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Another Day, Another Alarmist Warning Against Violent Games

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Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a powerful statement about the effects of “virtual violence” on children that media psychologists are describing as disingenuous.

Arguing that U.S. children are “exposed increasingly to ‘virtual violence’ in first-person shooter games and other realistic video games,” the AAP is calling for stricter parental regulation of children’s exposure to violent media. Titled “The Evolution of Virtual Violence: How Mobile Screens Provide Windows to Real Violence,” the new statement claims that “there is broad scientific consensus that virtual violence increases aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors.” To solve the apparent problem of violent games, the AAP is asking the entertainment industry to stop glamorizing weapons, gamifying human death with rewards and portraying violence without its emotional effects on victims. They also ask pediatricians and parents to together discern a proper “media diet” for children, a suggestion that would be uncontroversial if it was not founded on flawed premises.


The implied premise of the new statement, that there is a causal or even correlative link between violent games and long-term aggressive behavior, has been repeatedly debunked over the last several decades, though some reports do allege otherwise. Many of the testing methods used to measure aggression in scientific studies are only able to examine the short-term effects of violent media; there have been very few longitudinal studies that look at how violent games and movies affect people over an extensive period of time. As a result, the research on violent games’ long-term effect on real-life behavior is inconclusive at best.


The AAP’s statement cites a number of psychologists who have spoken out against violence in games. Its most cited source, Brad Bushman, has shown that subjects who play violent games experience short-term boosts in antisocial behavior. The AAP’s statement, in turn, notes that “the linkage between virtual violence and aggression has been well supported and is robust.”

In fact, reports demonstrating a causal or even correlative link between media and long-term behavior do not exist, which the same AAP statement notes later on: “It is true that an experimental, real-world study that links virtual violence with real-world violence has not been conducted.” Short-term boosts in angry behavior or feelings are not the same as aggravated assault, a conflation that appears misleading to experts on media psychology who spoke to Kotaku today.

The lead author of the AAP statement did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

Villanova psychology professor Patrick Markey studies video games and mental health. His research has concluded that games do not promote violent crime, but his real issue with the AAP report is its flawed portrayal of scientific consensus. “My biggest concern about the statement is that is presents a false picture of what scientists think,” he said. “Most researchers don’t think there’s any link between real-world violence and games.”


James Ivory, a professor of communication at Virginia Tech, agreed, adding that he has “no problem with the idea of limiting kids’ access to violent media for moral reasons or just as a precautionary thing. But this is a statement that overstates the severity of known effects of violent media and the degree of consensus about the effects of violent media. I think it’s a little problematic.”


On the Huffington Post, Christopher Ferguson, Stetson University professor of psychology, rigorously critiqued the AAP’s new report. He described the new statement as “strangely defensive and frustrated” and “distort[ing] the research evidence.” Ferguson refers readers to a 2013 letter written to the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violent Media. There, 230 media scholars, psychologists and criminologists spoke out against the APA’s “current policy statements on media violence including video games as misleading and alarmist.” And, again, three years later, here we are.

The question of why the AAP would stoke the violent-media panic trashfire is difficult. Markey suggested competition for funding as one reason, noting that controversy can help scientists stand out and potentially add urgency to their need for grant money. When competing for grants with cancer research and climate change, researchers who study media can feel less important, Markey said.


Ivory, for his part, agreed: “When you study the effect of media, it’s hard to be important if you say you don’t know.”