RECENT research about the long-term effects of violent video games on behaviour is one of several papers that fail to address a key oversight in much of the violent media literature.
The article, published in JAMA Pediatrics, presents longitudinal data linking violent video game play with aggressive behaviour, and adds to a growing debate on the role of video games in our children’s lives.
The study uses a very powerful wave-to-wave longitudinal design to demonstrate that violent video game exposure leads to an increase in self-reported aggression by increasing the salience of aggressive thoughts.
The design itself has two major strengths. First, by collecting data annually in three waves from study participants it allows media violence exposure at wave 1 to predict aggression at later waves. Second, the design allows researchers to control for a variety of other explanatory variables during each wave, including trait aggressiveness, gender and parental monitoring (the research showed the relationship between video game violence and aggression remained after controlling for these variables).
Researchers have been focusing on the effects of violent video games for nearly 20 years. However, most papers do not investigate the other aspects of human experience that could have similar effects.
By this, I mean that it is conceivable that many of the things that we do in our daily lives could have similar effects on our thoughts and behaviour in the ways that have been documented for violent video games.
Researchers have isolated the mechanisms by which violent video games can influence behaviour (by increasing aggressive cognitions, creating a hostile attribution bias), but these same mechanisms are present in various other daily activities (eg, being stuck in traffic, playing contact sports, engaging in a debate).
A great irony is that the most popular model used in explaining violent media effects, the General Aggression Model, is rarely applied to forms of aggression outside of violent media.
We haven’t yet established whether other aspects of normal life have the same effects on aggressive behaviour. I find it difficult to believe, given the enormous complexity of human experience, that violent video games are unique in their effect on aggressive behaviour.
Research is increasingly confirming that aspects of video games beyond violent content also have effects on behaviour. Competitiveness, level of difficulty of the game, and who you play with all have sizeable effects on people’s behaviour, calling into question the unique effect of the violence per se.
My comments relate to violent video games with respect to normally developing children but what about children who already have problems with aggression? Should their access to violent video games be restricted?
Maybe, but only to the extent that you restrict access to other stimuli that have particularly negative effects on the child. My greater concern in that situation would be problematic game use — that is, playing video games to excess. Video games, irrespective of violent content, have been linked with poor health outcomes like poorer sleep quality.
So, while the JAMA Pediatrics research adds to the pile of studies finding that exposure to violent video games predicts aggressive behaviour, my question is “so what?”.
I find it difficult to recommend that health practitioners or parents should be concerned about their patients or children playing violent video games, at least given the current research.
It hasn’t yet been established whether violent video games have a unique ability to influence people, beyond the sorts of things they encounter in their complex everyday lives.
We ought to be concerned about our children being exposed to violence and aggression, but it is time to stop singling out video games as a unique and alarmingly dangerous source.
Morgan Tear is a psychology PhD candidate at the University of Queensland studying the effects of violent video games on social behaviour.