Researcher Says Linking Video Games to Gun Violence Is a ‘Classic Illusory Correlation’

A group of 228 "media scholars, psychologists and criminologists" ask the APA to review a policy statement on video games.

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Wouldn’t it be easy if everything people thought was true was true? Aliens — they live among us! If you don’t forward that chain letter to 10 people — you’re dead! if you say Candyman three times into a mirror — also dead! If you play games where you shoot people — you’re going to really want to shoot people!

Everything nice and neat and tied off with a bow. If some guy who shot a bunch of people played shooters all the time — blame video games!

Reality’s harder. Sometimes A happens to be in the same room as B, with no other meaningful correlation, and certainly no causal one. Sometimes — most of the time, in my experience — you want a simple, definitive answer right now, even when there isn’t one.

Video game research is in its infancy. No one’s yet produced a study linking video games to violent crime, and where behavioral researchers claim to have found relatively weak links between violent video games and increased aggressive behavior, those studies fail to quantify or contextualize said aggression. More aggressive than playing (or watching) something like football? Drinking several cups of coffee? Engaging in other forms of gamesmanship?

All that ambiguity didn’t stop the American Psychological Association from issuing a pretty strong (and consequently controversial) statement in 2005 advocating, among other things, for “the reduction of all violence in videogames and interactive media marketed to children and youth.” Whether right or wrong (or simply misguided), you can’t just wave off the APA — it’s the world’s largest association of psychologists, with some 137,000 members, according to Wikipedia.

And so Stetson University researcher Christopher Ferugson recently signed and sponsored a letter to the APA — a letter cosigned by “an international group of 228 media scholars, psychologists and criminologists” — asking that the organization reevaluate its stance on the effects of media violence.

“Research shows there is not consistent evidence to support this statement,” Ferguson told Stetson University Today. Indeed, he says, the opposite may be true: “In my recent research [published here] we found that for some teens with a pre-existing mental health issue, playing violent video games seemed to be associated with less bullying.”

That didn’t stop the media from misleadingly linking video games to the Navy Yard Washington D.C. shooter. Ferguson — who’s much kinder than I’d be, given the media’s incentive to sensationalize — says that’s because of a classic psychological problem:

The impression that a link exists is a classic illusory correlation in which society takes note of the cases that fit and ignores those that don’t. When a shooter is a young male, the news media make a fuss over violent video games, neglecting to inform the public that almost all young males play violent video games. Finding that a particular young shooter happened to play these games is neither surprising nor meaningful.

On the upside, the APA now has its policy statement under review: “The signers of the statement to the APA welcome the APA’s initiative to look into their 2005 statement,” says Ferguson. “We hope that they will take up this opportunity to either retire the problematic 2005 statement or replace it with something that carefully reflects the debates and inconsistencies in this field.”

In other words, this isn’t about painting video games as harmless any more than it is critiquing their portrayal as harmful — it’s about doing good science and reclaiming the ball from the misinformed and ideologically motivated.

7 comments
olihist730
olihist730

Well, I am currently finishing a post on my gaming blog that somewhat deals with this issue in the context of Uncharted Waters Online.  If anyone is interested in reading what I have to say about all this, here's the link:


http://alvaro808.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/gameplay-bias-aka-what-is-really-playing-the-game/


I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Matt Peckham's article - as a "mid core" video gamer (neither hard core nor completely casual), I share many of his sentiments regarding the mass media's portrayal of video games as "harmful." 

MatthewRobert
MatthewRobert

This sounds like the same tripe that the Video Game Industry has been putting out in response to this. Obviously a Video Game correspondent is highly  qualified to write on this topic, and is going to be objective. The fact is there are many studies linking the two. I will post a few links to the studies here: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2006-23323-000 http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/VideoGames1.pdf http://www.safetylit.org/citations/index.php?fuseaction=citations.viewdetails&citationIds%5B%5D=citjournalarticle_46192_20 http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Lentis/Grand_Theft_Auto:_Violent_Video_Games_and_Controversy 


Do some research on this, don't just let the response of the video game industry sway your opinion. It is not, as the author says, simply an illusory correlation. It is based on sound psychological theories and is used extensively by the US military as a guiding principle in training. 

lovenotwar
lovenotwar

one simple fact is that the US distributes more violent media in the form of tv, movies, and games to its citizens than any other developed country and we also have the highest homicide rates. Download any recent military-oriented or gang-oriented First-Person Shooter game demo and play it for 5 minutes. The level of realism and violence in these games is shocking. There is also a huge divide between the games coming from America and those coming from other countries (like Japan). The level of human-on-human violence in American-made games is psychopathic. It cannot be healthy for anyone of any age, much less children, to engage in uber-realistic simulations of psychopathically violent behavior. The seriousness of this issue only increases as the game technology increases the realism of the experience. If we can just curb the human-on-human violence in these games we will be taking a HUGE step. Just a take a step back and consider the trend of violent content in videogames from Super Mario in the 80s to any of the hundreds of military and gangster simulations available today. It's disturbing. 

Aside from the violence in and of itself, I find the military realism a little disturbing. I can't help feeling our government condones these games partly because their influence on young minds' admiration and understanding of military and warfare. I won't call it a conspiracy, but when you look at the distribution of military-themed games produced by america and the rest of the world (e.g. japan), it's a bit odd.

But... the same is true of violence in movies and tv. All three need to be addressed.

RickBennett
RickBennett

Having spent my entire career in advertising, there is certainly correlation between what people spend their time thinking about and their actions. Agreed, we have yet to see Freakonomics gurus Leavitt and Dubner or Outlier guru Gladwell weigh in, but my "gut" tells me there is a correlation in kill ratios between mass murders who played a lot of first-person shooter games with those who didn't.

samuelsargunam1
samuelsargunam1

@lovenotwar  this seems quite ignorant. You say that Japans media is very different from American media but as a person who watches Anime and reads manga it seems like you don't even know what you're talking about. Gun violence has been decreasing in the US even with the rise of these violent videogames. Clearly just because you make a game where you kill another fake human being doesn't mean that violence in general will just go up. because everyone that plays these games are psychopathic murderers right? Maybe we should fix our mental health departments to stop those like adam lanza and the navy yard shooters instead of using violent media as a scapegoat. 

nchurricane78
nchurricane78

@lovenotwar  The US also has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.  Does that link obesity to violence?  I'm not sure that you are showing a link between the two variables, much like was stated in the article.

JustinD.Hebert
JustinD.Hebert

@RickBennett Your last sentence is a little muddy, but I think you meant to say you believe that mass murderers who play FPS games probably have higher kill rates than those who don't.  I would speculate that mass murderers who have actually practiced with a real gun probably have a higher kill rate tan those whose idea of shooting consists of pointing and clicking while sitting perfectly still.

My point being that our guts are made for digestion, not critical thinking or analysis.

I will grant you, however, that there have been mass murderers who have used FPS games as a sort of "practice," like that psycho in Sweden.