Go ahead and keep playing Grand Theft Auto.
Violent video games are the latest moral panic. They are blamed when tragedies happen, they are blamed for crime, and they are blamed for schoolyard dust-ups. But when a parent or news anchor links video games to violence, do they have a leg to stand on? A new study published this week in the Journal of Communication tries to approach the question objectively, and has found no positive link between violence in society and violent video games. In fact, it found the opposite. That’s where things get complicated.
It’s hard to nail down the link between violent behavior and video games because most of the research has been experimental. Researchers have participants play a violent video game and then take some test — like a questionnaire — that should be an indicator of aggressive or violent behavior. These studies have been mixed, finding positive, negative, and null links. But the problem with outcomes like these is that they are experimental, and hard to compare to everyday life. If a child plays a violent video game and then answers five questions indicating an increase in aggression, does that really translate into violence or crime outside the lab?
This latest study from Christopher J. Ferguson at Stetson University in Florida gets around this problem of artificiality. Instead of subjecting gamers to a test, Ferguson examined the data that should show some correlations if violent video games were linked with violence in society, namely ESRB ratings, game sales, and metrics of youth violence.
To determine the violent content of the video games, Ferguson looked at the top five selling games from the years 1996-2011. Then he ranked each game 1 to 5 for violent content based on the ESRB rating (EC for early childhood, E for Everyone, E10+ for ages 10 and over, T for Teen, and M for Mature). The ESRB ratings for the five games each year were then summed and multipled by units sold to give an estimate for how violent video games were making it into the market.
Youth violence was charted over the same time period using a government database of per capita youth violence ages 12-17. With these two data sets in hand, Ferguson correlated the numbers to see if any trend would emerge. It did. It was negative.
Over those 15 years, using these specific metrics, rates of youth violence dropped while consumption of violent video games increased. That’s exactly the opposite trend we would expect if the moral panic was justified and violent video games were a root of some evil. Because the data is correlational, this doesn’t mean that violent video game consumption is actually decreasing violence in society, but it is evidence against the claim that video game increase violence. Ferguson concludes, “Evidence from societal data does not support claims of dramatic videogame violence effects on violence among youth.”
Using similar metrics, Ferguson also found no link between violent movies and societal violence.
Many of us, including the media, assume that we are passive victims of powerful media influences. If we play a violent game, we become violent. But we’ve known for a while now that the real situation is much more complicated. Media consumers aren’t blank slates to be scribbled on with bad ideas — each one of us has our own thoughts and desires and intentions that media messages can and do ricochet off. To think that kids will enact everything they do in Grand Theft Auto not only is a misunderstanding of how media can affect us, it’s a misunderstanding of how we make moral decisions in the first place.
And that’s the problem. In the wake of a tragedy like the Sandy Hook shooting, organizations like the National Rifle Association are quick to blame video games for the atrocities. Given what we know, “It may be best for such professional organizations to retire their policy statements on media violence as such statements tend to be misleading and may cause more harm than good,” Ferguson writes.
“Certainly, such statements risk damaging the credibility of social science, but they may also do damage to the extent that they distract society from other pressing issues.”
You can read the whole study online here.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: Rockstar Games; Activision; Christopher J. Ferguson