requisite cognitive abilities that come with age (e.g., perspective taking, empathy, etc.). For children without these abilities, reducing exposure is far more effective. However too much reduction can have a boomerang effect, as children begin seeing the forbidden content as more desirable (Cantor & Wilson, 2003).

Another option is to create media with pro-social messages (e.g., violence is wrong, sharing is good). Research suggests that the pro-social element can be surprisingly uninspired and even embedded within violent content and still reduce adverse effects (Ewoldson et al., 2012). The downside to this approach is that a great deal of the existing content is anti-social, which may dilute the positive effect.

A final option is parental mediation. In general, this is an excellent way to reduce adverse effects but not all forms of mediation are equal. Simply co-viewing/co-playing isn’t enough. Studies show that when parents don’t comment on the on-screen events during co-viewing, children interpret the silence as endorsement. The best approach is engage in evaluative mediation. By describing why the violent content is bad, parents actively counter the learning effect that leads to desensitization and disinhibition (Cantor & Wilson, 2003).

So in the wake of terrible events, when violence as vehicle for entertainment seems discomforting, it’s vital to remember that no singular theory, paper, or article will ever allow us to comprehend malevolence. During these critical periods, we need to look closely at what we know, we need to extend (collectively) the boundaries of what we know, and we need to never lose sight of common sense.

Works Cited

Anderson, C. A., Ihori, N., Bushman, B. J., Rothstein, H. R., Shibuya, A., Swing, E. L., Sakamoto, A., Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. American Psychological Association, 136, 151-173.

Bushman, B. J. (1998). Priming effects of media violence on the accessibility of aggressive constructs in memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(5), 537-545.

Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2006). Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160(4), 348-352.

Cantor, J., & Wilson, B. J. (2003). Media and violence: Intervention strategies for reducing aggression. Media Psychology, 5(4), 363-403.

Ewoldsen, D. R., Eno, C. A., Okdie, B. M., Velez, J. A., Guadagno, R. E., & DeCoster, J. (2012). Effect of Playing Violent Video Games Cooperatively or Competitively on Subsequent Cooperative Behavior. Cyberpsychology Behavior and Social Networking, 15(5), 277-280.

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). The good, the bad, and ugly? The meta-analytic review of positive and negative effects of violent video games. Psychiatric Quarterly, 78, 309-316.

Olsen, C. (2013). Yes, we need more research, and the industry should support it. Gamasutra. Retrieved February 6, 2013, from:

Video games, violence, and common sense by Nicholas Matthews, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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  1. Discussion questions – violence and video games – Game Studies & Mobile Media - [...] Motivate Play’s “Video games, violence, and common sense” [...]
  2. Video games, violence, and common sense | nicholas matthews - [...] is the introduction to a blog post I wrote on video game violence. Both Gamasutra and Motivate Play published …
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