2016 is an election year. Hopefully, the candidates will stop insulting each other and get to talking up their platforms. Some of these candidates will use facts and figures to support their arguments, and others will simply say whatever it takes to rile up the crowds. Of course, the easiest way to make noise and garner attention for analysts and politicians is to blame the violence on video games. This really gets me fired up because the truth of the matter is: there is no science to back it up.
When scientists study the effects video games have on people, most studies are looking at aggression. Do video games cause aggression in individuals who play them and for how long are they affected? What really drew me to looking into this is that there is so much misinformation and misrepresentation in the public regarding what is and isn’t true. The other side is that many gamers themselves are uninformed about the facts surrounding this topic. Study 1 showed no increase of aggression after playing a violent video game. Study 2 showed that aggressive thoughts and feelings dissipated within 4 minutes of ceasing play, and aggressive behaviors dissipated within 10 minutes of ceasing play. So if there’s any effect, it’s over within 10 minutes of quitting. However, these studies just tested short term effects. We still need to see if there are any long-term effects. But it’s hard to do since we don’t know if aggressive people are drawn to violent video games or if violent video games make people aggressive.
There were two studies that really jumped out at me. The first came out in 2010 and is called “The Hitman Study: Game Exposure Effects on Aggressive Behavior, Feelings and Depression” by Christopher J. Ferguson and Stephanie M. Rueda. The second, published in 2009, is “How Long do the Short-Term Violent Video Game Effects Last?” by Christopher Barlett, Omar Branch, Christopher Rodeheffer and Richard Harris. Both of these studies, which occurred in the last few years, gives us the basis to speak confidently about the short-term effects of violent video games.
The Hitman Study looked at three theories regarding the relationship between violent entertainment and aggressive behavior: social learning theory, catharsis and mood management. Social learning theory is the idea that you pick up traits from what you do, so if you play violent video games, you’ll become violent yourself. The problem with social learning theory is that it assumes we humans cannot distinguish between what’s real and what is fiction. The catharsis hypothesis (or theory) is that pent up aggression is dispelled when the individual partakes in a violent activity, like a video game, which serves as an outlet for the aggression. Lastly, is mood management, which states that individuals seek out entertainment to manage their mood. In particular for violent video games, depressed individuals look for exciting stimuli to assuage their depressed mood.
Here’s how the experiment worked. First, everyone had to complete a frustrating task. Then the participants had to fill out a questionnaire rating how hostile they were feeling. Next the participants were broken into one of four groups where they played Hitman: Blood Money (where you assassinate people), Call of Duty 2 (still killing people, but you’re a soldier, a “good guy”), Madden 2007 (marked as non-violent because it is an organized acceptable form of violence) or a do nothing “control” group. The participants played or “cooled off” for approximately 45 minutes, then they had a new activity where they competed in a “reaction time game” against a fictional opponent. The participants were allowed to set a punishment for their “opponent” when they won. It was noise to be blasted in their opponent’s ears at a level and length of their choosing. The decibel level from 0 to 95 and the length were used to determine the participant’s level of aggression. Once they finished that, they filled out a final questionnaire, were told the truth and then left.
The study concludes that they found no evidence “that short-term exposure to violent video games either increased or decreased aggressive behavior in the laboratory. Similarly violent video game exposure in real life was not related to laboratory aggression.” (pg 105) The social learning theory predicted that subjects would be more aggressive after playing a violent video game. The catharsis hypothesis predicted that subjects would be less aggressive after playing a violent video game. Neither hypothesis was confirmed. Participants displayed neither an increase nor decrease in aggression after playing a violent video game.. So, we don’t learn violence from video games, though it does mean that we don’t really “get our angry out” through video games either. One interesting piece was the third aspect of their test regarding mood management. They came to the conclusion that “long-term exposure to violent video games was associated with reduced hostile feelings and depression following a stressful task.” (pg 105) Perhaps in the future we’ll begin seeing video games being used to treat depression. Though I’m positive many gamers are already self-medicating in that regard.
Our second study takes a difference approach. They focused more on the duration of effects of violent video games. Barlett et. al. wanted to know how long aggressive feelings and behaviors last after sitting down to play a violent video game.
They also took a wildly different approach to measuring aggression. First, they measured the participant’s heart rate, had them fill out a State Hostility Scale and do a word completion task, where the person must finish up a word. So the sheet reads K-I-_-_ and they score you differently if you write “kill” instead of “kiss.” Next, the participants were separated into two groups where they either played Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance or Hard Hitter Tennis. After playing for 15 minutes, they had the people do more hostility scales, word completion tasks and heart rate monitoring. Then the participants were given a cup and four different types of hot sauces and that they were to put as much hot sauce in the cup as they wanted and someone down the hall would have to drink it up. Basically, the amount and severity of the hot sauce would help indicate how aggressive you were feeling. After a time, they filled out more questionnaires and word completion tasks and had their heart rate taken. Where they mixed it up was how long before people had to make the hot sauce after they played the video game.
In this study, they show that aggressive feelings and thoughts dissipate within 4 minutes of playing a violent video game. Aggressive behaviors and physiological arousal (heart rate) dissipate within 10 minutes. I find this absolutely fascinating because it demonstrates how quickly we return to normal after playing a violent game. I don’t know about you, but after I close out of a game, I tend to look at which friends of mine are on Xbox Live or PSN or Steam and whether or not there are any good sales before I shut it down. It may be 4-5 minutes before I shut down my console anyway, so my aggressive feelings and thoughts have most likely dissipated before the machine is even cold.
Of the two studies I’ve reviewed here, only one of the two has shown that violent video games cause aggressive thoughts, feelings or behaviors, and though video games have that effect, it is only for an extremely short period of time after the game has finished. A person would have to play a violent video game and act upon those aggressive feelings immediately upon putting the controller down. This is not conducive for a person planning on murdering innocent people in a public place. So, why are video games constantly being framed as the scapegoat? Is it because the gaming community is a soft target with few voices of reason and solid information?
The reason I reviewed these studies is that when the time comes, you, as a gamer, can use this evidence to dispel the misinformation regarding video game violence and aggression and misrepresentation of video games and the gaming community. Of course, only time and more research will be able to tell us what the long-term effects are on individuals playing violent video games. But I’m confident, with good science and not witch hunts called forth by blinded government officials, will the truth about video games be uncovered. And like I stated at the beginning, it’s an election year. Support organizations like the Video Game Voters Network and most importantly – VOTE!