Game over?

by endlesspsych

The recent release of COD:MW2 and the news that SEGA aren’t planning on bothering submitting the latest AvP game to the notoriously strict German censorship laws realting to interactive entertainment (I have no idea if they call games interactive entertainment I’m just padding out this sentence…) has led to a ressurgance of that turgid debate “do video games cause/increase aggressive behaviour?”

Well what does the research say about this? Well about adults not all that much in all honesty. There is little to suggest there is a large, moderate or even small effect on aggressive behaviours or long term levels of aggression due to playing video games. There is a mountain of literature that states the rather obvious fact that children shouldn’t play violent AGE INAPPROPRIATE video games (thats bolded because those who are morally outraged about video game violence often miss that the games they are complaining about aren’t meant to be played by children… I blame Sir Clive Sinclair and his Jet Set Willy…) but adults are somewhat neglected. The implicit suggestion that only children play games is both insulting and wrong and really to say kids shouldn’t play the games we already say they shouldn’t play… Well it makes as much sense as banning scarface because an eight year old might not like it…

An APA (American Psychological Association) report, found here, from way back in 2000 (which kinda, but not totally explains the use of DOOM, Wolfenstein 3D and Mortal Kombat as examples of violent video games but not quite…) takes the view (based on two studies conducted in the APA Journal of personality and social psychology) that violent video games can increase aggression.

The first study involved 227 college students who completed a measure of trait aggressiveness and reported their actual aggressive behaviors (delinquency) in the recent past. They also reported their video game playing habits. “We found that students who reported playing more violent video games in junior and high school engaged in more aggressive behavior,” said lead author Anderson, of Iowa State University. “We also found that amount of time spent playing video games in the past was associated with lower academic grades in college.”

It would be easy to attempt to write off this study as being on shaky ground for using self report measures and question whether or not it measures the effect of video game playing or that more aggressive students overestimate the amount of time they spend playing video games.

In the second study, 210 college students played either a violent (Wolfenstein 3D) or nonviolent video game (Myst). A short time later, the students who played the violent video game punished an opponent (received a noise blast with varying intensity) for a longer period of time than did students who had played the nonviolent video game.

Um… yeah… might be a stretch to relate this to a wider context of aggression and violence…

Christopher Barlett has published a number of systematic reviews of various aspects of computer games, aggression and violence over the last few years. In a 2009 literture review he looked (along with Craig Anderson and Edward Swing) the confirmed, suspected and speculative effects of video game violence.

By confirmed, we mean effects that have received consistent empirical support using multiple research designs, paradigms, and populations, with appropriately large total samples of participants. In other words, effects are labeled confirmed when we believe that there is enough converging evidence to make causal claims regarding the effects of video game exposure on certain outcomes. Suspected effects are those for which there is substantial empirical support, but that support currently does not allow strong causal statements because of a combination of relatively few studies, few participants, or few research designs. For example, existing studies may have used only one specific of research design (e.g., only cross-sectional), making causal claims difficult. Speculative effects are those that have received only limited empirical attention and support.

Confirmed effects (those supported by empirical evidence (although the quality of the evidence is not discussed)) include:

heightened physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance)

Increased physiological arousal is linked with violence when the person “missattributes” their response to violent video games to the real world. Kinda like shouting at someone for walking in front of the TV during a kill streak in an FPS perhaps? It’s also worth noting that nonviolent games also increase physiological arousal as a function of the games being fun, challenging, and exciting (see Carnagey & Anderson, 2005).

Aggressive feelings. Feelings of anger or hostility can be increased by violent video game exposure.

Aggressive feelings are typically assessed using self-report questionnaires/Research using such methods has found that violent video game exposure increases aggressive feelings, relative to non-violent video game play (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Ballard & Wiest, 1996; Carnagey & Anderson, 2005).

There are of course issues inherent with determining causation from self report studies. For one their may be an expectation effect whereby participants self report feeling more aggressive because they expect to or expect that the researcher expects them to… Really though there is no other way to measure aggressive feelings and I would be tempted to disregard such research in favour of more objective and controlled measures of aggression.

Aggressive cognitions.

Although there are myriad methods to assess aggressive thoughts, the findings using different measures theoretically converge to suggest that violent video game exposure increases activation of aggressive thoughts and aggressive scripts in memory. the most common methods used to assess aggressive cognitions include the Word Completion Task (Anderson, Carnagey, & Eubanks, 2003; Anderson, Carnagey, Flanagan, Benjamin, Eubanks, & Valentine, 2004), reaction times to aggressive and non-aggressive words (Anderson, Benjamin, & Bartholow, 1998), the Implicit Association Test (Uhlmann & Swanson, 2004), completion of ambiguous story stems (Anderson et al., 2007; Bushman & Anderson, 2002), and the face–
emotional recognition task (Kirsh, Mounts, & Olczak, 2006). Overall, these methods have yielded consistent findings: Violent video game exposure leads to aggressive priming, activation of aggressive scripts and knowledge structures, and a hostile attribution bias compared to non-violent video game exposure.

Violent video games leading to aggressive priming may sound dramatic and perhaps a little scary however it is worth remembering that simply seeing a picture of a gun, or indeed just the word gun, has a priming effect on us and will lead to aggressive priming. The Barlett paper unfortunatly does not perform a meta-analysis or give effect sizes, which is understandable as it’s not a systematic review, so we cannot really tell if this priming effect is pernicious or not.

Aggressive behavior.

Results show strong support for the causal relationship between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior. (for comprehensive reviews, see Anderson, Berkowitz, et al., 2003; Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 2007).

A variety of methods are used to determine the relationship between aggressive behaviour and violent video games. I do not nessecarily dispute this however I think it’s worth considering how aggressive behaviours are measured… Is an increased tendency to blow an air horn at someone gonna to cause serious social problems?

Is there any evidence that video games lead to long term increases in aggression? Well in Barletts paper that falls under the remit of “suspected”  issues… So perhaps it’s safe to say the Jury is still out on that one… Especially where adults are concerned.

One of the central problems with research into video game violence and it’s effects is that research is often, conciously or unconciously, value laden and this seems to be reflected in the methodologies and conclusions of the researchers engaged in research. Certainly Mintofan et al’s 2008 systematic review of the effects of video game playing and TV viewing on children with emotional or behavioural difficulties (surely a group to be considered at-risk from the influence of Video game violence) concluded that:-

This systematic review found insufficient, contradictory and methodologically flawed evidence on the association between television viewing and video game playing and aggression in children and young people with behavioural and emotional difficulties. If public health advice is tobe evidence-based, good quality research is needed.

As an adult gamer myself who often plays violent games and isn’t particularly aggressive or violent in real life I would be tempted to state this is because there aren’t all that many gamers active in research on gamers. Although I suspect the number is growing substantially, I predict when we have more researchers who game we will move away from the “video nasty 2.0” and get to the point where we can more rationally apraise the positive and negative aspects of video gaming

A research dissertation undertaken by Chad Mahmood of the University of California, explored the effects of the frustration-aggression hypothesis to explain why violent (and non violent) video games may cause aggression.

Several research studies have shown that violent video game play can lead to various aggressive effects, such as increases in aggressive affect, aggressive cognition, arousal, and aggressive behavior. While many of these studies explore the content of video game play (violent vs. non-violent), they often ignore the importance of contextual elements such as game play-induced frustration. This dissertation argues that playing any video game, violent or not, can cause aggression if the game play experience is sufficiently frustrating. In support of this argument relevant literature is reviewed and theories related to both the violent media-aggression link as well as the frustration-aggression link are applied to the context of video game play. Two laboratory experiments were conducted that manipulate video game violence and also examine frustration. Study 1 (n = 79 undergraduates) explores frustration as an affective state, whereas study 2 (n = 126 undergraduates) treats frustration as the presence of in-game barriers to success. The results of these experiments replicate prior findings that violent video game play causes aggressive affect, cognition, and behavior. More importantly, the results also demonstrate that frustrating game play, in both violent and non-violent games, can lead to aggression, and that the effects of violence and frustration often interact. The results presented here indicate that a thorough examination of how video game play causes aggression requires a nuanced understanding of the video game play experience that takes more into account than video game content alone. Discussion is offered in terms of implications for future research on violence and frustration as well as implications for regulatory policy. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)

Chads research seems to suggest that perhaps rather then making games less violent we should be making them easier? Certainly having thrown down the joypad in anger several times  I lean towards this theory more then violent imagery. For example I can report no obvious increase in aggression playing uber-gory madworld or entering the morally dubious world of GTA4 but I could quite happily punch my fist through a wall or use my iphone as some form of lethal projectile because of Super Monkey Ball… Of course your mileage may vary…