Do violent video games make players aggressive? According to Professor Patrick Markey, they do. But he also thinks the effects have been taken out of context
He says, “When you look at the research there’s no question at all. Violent video games do cause aggression. It’s so clear. You have to be dishonest not to see it. However, and this is a huge however, the effect is very, very small.
“It’s not as if this is a light switch that either video games do or do not cause aggression. You have to think about the strength of that effect. Most people assume it has a really big effect, but what we find from research is it actually has a very tiny effect.”
Markey conducted his research with Gary Giumetti at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. 167 university undergraduates, participated in the study. They completed a demographics form and additional questionnaires that were used to hide the true purpose of the study. Then they played some games. Finally they completed a measure of aggression as well as other unrelated questionnaires in order to maintain the cover story.
Two groups separately played violent and non-violent games (Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance; Doom 3; or Return to Castle Wolfenstein against Tetris Worlds; Top Spin Tennis and Project Gotham Racing).
Then they were presented with three story stems presenting a brief scenario that involved a negative outcome for the main character (e.g., getting into a car accident). After reading a story stem participants were asked to write down 20 unique things they thought the main character might do, think, or feel. These stories had been used before in successful studies measuring aggression-levels at different temperatures. A panel of judges provided an aggressiveness score for each participant.
Overall, players of the violent video games produced significantly more aggressive responses than the non-violent games players. The mean number of aggressive responses for the three non-violent video games did not differ from each other. Nor did the mean number of aggressive responses for the three violent video games.
This all looks like a clear case against violent games. However, when the results were compared against the initial questionnaires, it turned out that mild-mannered people were affected the least by the games while ‘angry people’ were affected the most.
Also, the effect size between violent video games and aggression that was found in the current study is similar to the effect sizes reported other studies of media-related aggression.
Markey says, “Their personality made a big difference. People who are extremely angry tend to be much more affected by violent videogames than people who are not angry and of course the opposite is true that people who are not angry are virtually unaffected by violent videogames. So it’s both the person and, in essence, the situation."
He believes his studies correlate with a lot of work in this area that has gone before, which has often found a small correlation between violent games and immediate subsequent behavior. But he says the media and politicians are wrong to seize on this as wildly significant because of the size of the effect, its context and the fact that the same results come out when people are exposed to other forms of violent media.
“The researchers are doing good work but that research is later used by media outlets and politicians and there is a miscommunication. For example, the general consensus among researchers is that the effect size is small, and we’ve accepted that. But in the media it’s difficult to say ‘oh yeah, video games cause aggression but the effect is small’. No one want to hear that, it’s not sexy enough. It doesn’t sell newspapers. And so we only hear the front end of that, which is that video games cause aggression.”
In the media it’s difficult to say ‘oh yeah, video games cause aggression but the effect is small’
The specialist press’ response to the studies is equally self-serving. “The gaming publications are very quick to defend themselves, to say no there’s no cause, and they’ll criticize research. They’ll find flaws and of course there are flaws in every single study every done. So the gaming magazines are wrong. Games do cause aggression. They’re being defensive. I understand why, but they don’t have to be because the effect is so small and it’s affecting people differently. And that’s good. It drives me crazy actually when I read media on both sides.”
Professor Markey points out the limitations of his own research. Psychology under-graduates do not represent a cross- section of the public. The study cannot predict the effect of games on people who consistently choose to play violent games. But he says the overall body of evidence should neither be ignored nor abused by special interests.
In a way he sees his findings as common sense. “If you provoke an angry person they’re going to lash out at you whereas if you provoke a non-angry person they’re not. What we think is happening with violent videogames is that the player is being virtually provoked and therefore when they turn off the controller they’re much more likely to lash out at targets that aren’t directly related to that provocation.”
He stresses his view that videogames are just another example of the violent images we are all subjected to every day, through movies or TV news. “This is not a black eye for videogames, it’s a black eye for all the media that we’re exposed to and videogames just happen to be one of them. I’m not saying being desensitized causes you to be more violent or anything along those lines, it just makes us not get more upset in general when we see violence.”
But don’t violent videogames help angry people let off some steam? “That’s a common idea, but it’s not correct,” he explains. “You’re always told if you get upset just go punch a pillow, but one thing we know from research that’s done outside of video games is when you actually let aggression out it actually doesn’t have that affect. In fact, it usually makes you more upset in the long run. It would be great if you had a person come to therapy and all you had to do was have them play this violent videogame for a while to cure them.”
He rejects a lot of the criticisms bandied around about violent games, such as the ‘murder simulation’ theory which suggests that shooting games teach players how to kill. “I’m a gamer and I love first-person shooters. One of my favorite tactics is to do the circle strafe move. I can’t imagine that being useful in real life.”
So what’s to be done about all this then? Markey says, “We have the facts and now the question is how are we going to use those facts? The word that needs to get out is not that videogames are bad. When a parent hears that message, a lot of times they don’t believe it or they don’t think it effects their child. What they need to hear is, ‘video games are bad if your child or you are angry. I like the rating system so legislatively I hope nothing’s done. I just hope that getting out the information that videogames can have an effect if you’re this kind of person is extremely important.”