If you spend hours each week killing people in a video game—as I do, at least when I have the time—does that make you more likely to become violent in real life? The question has bedeviled parents, politicians, and researchers for decades.
To hear the American Psychological Association tell it, there is consensus among those who study the issue that game violence does, at the very least, instill aggressive impulses in players. But in their new book Moral Combat, dissenting researchers Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson lay bare the flimsy basis of that "consensus" and produce evidence that if anything, gaming might reduce violence. Markey and Ferguson are occasionally too strident in their assertions, and the book's breezy tone makes it hard to take seriously (too many exclamation points!). But overall this is a much-needed corrective to a narrative that has jumped far in front of the facts.
The most incredible thing about the research "proving" that video games cause violence is how little it focuses on actual violence. Instead of following gamers and demographically similar non-gamers over time and monitoring who gets arrested more, for example, or conducting a statistical analysis to see if gaming predicts violent behavior after other causes have been accounted for, researchers might … have people play violent and non-violent games and then offer them the chance to blow an air horn in someone's face. When violent games produce this reaction more than non-violent games do, it's concluded that violent games increase aggression.
Even if this result held up, there is little you could learn from it besides that violent games get players mildly amped up in the short term. But Mackey and Ferguson note an alternative explanation: Violent games are intended for older audiences, so they tend to be more complicated and difficult. The air-horn blasts thus may come from frustration with the games rather than from internalizing the games' simulated aggression. When one researcher tried varying the difficulty and the violence content of games in an experiment like this, he found it was indeed the frustration level that mattered.
This rang true to me as someone who once broke a controller while playing Mario Kart Wii, a non-violent game that can be quite punitive on its hardest settings—but a little untrue to me as someone who, in elementary school, ran around the house kicking things for hours after viewing The Karate Kid. It seems implausible that on-screen violence could have no effect on behavior, at least in the short term and in the youngest and most impressionable kids.
Indeed, a handful of studies actually have looked at real aggressive behaviors in kids and found that they correlate with violent video-game use. This isn't murder we're talking about but more like schoolyard fighting—and this type of correlational research must always be taken with a truckful of salt, because kids who play video games, especially violent games, might disproportionately have other risk factors as well. But there's a little more reason to be worried about kids playing Grand Theft Auto than the authors let on.
What about more serious violent actions, the kinds committed by teens and young adults? This is an area where even the APA agrees the evidence isn't very good. There is some newer research, though, involving one of Moral Combat‘s authors. It shows that violent crime actually falls when popular violent video games are released. The simplest explanation is that these games keep the most violent (and most often victimized) demographic—young men—indoors and occupied. There's similar research, with a similar result, on violent movies.
This is a fascinating finding, though it leaves the door open to a counterargument. Sure, maybe violent games reduce crime in the very near term. But when it comes to more serious forms of violence (as opposed to Karate Kid-inspired side kicks into the couch), the concern isn't necessarily that someone will play a game and then immediately go out and imitate it in the real world. Rather, the concern is that gamers gradually become desensitized to—sometimes positively obsessed with—blood and gore. Gamers with violent tendencies to begin with might be especially susceptible to these effects.
Theoretically, this could outweigh the immediate effect of keeping young men inside, sitting on their rear ends in front of a TV. In this scenario, thanks to violent video games, the overall level of crime is higher than it would otherwise be, even though the rate dips when new games came out and all the psychos rush home to get their digital fix.
Here the evidence is hardly irrefutable, but it is suggestive. As it happens, the overall level of violent crime in the United States began a remarkable decline at the exact same time that hyper-bloody games like Mortal Kombat and Doom flooded the market. Internationally, video-game sales are if anything inversely correlated with crime—even after other obvious factors like the economy are statistically controlled—with Japan being the stereotypical example of a country whose citizens slaughter each other en masse digitally but not in the streets. And contrary to stereotype, school shooters are less likely than the typical student to play video games, apparently because they tend to be socially isolated and gaming is, for many teens, a social hobby.
Is that proof that "society has nothing to fear from violent video games," as Markey and Ferguson confidently assert near the end of the book? Not really—you can rarely be that sure of anything in social science, especially in an area where so little quality work has been done. But it does reveal massive holes in the narrative pushed for years by video-game researchers, not to mention anti-video-game activists and prominent politicians.
Which leads us to the biggest lesson of Moral Combat. Too often, intentionally or subconsciously, scientists work to confirm their prior beliefs rather than to carefully investigate a question. This is especially true in murky, hard-to-study areas where correlation and causation are virtually impossible to tease apart, in areas where cultural biases run rampant, and in areas where political pressure is immense.
Put all that together and it's easy to end up with a moral panic masquerading as scientific fact.