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APA study establishes violent games as "risk factor" for violent behaviour

Meta-analysis finds definite association with aggression, but no causal relationship

An extensive report from the American Psychology Association, focused on the collective analysis of several other previously conducted tests, has said that the consumption of violent video games is one of many 'risk factors' in the establishment and perpetuation of aggression, although it did not conclude that there are direct causal links between violent games and violent behaviour.

The 49 page report is a reassessment of several "meta-analysis" reports previously published on video gaming and violence, essentially a study of studies of studies. By looking at the way that these meta-analyses were conducted and judging their continued relevance and accuracy in the face of more recent evidence and context, the study hopes to clarify any potential connection between playing and aggression. Of particular note when re-examining the work done by the APA's games task force in 2005, says the paper, was the development of significantly advanced technology since, including the more accurate graphical representation of violence and the increased immersion offered by display and controller technologies.

That the study is another re-evaluation of previous evidence is telling. The video game violence debate is one which refuses to be settled, with various studies falling resolutely on bothe sides of the defence. The US government has also flip-flopped on its position. In addition, developers themselves have prevaricated on the ramifications of their work. Of course, the games media has contributed its fair share to both sides of the story. It's certainly worth bearing in mind that this study itself is a result of a collective plea from a number of psychologists to the APA to re-evaluate its previous findings, which were accused of "methodological flaws, ideological biases, and conclusions drawn from inconsistent or weak evidence."

Stating its aims at the opening of the paper, the APA pulls some interesting statistics, citing figures which claim that 90 per cent of American children (or 97 per cent of adolescents) play some sort of video game, and that 85 per cent of all games include some sort of violence. It then goes on to note that gaming habits are often scapegoated by the media when violent atrocities occur, with news reports often blaming them for desensitisation or even identifying them as training regimes for gun related crimes. These links, which have occurred in the mainstream media since the Columbine massacre in 1999 and at almost every violent tragedy involving children in the US since (a depressingly commonplace occurrence) have, unsurprisingly, lead to an association in the minds of the public between these horrific acts and the video games played by their perpetrators.

"As a consequence of this popular perception, several efforts have been made to limit children's consumption of violent video games, to better educate parents about the effects of the content to which their children are being exposed"

"This coverage has contributed to significant public discussion of the impacts of violent video game use," the report reads. "As a consequence of this popular perception, several efforts have been made to limit children's consumption of violent video games, to better educate parents about the effects of the content to which their children are being exposed, or both."

Of course, it being on the news doesn't make it true. The report goes on to note that whilst these accusations have certainly coloured popular opinion, the causal link has always been open to scientific debate, despite it making its way into legislature in various forms.

Looking back at previous analyses, the group considered whether previous research was equally applicable to children, having largely been conducted on the over 18s, whether those effect were exponential, whether genders reacted in the same way, whether levels of consumption were a factor and how video games fitted with the range of other social, biological and environmental factors which could affect levels of aggression. Contents and context of the game played, including whether violence was justified or explained by plot were also examined, alongside the method of interaction, to see if motion controls etc made any significant difference. Overall, the study seemed confident that a link could be established.

"The link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior is one of the most studied and best established. Of the 31 studies reviewed, 14 investigated the relation between violent video game use and aggressive behaviors. Aggressive behavior measures included experimental proxy paradigms, such as the administration of hot sauce or a noise blast to a confederate, self‐report questionnaires, peer nomination, and teacher rating of aggressiveness.

"The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and heightened aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive affect and reduced prosocial behavior empathy and sensitivity to aggression"

"A positive association between violent video game use and increased aggressive behavior was found in most (12 of 14 studies) but not all studies published after the earlier meta‐analyses. This continues to be a reliable finding and shows good multi‐method consistency across various representations of both violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior. The findings were also seen in a range of samples, including those with older child, adolescent, and young adult participants. They also showed consistency over time, in that the new findings were similar in effect size to those of past meta‐analyses.

"The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and heightened aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive affect and reduced prosocial behavior empathy and sensitivity to aggression."

Whilst the study acknowledges that other factors are certainly at play, and there are likely to be correlations between video game consumption and aggression which stem from other sources, these caveats are not enough to render the relationships established by the studies as irrelevant. In conclusion, the paper recommends increased openness and availability of information in order to better inform decision makers, from ratings bodies to parents, of the choices which they're making.

"On the basis of our review of the literature directly addressing violent video game use, the task force concluded that violent video game use has an effect on aggression," reads the paper's summary. "This effect is manifested both as an increase in negative outcomes such as aggressive behavior, cognitions, and affect and as a decrease in positive outcomes such as prosocial behavior, empathy, and sensitivity to aggression. Although additional outcomes such as criminal violence, delinquency, and physiological and neurological changes appear in this literature, we did not find enough evidence of sufficient utility to evaluate whether these outcomes are affected by violent video game use.

"Interpretation of the finding of an effect of violent video game use on aggression must be embedded in a context that asks, 'What cost is necessary to produce (or prevent) the effect?'"

"To the extent that other known risk factors of aggression are examined as covariates in this literature, these factors do not account for all of the variance in the link between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes. The task force has determined that the evidence is sufficient to indicate that these effects appear in older children, adolescents, and young adults; however, there is a dearth of studies that have examined these effects in children younger than age 10 or that have attempted to examine the developmental course of the effects. In addition, the task force is concerned that the samples examined in these research studies are not representative of contemporary U.S. demographics. Because many studies do not even report-much less analyze-sample characteristics such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or, to a lesser extent, gender, potentially vulnerable populations have not been examined."

In terms of advice, the findings are cautious, urging a proper assessment of the means necessary to ameliorate the effects against the potential worth of any such action, also asking the question of how exactly that cost should be measured.

"Interpretation of the finding of an effect of violent video game use on aggression must be embedded in a context that asks, 'What cost is necessary to produce (or prevent) the effect?' Costs to eliminate the effect might be measured in the creation of more informative ratings, media literacy education, or dollars. Reasonable people can disagree about the value placed on these costs weighed against the benefit of preventing the effect, within the constraints of law and public health. Our society regularly takes action to limit harms before legal sanctions are applied and in public health before action is taken.

"The findings reported here should be regarded as scientifically sound. The next step is for stakeholders (e.g., legal system, public health and other professional practitioners, the video game industry, parents) to decide what actions should be taken in light of the effect and the costs and benefits of each option. One course of action for APA that this task force unanimously endorses is to provide public education about the results of scientific inquiry in this field so that various stakeholders can make informed choices."

Whilst the APA is confident in its findings linking violent games and aggression, it also makes an important distinction between aggression and criminally aggressive or delinquent behaviour, for which it says there is not enough evidence to establish a causal relationship to violent games. "Scientists have investigated the use of violent video games for more than two decades but to date, there is very limited research addressing whether violent video games cause people to commit acts of criminal violence," said Mark Appelbaum, PhD, task force chair.

"Scientists have investigated the use of violent video games for more than two decades but to date, there is very limited research addressing whether violent video games cause people to commit acts of criminal violence."

So if you've read all this way hoping for a definitive conclusion, either about the APA's findings or the debate at large, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. As interesting as the report is, and undoubtedly it will provoke many a well argued response, it really doesn't do much more than place another small weight on one side of a constantly swaying scale. If you were to ask me to come down on either side of it, I'd not be able to offer much more than this: look after your kids. If you're worried they might be developing violent tendencies, maybe limiting their consumption of violent games might not be a bad idea, but there's probably a much bigger picture for you to look at whilst you do it. That said, I'm not even a parent and I still tense a little whenever my dog goes near a toddler, so what do I know.

As for whether it's the industry's responsibility...I don't think so. Making sure people are informed about the nature of the content they're buying is key, and a better understanding of how it affects us is incredibly important, but it shouldn't be allowed to dictate reasonable expression. Of course, the inclusion of the word reasonable in that argument renders it ultimately useless, built on foundations of such subjectivity as to be endlessly debatable itself. Having staunchly defended gaming from hysterical headlines for many years, I still think reading studies like this is incredibly important to maintain balance. Don't become blinkered, whichever side of the fence you fall on.

"The American Psychological Association is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members." the full paper, which makes for an interesting read if you have an hour to spare, may be found here.

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Dan Pearson

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