Reality Check on Video Game Violence

The debate about violence in entertainment has surfaced once again.

In late November, a media watchdog group, the National Institute on Media and the Family  (NIMF), issued its annual report on video games. Not surprisingly, the institute was not happy with what it found: animated violence, profanity, and some sexual content. (Its latest report even includes a made-up word to describe the video violence, claming that "killographic and sexually explicit games are still making their way into the hands...of underage players.")

The findings caught the attention and support of several politicians, including Senators Joe Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom promised to enact legislation to stem the threat posed by video games.

Yet before rushing to craft new laws, we should make sure there is a problem to fix. Moving from the realm of advocacy and politics into science and evidence, several issues should be considered.

The issues

1) While many teens do play video games, including some violent ones, the games are hardly kids' stuff: the average video gamer is 30 years old. Most "Mature" or "Adult" rated video games are purchased—and played—by adults.

2) While some studies claim that violent entertainment may be linked in some way to violent behavior, many other studies contradict that assertion. Where are the mountains of evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of fake violence? Richard Rhodes, a writer for Rolling Stone, tackled that question and found that the alleged mountains of evidence are really molehills— and shaky ones at that.

The approximately 200 studies on media violence are remarkable primarily for their inconsistency and weak conclusions. Some studies show a correlation between television and violence; others don't. Some find that violent programming can increase aggressiveness; another finds that "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" does. Several studies, including the most-cited ones, are deeply flawed methodologically. Still, those fighting media depictions of violence cite the studies and ignore their lack of scientific validity. Rhodes notes that "The research no more supports the consensus on media violence than it supported the conclusions of the eugenics consensus eighty years ago that there are superior and inferior 'races,' with White Northern Europeans at the top."

The assertion that video games make people violent got a boost in May of 2000, when the American Psychological Association issued a press release saying that violent video games can increase aggression. That conclusion was taken from a study by two researchers, Craig Anderson of Iowa State University and Karen Dill of Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina. The pair claimed that they had found a link between violent video games and aggression.

Yet an examination of what the researchers actually found shows how tentative their conclusions are. The study seems to show some association between the playing of violent video games and concurrent aggressive behavior and delinquency. Yet, as any social sciences or psychology student knows, correlation does not imply causation.

One critic of the study, British psychologist Guy Cumberbatch, noted, "[F]inding that people who enjoy violent media may also be aggressive is tantamount to observing that those who play football also enjoy watching it on television. 'The correlational nature of [this] study means that causal statements are risky at best,' the authors admit. ...All in all, Anderson and Dill's new evidence is exceptionally weak, and in its one-sided approach it has a depressingly familiar ring to it. ...[S]tudies to date have been notably biased towards seeking evidence of harm. This 'blame game' may be fun for some researchers to play, and knee-jerk reactions such as the APA's press release may be media-friendly. But we deserve better."

3) Perhaps most tellingly, video game critics fail to show where, exactly, the real-world evidence of harm lies. Assuming that teens are being exposed to bad language and animated violence, so what? Daily teen life involves some profanity, adult themes, and violent entertainment. Has the sexual material resulted in an increase in teen sex? No; the National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that fewer teens are engaging in sexual activity than in the past, and the rate dropped significantly between 1995 and 2002.

Has the video violence resulted in an increase in violent crime? No; on Oct. 17, 2005, the FBI released figures showing that the U.S. violent crime rate declined again last year. In fact, violent crime has dropped significantly over the past twenty years— just as video games have become more violent. The NIMF and Senator Lieberman even decried "graphic scenes of cannibalism" in video games.

Should America brace itself for a rise in teen cannibalism? Violent video games have been around since 1991, yet clear evidence of any harm has yet to emerge.

Overlooked fact

Amid all the concern over the violence that teens and kids see in their video games, television shows, and films, one simple fact is often overlooked: Violence and killing is considered mainstream entertainment by most Americans.

Multiple murders are entertainment every single night. Top-rated television drama shows routinely involve killings and death, from "Law & Order" to "CSI" to "The Sopranos" to "ER." While many of the murders that entertain us are fictional, others aren't. Newsmagazine shows such as "Dateline NBC" and "48 Hours" regularly feature real-life murders packaged as entertainment mysteries.

Blaming entertainment for social ills is nothing new, of course; Elvis Presley was accused of corrupting America's youth with lewd hip gyrations in the 1950s, for example, and in 1880s London the play "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was blamed for encouraging Jack the Ripper in his crimes. In science, outside the agenda enclaves, the effects of violent entertainment and video games on behavior is very much an open question.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine; he previously wrote about the video game violence debate in his book "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us."