APA Says Video Games Make You Violent, but Critics Cry Bias

08_19_ViolentVideoGames_02
The American Psychological Association announced it found "a consistent relation" between violent game use and aggressive behavior, though some experts consider the findings to be biased. David J. Green/Alamy

As I watched what was perhaps my hundredth bullet jelly a Nazi's eyeball, carom off his eye socket and tunnel through his gray matter before exiting his skull in a cornucopia of bone fragments and gore, I had a thought: maybe this is not healthy.

Since at least the Columbine school shooting in 1999—when both researchers and the media speculated that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a killing spree because they were denied access to the violent computer games—we have been studying and arguing about whether violent video games create violent urges in players. In 2013, the American Psychological Association (APA) announced the creation of the Task Force on Violent Media. The seven-member task force was charged with conducting a "meta-analysis," or review of existing literature, to determine whether video game violence can and does lead to real-world violence.

The task force released its findings last Thursday. It found "a consistent relation" between violent game use and aggressive behavior, it said in a statement.

"While there is some variation among the individual studies, a strong and consistent general pattern has emerged from many years of research that provides confidence in our general conclusions," wrote Mark Appelbaum, chair of the task force.

Based on its findings, the APA drafted a resolution at its August 7 meeting in Toronto encouraging the Entertainment Software Rating Board to refine its video game rating system "to reflect the levels and characteristics of violence in games." The APA also called on video game developers to "design games that are appropriate to users' age and psychological development."

The problem, though, is that many experts think the APA’s findings are junk science. In 2013, a large group of researchers—more than 230, including academics from Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities—took issue with the APA, the task force and its research methodology. In an open letter, the group called the APA's policy statements on violent video games "misleading and alarmist" and said they "delineated several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence."

For some of those researchers, Thursday's announcement is confirmation that the APA has it in for video games. "The literature is beset with methodology flaws and I don't think this report addresses those flaws," says Dr. T.A. Ceranoglu, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital who signed the 2013 letter.

Existing research on violent video games has "vague and inconsistent" definitions of aggression and violence, he says. While the APA's report acknowledges this problem ("The violent video game literature uses a variety of concepts, terms, and definitions in considering aggression and aggressive outcomes..."), it does not attempt to solve it.

Ceranoglu also takes issue with how some past researchers (not neccesarily affiliated with the APA) have tested for aggression. One experiment, for example, asked some participants to play violent video games, then complete a list of words with one or more letters missing, such as "_ill" and "explo_e." Other participants did not play violent video games before completing the words. Participants who had spent time playing violent video games were more likely to write kill and explode than fill and explore, the study found. But there is no evidence that writing the word kill on a piece of paper means one is more likely to commit actual acts of violence, Ceranoglu notes.

"I think it's causing us to miss a bigger picture," he says. "These violent video games are played all around the world, but we have a much higher violence rate in the U.S. than other countries, like Japan, and we can't explain why that difference is."

None of which means young kids should be allowed to play violent video games, Ceranoglu says. "Even a kid who is well aware of what is fantasy and what is real would be shocked" by some of the violence in today's games, he says. "But is that kid going to grow to be a violent person? We can't say that. We can't determine anything beyond a correlation."

What correlation there is between exposure to violent video games and aggression is "very small," according to Peter Gray, a child psychologist and research professor at Boston College who also signed the 2013 letter to the APA. "The only correlational studies looking at real-world violence generally present very little if any evidence of correlation," he says.

Appelbaum concedes the correlation is "not very big," but compares regulating violent video games to taking aspirin to avoid heart disease. The effect of taking aspiring to prevent heart disease is " incredibly small," he says. "It's a teeny effect. But if you're going to prevent a heart attack, that's a big, big outcome and the cost of taking the aspirin is very small. Effect size alone doesn't really tell you whether something is important."

But the outcome of over-regulating violent video games could be just as significant, Gray argues. "I think that there's harm in controlling children's choices and behavior," he says. "Unless we can show that children are doing something harmful, we need to allow children to make their own choices."

In fact, Gray says, children's desire to play video games, even violent video games, may be indicative of overall good mental health. "There's a general correlation between play of all types and peacefulness," he says. "If you look at the kind of person you would call a psychopath, these are by and large people who don't play, including not playing violent video games."

And, what is being tested is not "real-world violence," he says, but "something that the experimenter is choosing to call aggression," such as hitting a toy. "There's a long history in psychology of trying to prove that exposure to violent depictions of one sort or another increases violence in people, especially in children," he says. "As far as I've been able to determine, there has never, ever been good proof of that."

For good reason, Appelbaum says: No such experiment is ethically possible. "I'm not about to do a study where I sit you down and make you watch video games for five hours and then give you a handgun and say, 'Go out and have fun.' That kind of study is unethical and immoral." But Applebaum disagrees aggression cannot be measured.

Christopher Ferguson, department chair of psychology at Stetson University, thinks the APA intentionally stacked the deck against video games. "It felt right from the start that the task force wasn't really designed to be an objective review," he says. "I'm not saying the individual task force members were acting in bad faith," he adds, "but I think they were selected because their opinions were pretty clear going in."

In its report, the APA notes that prospective task force members "spent significant time disclosing and discussing potential conflicts of interest," including "any research or publication activity or commitment to a fixed position through public statement or publication or through other personal or professional activity related to the current task."

Of the seven members of the task force, at least four appear to have previously expressed opinions about the link between exposure to violent video games and aggression, which critics say amount to conflicts of interest.

In 2011, task force members Sherry Hamby and Kenneth Dodge, of Sewanee and Duke Universities, respectively, appeared to agree that the state of California had the right to bar the sale of "mature" video games to minors. Both endorsed an amicus curiae brief in support of the state of California in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the EMA. The brief Hamby and Dodge endorsed argued there is "a significant relationship" between exposure to violent video games and violent behavior. "[P]laying violent video games causes an increase in the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, aggressive thinking, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and desensitization/low empathy," and "the industry, the public, parents, caregivers and educational organizations [have] a responsibility to intercede in this epidemic," the brief states.

Appelbaum disagrees that signing an amicus brief presents a conflict of interest. "No one on the task force was involved in writing the amicus brief. It's hard to imagine you'd find someone with expertise some of these areas that wouldn't be approached," to sign an amicus brief, he says. "There's no conflict there."

In an email, Hamby told Newsweek, "unlike some critics of the task force, my professional reputation is not based on violent video game research and I have no financial stake in selling violent video games. My main area of specialty is family violence research." She added that she has never received any money connected to video games or video game research. 

Also in an email, Dodge said his participation does not constitute a significant conflict of interest. "I do not conduct research on violent video games and have nothing financially or reputationally to gain or lose by the outcome," he wrote. "Signing an amicus or authoring a conclusion at one point in time does not, by itself, place that individual in conflict of interest, certainly not in perpetuity. If it were common practice to exclude all scientists after they render one conclusion, the field would be void of qualified experts."

In the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, another task force member, Sandra Graham of the University of California at Los Angeles, also appeared to endorse the position that exposure to violent video games increases the likelihood of aggression. Graham endorsed a position statement by the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence that argued "research has established that continued exposure to media violence (e.g., TV, movies, video games) can increase the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions.” The statement concludes the current "research speaks to a strong need to revise policies on youth exposure to violence in the media."

Graham did not respond to a request for comment.

"If someone had a paper that directly looked at the relationship between playing violent media and this class of behaviors that are the outcome, they were not even eligible to be on the task force," Appelbaum says.

However, in a 1994 paper published in the Journal of Applied Development Psychology, task force member Sandra Calvert of Georgetown University appeared to argue violent video games teach aggressive behavior. "Unlike television, video games and virtual reality require direct action for a game to continue. In the case of aggressive content in the virtual reality game used in this study, a person must kill or be killed in this life-like, computer-simulated reality. Consequently, aggressive action is incorporated directly into a person’s behavioral repertoire when virtual reality games are played," she wrote.

In another paper co-authored by Calvert, currently in press for publication by American Psychologist in 2015, she writes of mass shooters, "Theoretically, youth who commit such crimes should be affected by media aggression in the same ways that other youth have been shown to be affected: through arousal, desensitization, lowered empathy, the development of aggressive schemas including schemas about males being aggressive, and social learning of antisocial behaviors that are rewarded in game play."

"My background in the children's media area provided expertise that was valuable to the APA Task Force," wrote Calvert in an email to Newsweek. "I disclosed all of my activities in the video game and aggression area at the beginning of the APA Task Force work, and I kept Task Force members appraised of any related activities on my end." 

"I follow the data, as has always been my way of conducting research.  I stand by our findings," she added.

However, Ferguson argues that the 2015 report "should have disqualified her from the task force." Ferguson also believes the task force was inconsistent in the papers it selected for meta-analysis. In its report, the APA lists six criteria for inclusion of studies in its analysis. Of studies conducted since 2009, the task force ended up identifying 31 as meeting their criteria. However, argues Ferguson, there are many studies that have been done on the subject over the years which appear to meet all six criteria, but were not deemed "of sufficient utility" by the task force.

"Of those they actually looked at very closely, it looks like they almost systematically excluded most null studies," meaning studies that found no association, positive or negative, between violent video game exposure and violent actions. For example, a 2011 study published in Psychology of Violence concludes that competition, not violence, is actually what drives aggressive behavior in video game players.

Appelbaum rejects that claim, saying that "the conclusion of the paper was not part of the rating that moved them ahead into the meta-analysis.

"We're all seeing incredibly similar results and just drawing different conclusions," he adds.

Ferguson is unconvinced. "People have to remember that groups like the American Psychological Association—of which I'm a fellow, by the way—are guilds. They do not exist to provide people with objective facts. They exist to promote the profession. It's to their advantage to identify problems that psychologists can run in and fix. It is not to their advantage to say 'we don't know' or 'the evidence is all over the place' or 'there's nothing we can do to help you.'"

"This seems to be a pattern with the APA," he adds. "We're talking about an organization that was caught colluding in the real torture of real people in real life and now they're turning around and wagging their hand about people playing video games?"