Science and Law
27th February 2013

Video Games and Aggressive Behavior

A recent PBS News Hour special “Can Violent Video Games Play a Role in Violence” highlights a number of issues that we developed in our recent post on this topic: Safety Assessment of Video Games in Children.

Video Games and Aggressive Behavior

A recent PBS News Hour special “Can Violent Video Games Play a Role in Violence” highlights a number of issues that we developed in our recent post on this topic: Safety Assessment of Video Games in Children.

While our previous post described the various aspects of video games that have been studied over the years, this post focuses on the putative violence link.

Not unexpectedly, scientists, industry advocates, and anti-video game activists interviewed for this segment all discuss the topic based on their impressions and the plausibility of the arguments. After all, this is the way we all navigate the world and make decisions about cause and effect. It isn’t always possible to perform or consult a controlled scientific study every time we want to make a decision about the safety of an individual product and/or activity.

This is what regulatory bodies are for – to be informed by the available science using a systematic process. Unfortunately, the evidence is often not weighed appropriately and conclusions are often not generated based upon a solid scientific foundation. We end up with an unbalanced non-rigorous approach to the topic.

Let’s look at some of the positions stated in the special and elsewhere.

The Anti-Video Game Position

The investigators interview Dr. Brad J. Bushman, a staunch advocate of the position that exposure to video games causes violent behavior. Dr. Bushman is at the Ohio State School of Communications and co-chairs the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Report on Youth Violence.

Amazingly, Dr. Bushman begins a recent article published in the scientific journal Aggressive Behavior with the following emphatic statement: “It is well known that violent video games increase aggression, and that stress increases aggression.” Yet, in the special, Dr. Bushman acknowledges the nuance of his position by stating that the types of studies performed in this arena are limited by their correlational nature (he articulates the well known adage “correlation does not imply causation”).

The Report on Youth Violence also makes some emphatic statements about the relationship between video games and violent behavior. For example, it states:

[A] comprehensive review of more than 381 effects from studies involving more than 130,000 participants around the world shows that violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure), and aggressive behavior. Violent games also decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others. A meta-analysis of 26 studies involving 13,661 participants found that violent media exposure is also significantly linked to violent behavior (e.g. punching, beating, choking others), although the effects are smaller than for aggressive behavior.

From this statement, it would seem that that there is consensus in the academic community that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behaviors. However, in our brief, informal review of the science, we found other scientific studies that contradicted this position (in fact, the Supreme Court recently struck down on first amendment ground a ban on violent video games). These alternative positions are not included in the review and, therefore, someone reading the review (or worse yet, someone using the review to make public policy decisions) would be misled as to the overall state of the science on the topic.

Interestingly, gun industry advocates have, on occasion, linked video games to violent behavior. A recent piece in Salon quotes NRA Chief Wayne LaPierre referring to some segments of the video game industry as “a shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people…” While the short editorial does not cite the evidence relied upon by LaPierre as a basis for this statement, clearly it would not represent a systematic and objective review of the scientific evidence.

The Pro Video Game Position

According to the segment, the industry’s trade association (the Entertainment Software Association; the ESA) turned down an invitation to comment. However, the journalists were able to gain access to an industry spokesperson, Cheryl Olson, Co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media. According to Dr. Olson, “There is absolutely no evidence that any video game or violent movie for that matter has ever caused a really violent act.”

In the interview, Dr. Olson states that some researchers confuse competitiveness with violence and suggests that this distinction might explain why the link between video games and violent behavior has been posited based on the available scientific evidence. Nevertheless, Dr. Olson never states or lays out the methodology that she uses to come to her opinion that video games are not causally linked to aggressive or violent behavior.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Let’s circle back to Dr. Bushman’s premise: correlation does not equal causation. While one hears this addage repeated quite often in scientific circles (as well as in the courtroom), the precise meaning is not always clear.

When we perform observational studies, we are looking at correlations between two variables. As an example, let’s use appearance of umbrellas (Factor A) and the occurrence of rain (Factor B). Now, surely there is a correlation between these two factors. However, it would be erroneous to conclude that opening an umbrella causes the rain (in fact, it is the other way around). This is the essence of why correlation does not equal causation.

Simply stated, when we study two factors in an observational setting (e.g., rain and umbrellas; video game activity and violent behavior in the real world), there are four broad possibilities as set forth below.

Possibility #1: Factor A causes Factor B

Possibility #2: Factor B causes Factor A

Possibility #3: Factor C causes both Factor A and Factor B

Possibility #4: Factor A and Factor B are Entirely Unrelated

Possibility #1 represents causation. Possibilities #2 and #3 both represent the view that there is a correlation, but that there is no causation. Possibility #4 represents the view that there is not even a correlation between Factor A and Factor B.

So, the question is: What do the data show when playing video games is Factor A and engaging in violent behavior is Factor B?

As we have stated in a previous post, the “gold standard” for studying the relationship between two factors is the interventional, experimental study (often referred to as “Randomized Controlled Trials” in the drug development world). Using this methodology, we achieve information directly related to causation.

Generally speaking, however we cannot randomize children to different video game exposure categories (i.e., assign different groups of children to play different amounts of video games in a given period of time). Therefore, it is not reasonable to assume that there will exist data from this gold standard technique in the video game arena.

Rather, we refer to the scientific studies evaluating video game exposure and violent behavior as “observational” in nature. This is because rather than randomly assigning different individuals to play video games for different amounts of time, we observe how much individuals play video games in the real world. We then infer violent behavior from questions that we ask in the form of surveys. This is why Dr. Bushman appropriately stated in his interview that we cannot necessarily attribute causation from this body of evidence.

Conclusions

Looking at the statements made by the video game advocates and the video game opponents (cited in the special), we see a lack of rigor in evaluating the available evidence. In general, the individuals interviewed offered arguments related to plausibility and impressions about the science.

The problem with using plausibility and impressionistic information to come to conclusions about causation is that we can cherry pick our information rather than accumulate and evaluate that evidence systematically. Thus, we tend to rely upon information that supports our hypothesis and fail to consider evidence that rejects it. This type of activities goes on all the time in public controversies involving risk. My friend and colleague Nathan Schachtman has written about the cherry picking fallacy in his scholarly and informative blog, Tortini.

At the end of the day, if we are to effectively address the question as to whether playing video games is causally linked to violent behavior, it is essential to systematically evaluate the totality of the scientific evidence using well developed scientific tools and methodologies. This approach involves carefully and critically reviewing all of the studies, including the methodologies utilized. Because the data are mostly observational in nature, as scientists we must assess sources of bias and confounding in the studies to ensure that we are not relying on poorly conducted studies upon which to draw our conclusions.

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