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Is Video Game Research Influenced by the Media? (Part 1/10)

2010 September 9

Neo-Academic coverage of the Journal of General Psychology special issue on the psychology of video games:

ResearchBlogging.orgThere are few topics so hotly debated on the Internet as the value of video games.  Are they the next generation’s artistic advance, as film was for the last, or are they a blight that makes children overly aggressive and dangerous?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m coming to this debate from the perspective of I/O psychology – I have an interest in the business value of games from a professional perspective.  From a personal perspective, I have played games most of my life.  My first game was Janitor Joe (though I played it as “Jump Joe”), a 1984 DOS game that I played on an IBM PCjr, which you can still play on your own computer.  I have since owned an NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, Gamecube, PlayStation 2, XBOX 360 and Wii.  So yes, I am probably in the demographic of “gamer” (although perhaps a little Nintendo-heavy).

Having said that, my overall viewpoint so far can be summarized, “If you think video games are bad for your kids, don’t let your kids play video games – leave the adults alone.”  While the arguments were amusing to watch, I have never had a personal stake in it one way or the other.  Take that as you will.

What caught my eye was a special issue in Journal of General Psychology on video games.  Most of the articles are qualitative literature reviews of video game research across a wide variety of domains.  My curiosity piqued, I decided to dig into this special issue to discover what truths about the value of video games it might contain.  What follows is an article-by-article discussion of what I found:

The first article is a theory-based article by Christopher Ferguson[1] on the portrayal of video games as “good” or “bad.”  Ferguson argues that the negative effects of video games may have been exaggerated not only in the media, but also within the scientific community.  He discusses the causal hypothesis, which refers to the idea that media violence causes aggressive behavior.  Regardless of the specific context (video games, film, novels), the causal hypothesis has been a driving force in scientific inquiry in this domain, despite little credible evidence of a link.

Perhaps the most interesting pieces of research he discusses are the investigations of links between increased crime in the 1960s and the introduction of televisions roughly 20 years earlier.  Though it is certainly true that crime was higher in the late 1960s than it was in the 1940s, there’s no reason to think that the presence of televisions was the cause.

Video Game Sales vs. Youth Violence

Adapted from Ferguson (2010)

This was in fact the classic error of inferring causation from correlation.  Interestingly, youth violence crime is currently at the lowest point is has been since about 1966.  The correlation between youth violence and video game sales is -.95, an extremely strong negative correlation.  No one would claim that increased video game sales decrease youth violence, and yet this is just as much evidence as was available to researchers claiming that violent television increased violence.  Neither conclusion is credible.

So what’s been happening?  It seems that a somewhat one-sided increased media coverage of violent video games (from three perspectives: announcements of new violent video games, condemnations of those games by nonresearchers, and almost any effort to tie violent video games to real behavior) is associated with increased scientific publication in this domain.  Researchers, Ferguson argues, are taking advantage of moral panics in order to promote themselves.  This wouldn’t be a problem except that most research on the link between video games and aggression is weak at best.  Surprising to me, even the 2005 APA resolution on video game violence was apparently written by researchers citing principally their own work.

The most interesting piece for me personally was the discussion of Kato, Cole, Bradlyn & Pollock (2008)[2], who used a violent first-person shooter video game called Re-Mission to successfully increase self-efficacy, understanding of cancer, and adherence to proscribed cancer treatments in young cancer patients.  The video game was both violent and an effective medium to improve learning in an audience typically difficult to reach.  I bet the same would be true of adults.

  1. Ferguson, C. (2010). Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video games be a force for good? Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 68-81 DOI: 10.1037/a0018941 []
  2. Kato, P., Cole, S., Bradlyn, A., & Pollock, B. (2008). A video game improves behavioral outcomes in adolescents and young adults with cancer: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 122 (2). DOI: 10.1542/peds.2007-3134 []
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  1. Brandon permalink
    September 10, 2010

    I had a friend I grew up with that passed his GED in part due to an essay he wrote on nuclear disarmament which was sourced entirely from what he could recall from playing metal gear solid. If that counts for anything 🙂

  2. September 11, 2010

    Richard, you may want to check out the early Golden Age history of comics. The same thing happened to them in the late 40’s/early 50’s. A psychologist by the name of Frederick Wertham did the same song and dance: the rise of crime and horror comics, and even some super hero stuff, was a corrupting influence. This led to the ruination of the original Tales From The Crypt comic series, and its publisher (EC comics) avoiding the comics backlash altogether by printing a little comedy magazine called MAD, not to mention the comic book burnings that were held just a couple years after Nazi Germany had done the same thing.

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