The scientific consensus warns of a clear and present danger. A few dissenting voices — dubbed “deniers” by one frustrated researcher — insist the threat is overstated. The media tends to frame the issue in inconclusive terms, leaving the public confused and somewhat skeptical.
We are talking, of course, about the psychological impact of violent video games.
The current issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin addresses this issue with no fewer than four articles, beginning with a new meta-analytic review credited to eight researchers from the U.S. and Japan. They found unambiguous evidence that such games are a “causal risk factor” for increased aggression and decreased empathy among the people who play them.
Their analysis “yielded strong evidence that playing violent video games is a significant risk factor for both short-term and long-term increases in physically aggressive behavior,” writes Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson, the paper’s lead author. This connection was seen “regardless of research design or conservativeness of analysis,” and was true for both men and women, older and younger players, and those in Eastern and Western nations.
“Concerning public policy, we believe that debates can and should finally move beyond the simple question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior; the scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer is yes,” Anderson and his colleagues conclude. “Instead, we believe the public policy debate should move to questions concerning how best to deal with this risk factor.”
Not so fast, reply Christopher Ferguson and John Kilburn of Texas A&M, who did their own meta-analysis last year and concluded “the influence of violent video games on serious acts of aggression or violence is minimal.” They write that Anderson’s team is guilty of “overestimating and overinterpreting the influence of violent video games on aggression,” and add that this “exaggerated focus” distracts us from addressing “much more important causes of aggression, including poverty, peer influences, depression, family violence, and gene-environment interactions.”
But L. Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research finds the new meta-analysis quite convincing. In yet another paper, he writes that it proves “beyond a reasonable doubt that exposure to video game violence increases the risk that the observer will behave more aggressively and violently in the future.”
“‘Increases the risk’ of course, does not mean ‘determines,’” Huesmann adds. “The probability of behaving aggressively is increased for individuals in the population exposed, but for many exposed individuals, no detectable change in behavior will occur. This does not diminish the concern we should have about violent video games as a public health threat.”
So why is there not complete agreement among researchers? “Among those psychologists who have actually done empirical research on the topic of media violence or video game violence, and who understand the theory of observational learning, there is great consensus,” Huesmann writes. The disbelief of some, he suggests, may be fueled “by our American distaste for anyone telling us what we should look at or play.”
But is that instinctive antipathy toward censorship of any sort blinding us to a growing problem?
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