After it was reported that Aaron Alexis, the gunman in last week’s tragic Washington Navy Yard shooting, may have played military-style video games for up to 18 hours a day, some media pundits began to suggest a direct link between the games and his violent actions.
It’s a connection that seems to gain favor in some corners of the media whenever there is a mass shooting — or other type of violent crime.
The belief that violent video games can lead to real-life violence is not a new one, of course. As far back as 1982, the then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was warning parents about “the aberrations of childhood behavior” that could result from playing video games.
But, as I’ve noted here before, several decades of research on the topic has found no clear evidence linking video games, even notoriously brutal ones like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, to outbursts of violence.
What the research shows
Writing in the Guardian last week, British psychologist Pete Etchells explains (with British spellings) why the issue is not as black and white as the media pundits suggest:
There is some evidence to suggest that there is a link between playing violent video games and showing more aggressive tendencies, at least in the short term. For example, in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology this year, participants played either a violent or non-violent video game for 20 minutes per day over 3 days. After playing the game, they then played a competitive task in which, if they won, they could blast their opponent with an unpleasant noise. The researchers found that participants who played violent games blasted their opponents in the secondary task for longer, which was interpreted as an increase in aggressive behaviour.
However, it also depends on the context in which these sorts of games are played. A study by Seth Gitter and colleagues, published in Aggressive Behaviour this year, showed that if participants were asked to play a violent video game with a positive goal in mind (for example, protecting a friend in a zombie game), they showed reduced levels of aggressive behaviour compared to participants who were asked to simply kill as many zombies as possible. In other words, it’s not the simple act of playing violent video games that dictates whether they have a negative effect.
Context is also important, says Etchells, when interpreting the results of studies that investigate the long-term effects of video games on behavior:
A 2012 longitudinal study looking at the behavioural development of 165 teenagers over the course of 3 years found that when pre-existing emotional, family and social problems were accounted for, any aggression-increasing effects of playing violent video games disappeared. However that same year, Teena Willoughby and colleagues at Brock University in Canada looked at 1,492 children from the ages of 8/9 to 17/18, and found that those who played violent video games over a long period of time also showed increased development of aggressive behaviours.
A big reason for the conflicting results of these and other studies, says Etchells, is that they measure aggressive behavior in different ways and do not control for the same confounding factors (variables like age, geography, or socioeconomic status that might also explain a study’s outcome).
And, of course, the long-term studies are observational. They can show only a correlation, not a causation, between two things.
No definitive evidence answer
“The question as to whether playing violent video games negatively affects behaviour hasn’t been completely answered yet,” Etchells concludes. “Moreover, because ‘violent video game’ (much like ‘screen time’) is quite a broad concept, we’re probably not capturing the subtlety of any effects in an adequate way at the moment. To really get an understanding of what’s going on, we need to be looking more at the way in which these sorts of games are being played – for example, no one has yet really looked at if and how the multiplayer aspect of video games (playing in the same room together, playing online together) has any sort of effect.”
“So until there is more definitive evidence,” he adds, “it doesn’t seem right to imply that there is a clear and known effect. And it certainly isn’t right to tenuously highlight links between video game use and violent behaviour whenever it is vaguely possible to do so. It detracts from figuring out if there is another underlying cause instead.”
You can read Etchells’ commentary on the Guardian website.