Video Game Violence and Pseudoscience: Bad Science, Fear, and Politics

Christopher J. Ferguson

Research continues to find that violent video games play a negligible role in societal violence. But the politics of a culture war won’t let the idea go.

In May 2013, Christopher Harris went on trial for the murder of a family of five in Beason, Illinois. With overwhelming forensic evidence as well as testimony by his own brother indicating he was guilty, Harris’s defense chose an unusual tactic. Harris claimed it was not he, in fact, who committed the murders but the family’s fourteen-year old son Dillen Constant. Dillen, the defense claimed, had a history of attention deficit disorder, school problems, and had several violent video games in his bedroom. According to Harris, it was Dillen who killed his family. Harris claimed he happened to walk in on the multiple murders and had to defend himself from Dillen by beating Dillen fifty-two times with a tire iron, incurring only a blister himself.

Harris was supported in his defense by a video game violence researcher who agreed that Dillen’s history of attention deficit disorder, school problems, as well as possession of violent video games placed him at risk for aggressive and violent behavior (Rushton 2013).

During cross examination, however,the expert in question acknowledged that he was not a clinical psychologist, held no professional license, had not verified information given to him by the defense, and had not questioned Dillen’s surviving family or other witnesses. Related to video games, the expert acknowledged he did not know how often Dillen played violent video games (an analysis of the game console’s saved games suggested play was infrequent), acknowledged most young boys play violent video games, acknowledged research cannot document links between video games and violent behavior, and at one point stated that even games such as Pac-Man could be considered violent video games under some definitions. One of the assistant district attorneys was later overheard saying, “The most offensive testimony I’ve ever heard in my life, I think” (Rushton 2013). Harris was convicted.

Thus the theory that violent video games increase aggression continued to fail when evaluated by independent courts. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court considered an effort by the state of California to regulate violent video game sales to minors (Brown v. EMA, 2011). In speaking about studies California used to support its regulatory efforts the majority decision of the court said:

These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology” (Video Software Dealers Assn. 556 F. 3d, at 964). They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.

Just prior to the decision, Hall, Day and Hall (2011) warned that the scholarly community risked a credibility crisis by making increasingly extravagant claims about the alleged dangers of violent video games, much as the alleged dangers of “immoral” comics purported by psychiatrists in the 1950s are now generally considered a cautionary tale about moralistic excess in science.

In a previous article in the Skeptical Inquirer (Ferguson 2009) I discussed some of the serious methodological issues that have limited much video game violence research. These have included aggression measures that bear little resemblance to the types of behaviors of interest to the general public (for example filling in the missing letters of words such that kill is more aggressive than kiss, or giving consenting opponents in a reaction time game bursts of annoying noise), the unstandardized use of aggression measures (which potentially allow researchers, even in good faith, to select outcomes that best fit their hypotheses while ignoring those that don’t), and the failure to control carefully for variables such as gender and family violence that might explain correlational relationships between video game violence and aggression (or failure to inform general audiences that controlling for these other variables reduces correlations to trivial levels). Unfortunately, to a great degree, these problematic issues persist in the field. The field continues to ignore the warnings of Hall, Day, and Hall (2011) by making big claims based on weak and inconsistent data. In this article I explore the culture and politics of video game research for some explanation for why this may be.

Science, Morality, and Culture

Let me note upfront that there is nothing unscientific about the hypothesis that video game violence may cause aggression. The hypothesis is a perfectly reasonable empirical question. Further, I wish to be careful not to paint with an overly broad brush. Some scholars who have found links between video games and some aspects of aggression have been very careful to speak within the limits of their data (e.g. Giumetti and Markey 2007; Williams 2013), and I have nothing but respect for their work. The issue is when scholars speak beyond their data in pursuit of moralistic or advocacy goals. Arguably, in the months following Brown v. EMA (2011) the rancor of the video game field calmed somewhat. Not surprisingly, the tragic Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012 changed the climate significantly once again. It is probably difficult to overestimate the impact that mass shootings as cultural events have had on the video game violence field. When shooters are young males—such as in the case of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza—that these individuals are often found to have been players of violent games is typically treated as a startling and critical revelation, usually ignoring that almost all males in this age category play violent video games at least occasionally (Olson et al. 2007). Despite this, some young shooters such as the Virginia Tech shooter were ultimately found not to be avid gamers (Virginia Tech Review Panel 2007) despite rumors to the contrary, and the U.S. Secret Service report on school shooters (2002) found little evidence that such individuals are particularly inclined to enjoy violent media more than anyone else. In the official investigation report by the state of Connecticut (2013) it was found that Lanza had more interest in playing non-violent video games like Dance Dance Revolution than violent ones, although, like most young men, he owned some of both. Yet the social narrative linking violent games to mass shootings is a powerful one, providing an explanation for the unexplainable and providing an illusion of control over the uncontrollable. Thus we find a kind of societal confirmation bias in which cases that don’t fit the narrative (such as Virginia Tech) are simply discounted. In the case of older and/or female shooters, the issue of video game or media violence is typically ignored altogether.

One question is what impact these social narratives and social fear of mass shooters have on video game violence research. For instance, in a recent essay (Ferguson 2013) I noted that the language of video game researchers changed remarkably after the 1999 Columbine massacre, from language that acknowledged inconsistencies in the data to language of absolute certainly of harmful effects, despite little change in the actual data. In his discussion of moral panic theory Gauntlett (2005) notes that moral panics persist, in part, because society provides incentives for certain types of conclusions—those supporting the panic—over others at least in the short term. Thus it becomes easier as a researcher to get a research grant arguing that video games are harmful, to get newspaper headlines, and to get esteem from professional organizations. The political pressure on scientists was made apparent in the weeks and months following Sandy Hook. In the early months following Sandy Hook, only rumors, ultimately unfounded, suggesting Lanza was an avid violent gamer, were available to the public, not facts. Yet politicians such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, called for “research” while advertising very clearly for the results they wished to see. For instance, Senator Rockefeller seemed particularly incensed by the Brown v. EMA (2011) decision and, in calling for a National Academy of Sciences study of media violence, stated, “Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better. These court decisions show we need to do more and explore ways Congress can lay additional groundwork on this issue. This report will be a critical resource in this process” (quoted in Terkel 2012). This is hardly a call for careful, objective research with no a priori assumptions about what it “should” find.

An example of the problematic mixture of politics and science is also exemplified in a report examining media violence commissioned by Wolf, a longtime anti-media advocate. Rep. Wolf, who chairs the congressional committee overseeing the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), asked the NSF to produce a report on youth violence including the influence of media violence on societal violence. The resultant report (Subcommittee on Youth Violence 2013) concludes that the mass media are definitively linked to societal violence potentially up through and including mass shootings.

The report makes this conclusion by simply failing to cite, with almost surgical precision, the multitude of studies that would challenge this conclusion. The only exception was the citation of Joanne Savage’s work (Savage and Yancey 2008) implying proven links between media violence and violent crime, despite the fact that Savage concluded the exact opposite. I argue that this report is a classic example of the risks of politicized science, particularly following a traumatizing national event. By contrast, almost simultaneously, an anti-media advocacy group, Common Sense Media (CSM), released a report on media violence (2013). Although I disagree with the conclusions of this report, I applaud CSM for honestly reporting research both supporting and contradicting their concerns and framing their arguments in a thoughtful and careful way. The CSM and NSF reports can, in fact, be compared side-by-side to illustrate my concerns. When a media watchdog can produce more careful science than a subcommittee assembled by the National Science Foundation, the time has come to reevaluate what we are doing in the field.

The Role of Professional Organizations and the Scientific Culture

One interesting development is that, in recent years, a contrast has emerged between conclusions on video game violence researched by independent evaluators such as the U.S. courts, as well as government reviews by Australia (Australian Government, Attorney General’s Department 2010) and Sweden (Swedish Media Council 2011) and even the U.S. House of Representatives in the months following the Sandy Hook shooting (Gun Violence Prevention Task Force 2013), and conclusions expressed in policy statements of professional advocacy groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP 2009) and American Psychological Association (APA 2005). It’s probably difficult to underestimate the impact these policy statements by the AAP and APA have on debates regarding video game violence, as they are often cited in support of fears or even regulation and censorship. By contrast, independent reviews tend to be far more skeptical. Part of the reason for these discrepancies appears to be that professional advocacy groups have typically not conducted independent reviews. Rather they assembled committees of scholars highly invested in a particular theory, did not invite more skeptical scholars, and these scholars, in essence, reviewed their own work and declared it beyond further debate (something I’d love to be able to do one day).

These reviews should not be mistaken for careful, objective evaluations of the research field. To their credit, the American Psychological Association is currently reviewing their policy statement on video game violence, although it is unclear whether it has entirely learned the lesson of previous problematic statements. Wisely, scholars directly involved in media violence research were not included on the task force, and all seven members of the task force are very reputable scientists. Unfortunately, even a brief Internet search reveals that four of the seven have taken public anti-media stances in the past. Two were signers of an amicus brief in Brown v. EMA supporting California’s attempt to ban violent video game sales to minors. One was a coauthor on the problematic NSF report mentioned earlier. The most minor of the four collaborated with a well-known anti-media scholar in the past and made anti-media statements to the press. My intent is not to disparage these individuals but to suggest that if the APA’s intent had been to select an ostensibly neutral committee of evaluators, they widely missed the mark. Perhaps partly in response to this, a group of 230 scholars recently wrote to the APA asking them to retire their problematic policy statements on media violence (Consortium of Scholars 2013). Policy statements often tell us more about the committee than the science and highlight the fact that it’s possible to “tilt the machine” toward a predetermined conclusion through the selection of specific committee members.

Ultimately, however, it is the culture of the media scholars themselves that has been problematic. In one recent essay, a prominent scholar labeled all those who disagree with him as “industry apologists” (Anderson 2013). Science is about open inquiry, skepticism, attempts to critically replicate findings, and put the burden of proof on a theory to be replicated. Yet, in this field, the burden of proof is often reversed, with skeptical scholars personally subjected to ad hominem attacks. Increasingly, like other areas of social psychology, the “harm” position of video game violence is suffering a crisis of replication (see Ballard et al. 2012; Charles et al. 2013; and Tear and Nielson 2013 for just a few recent examples). Youth violence continues to plummet during the era in which video game sales have skyrocketed ( 2013). And yet I’d argue that at least parts of the academic field of video game violence have stubbornly calcified around an inflexible ideology and view all critics not as scholars who respectfully disagree but as enemies of a lesser moral fiber (hence the “industry apologists” comment). More than one outside researcher has asked me what it is about aggression researchers that makes them so aggressive. Perhaps that is what we should be asking: Does conducting video game violence research make you aggressive? If so, perhaps we should put warning stickers on academics. But jesting aside, the time has come to reevaluate the culture of video game research and what it has done to the objectivity of the data it has produced. At the current stage, the field risks becoming little more than opinions with numbers. Still, I note a new cadre of researchers doing excellent work (as exemplified by the scholarship on display throughout Quandt and Kroger 2013) wherein games are examined as an integral part of society rather than assumed a priori to be an enemy of it. This does not rule out the possibility that media influence us, of course, but rather places media within society, and the process of media as user-driven rather than content-driven, idiosyncratic rather than generalized. This trend toward greater sophistication in games research has been a relatively new trend, and it’s one I hope will thrive despite an academic culture that often actively discourages it.


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Christopher J. Ferguson

Christopher J. Ferguson is the department chair of psychology at Stetson University. He has written dozens of scholarly articles on media effects and has recently championed a new research paradigm wherein media research itself is subjected to sociological analyses. He has also written a novel, Suicide Kings, and lives in Florida with his wife and son.