Study Finds Violent Games Reduce Violence – Hmmmm

By John Walker on February 14th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

Please don't let your children see this.

Polygon reports news of a study mentioned in the New York Times that says it demonstrates the rise in sales of violent videogames does not cause a spike in the rates of violent youth crime. In fact, they say, it may even lower it. Hurrah! you might cry. But let’s stop and do some science.

When it comes to this debate, there’s no greater cry we should be emitting than, “correlation is not causation!” At everything. No matter the question. Because as inappropriate it might be when asked if you’d prefer chips or a side salad, it might just permeate the discussion to the point where we can stop both sides from making spurious claims.

This latest study, from the Social Science Research Network (downloadable), is being reported by both the New York Times and Polygon as demonstrating a correlation between a drop in violent crime by youths, and the rise in popularity of violent videogames. And at first glance, that seems like good news. If violent games were causing violence, we’d see an increase in reported crimes wouldn’t we? Without an increase – with a drop, in fact – then surely we can throw the case out of court and assume games innocent?

But no, of course not. For just the same reasons that we mock the idiotic attempts to draw wild conclusions from correlating data to prove that games are destroying our young, we need to take the same attitude to claimed data that might suit us more.

“We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes,” claims one of the paper’s authors, Dr. Michael Ward of the University of Texas, after studying communities and monitoring sales of violent games and incidents of violent crimes. The paper concludes that the sale of violent games sees violent crime reduce by 0.3%.

But this is entirely based around correlation. In fairness, in this study, it’s designed to. The researchers set out to do what they call “tests of external validity”, investigating whether the findings of laboratory studies are reflected in the general population. The laboratory studies cited, as we’ve reported before, have shown short-term minor raises in aggression levels in participants who spend prolonged time playing violent games. Minor raises that would not cause a person to actually become violent (ie. they are such that a person not prone to violence would never behave violently as a result of gaming). And this seems to be the biggest issue with this study. In attempting to investigate if these findings do not apply to society, they seem to have set their sights on the wrong target.

The study measures for increases in violent crimes, alongside increased sales of violent games, on a weekly basis, over a number of years. And they found none. In fact, they found a pattern that seemed to suggest that when a violent game is released, through what they propose as catharsis, violent crimes go down. And thus, they conclude, the two are “associated”. But based on what evidence?

“We calculate that video game unit sales increased by an average of 9.6% per year. Assuming this applies to both violent and non-violent games, our estimated violent video game-to-violent crime elasticity of approximately -0.03 would predict almost 0.3% fewer violent crimes per year due to violent video game sales.”

What’s the difference between this claim, and the so-called Center For Successful Parenting’s daft declaration that television causes murders? It’d sure seem good if the matching lines on a graph meant it were true, but we can’t just assume it is. Because what other factors are at play?

Let me pluck the first that came into my head: Perhaps it’s about money. Maybe when a violent person spends $60/£40 on a violent videogame, they can’t afford to go out at night for that week, so don’t commit crimes on their way home from the bar? That’s just as good a conclusion, isn’t it? The paper’s authors would likely point out that the weeks during high sales of non-violent games didn’t have an effect on violent crime rates. But my argument is now that perhaps violent people only buy violent games. The reason crime doesn’t change during high sales of a non-violent game is because they were all bought by toddlers and grannies, who weren’t going to commit crimes anyway.

This detachment from the laboratory experiments reveals an enormous flaw. Without knowing some actual direct science, without a demonstration that there is a catharsis for a potentially violent person when playing a violent game, we can’t just make this assumption because it seems like it might be nice. (It’s worth noting that the paper does mention the possibilities of misdiagnosing causation, although with the rather flippant example of weather being the influencing cause, but then seems to dismiss it once again.)

And this is why they have the wrong target. When the credible laboratory experiments are demonstrating minor, short-term raises in aggression levels that stop far short of causing someone to become violent, what does this investigation demonstrate by looking for increases or decreases in violent crimes in relation to gaming? None of the papers they cite were suggesting there would be! The effects mentioned wouldn’t cause there to be fewer or more violent crimes at all! To look for “external validity”, they’d have to perform a far more specific and complicated study, following specific individuals and looking for incredible minor changes in behaviour – something that would be almost impossible to do, without relying on the individuals to report their own behaviours.

Further, we should be incredibly hesitant before concluding that their findings are a positive result. Assuming that their unevidenced implied causation were true, what are we to learn from it? That we need to keep a constant supply of violent games in the hands of the violent, in order to lower their chances of committing violent crimes? If anything, trying to diagnose a positive effect of gaming only serves to distract attention away from something that might meaningfully prevent violence in society. Certainly it’s not the responsibility of a research group looking for specific results to prevent others from making a moral interpretation. But it doesn’t help when authors give quotes to the press like the one above.

If you look at the very long-term figures, it could seem reasonable to conclude that violent games haven’t caused an epidemic of violence. Violent crime in the US more than halved between 1994 and 2010, says the New York Times, while of course videogame sales massively increased over the same time. But we have to be careful here too. Yes, draw those two lines on a graph and you have a very satisfying-looking result. But doing so is to pluck two statistics out of the ether, and ignore absolutely every other factor in existence. What we do not know from such comparisons is whether those violent crime figures might have dropped even further were it not for the increase in the popularity of violent games. Any number of other factors could be the cause of the drop in crime numbers, with gaming perhaps inhibiting their fall. Or not. That’s the point – these studies just don’t demonstrate a meaningful result from which we can draw useful conclusions.

These are the same methods used by those who wish to draw spurious connections between a thing they don’t like, and a thing a portion of society doesn’t like. “The rise in the sale of iPhones directly correlates with the increase in immigration…” And they’re not methods that should be embraced when the results lean in what be thought to be our favour, either.

FACTS

And this is all ignoring that they took their sales data from VGChartz.

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141 Comments »

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  1. Nosgoroth says:

    I am clapping here.

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      Vartarok says:

      Who are you.

    • DReview says:

      What bothers me about these articles and studies is how short sighted they are.

      For example, how education games are meant to educate, video games for recreation can also leave some sort of muscle memory for its users and also image memories and admirations.

      I’m talking about how short sighted it is to just look at violence and correlations to make points; and I agree with this article on that angle.

      My next point is why aren’t we looking at other factors such as, young people imitating stereotypes, theft rates, specific locations that already have violence that might have high rates of violent video game sales. Not only are we giving poor neighborhoods more influence to stay in a negative light, but we are giving them fake role models for a worse future.

      The studies are too broad and need to be more exact. Not everyone gets influenced by the media, but it takes that one person to ruin the lives of 100’s.

      While the US is still one of the most dangerous first world countries to raise your children, there are countries that cap violence in their media at a specific point , and violent crimes are extremely lower than ours.

      Also when it comes to gun ownership, standard of living, civil rights, and the police force being educated; those countries also have better policies.

      Lets not exclude the imaginary war on drugs and how Marijuana has now reached a new level of toxicity which is unnatural and highly addictive. If only we had regulated Marijuana from begin with, the youth wouldn’t be entering the real Refer madness that we were fearing since the 1930’s. Lets mix that new weed with someone who is vulnerable that plays violent video games, is unemployed, and you got yourself the next Boston Massacre.

      Or lets mix someone who is depressed, has horrible parents, and plays violent video games, and smokes highly potent weed (which makes people delusional), and has access to buy guns online, and you got yourself the next Movie Theater Shooting.

      I’m not saying that Violent Video games are the problem, but they definitely are not adding to the solutions. The frequency of the type violence in the US is unprecedented in other parts of the world. I’m talking about school shootings!

      Recently we have seen hyper realistic violence in video games, the studies before the 2004 are not relevant.

      There has been a new spike and steady rate upward again.

      We might have fought off the crack wars, but now its the war of the mind.

    • scatterlogical says:

      Oh, well if Fox News says so. I trust them as a reliable and rational source of information.
      They’re certainly never ones to hype and fear-monger.

      • Chalk says:

        Good job that Fox don’t make violent media of any form…

      • ScubaMonster says:

        Problem is, tons of people buy into everything they say like it’s gospel.

      • Tssha says:

        And they’re certainly not overly sympathetic to the gun lobby.

    • AshEnke says:

      And we all knwow that cancer causes cellphones

    • Zorn says:

      Well, watching Fox surely creates violent urges in me.

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      phuzz says:

      You’ve gotta love that joker Murdoch, creating a whole spoof TV channel, and the cherry on the top is giving it the motto ‘Fair and Balanced’.
      wot a laff eh?

      • Tssha says:

        So, he’s messing with the political systems of two entirely separate countries…is he…is he Palpatine?

  2. stkaye says:

    Well done for saying so: mature, consistent and coherent

    As gratifying as it is to see some evidence being thrown in for what I consider to be the reasonable side of this debate, it really doesn’t help us to eliminate other, potentially crucial, variables.

  3. f1x says:

    I’m still amazed that they keep trowing out studies about if violence and videogames are linked directly and in an isolated way

    Like human behaviour is not a complex thing motivated by all sorts of factors and individual situations

    • stkaye says:

      Welcome to the social sciences.

      Sorry: social ‘sciences’.

      • pakoito says:

        ‘fact’

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        RedViv says:

        That media jump on a study right at the first step in the scientific method, a well-founded hypothesis, does really not invalidate the scientificity of the entire field.

        • f1x says:

          I’m no scientist but is here a well-founded hypothesis? or just some random stadistics

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            RedViv says:

            Certainly debatable. Either way, making a story out of a study this early, especially one that is not based on separate specific research and instead correlation, as is quite often the case in these large and mined grounds, is probably a bigger problem. This only serves to ruin confidence in both the journalists and the scientists.

      • dE says:

        It’s like a chemist dropping a mentos into a bowl of water and then coming to the conlusion that water may contain mentos. He goes public with his discovery before his colleagues get a chance to smack him. Media goes bonkers “MENTOS FOUND IN WATER, ARE WE ALL DIABETES YET?”. You go: Lol, chemists soooo stupid, more like “science” amirite?
        Colleagues finally get the chance to smack him for the shitty work he did. Media doesn’t care though, they just found someone that tossed in a teddybear and found out that water may contain Teddybears. “TEDDYBEAR FOUND IN WATER, POSSIBLE LINK TO HAIRSTRANDS IN WATER. ARE WE GOING TO DIE FROM TEDDYBEARFICATION?”.

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          Lambchops says:

          Yup, I don’t think the media exactly have their eyes peeled on Retractionwatch for the latest retracted papers!

          They only manage to do a half decent job if it’s a huge issue (like the autism and MMR jab link) but even then the damage is often already done.

  4. Askeladd says:

    I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself.

  5. DJJoeJoe says:

    Study finds…

  6. darkmouse20001 says:

    The thing is, it’s almost impossible to study, on a wide enough scale to make it representative, the link, if any, between video games and violence. Whilst I quite enjoyed reading the article, almost every gaming journalist piece that I have ever read that pulls legitimate holes in either the methodology used or irrelevant conclusions drawn from these studies, has failed to suggest a viable alternative.

    • darkmouse20001 says:

      Also I think my grammar and sentence structure are suspect this morning.

    • John Walker says:

      Yes, but nor are we required to! We’re not scientists, we’re games reporters. If we see a flaw in a study, we can point that out, and no more need to be able to orchestrate a better study ourselves than we need to be able to develop a better game if we criticise a bad one.

      • darkmouse20001 says:

        I won’t dispute that. Maybe I’ll give the problem some thought myself and come up with an irrefutable met

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        psepho says:

        Indeed: “Can you do any better?” is never a valid rebuttal and is usually a convenient way of shutting down criticism.

      • Vitruality says:

        If you’ll forgive me for saying so, John, that’s a little bit of a false analogy. Nobody expects you to be able to make a better game in order to criticise a poor one, but it is probably expected that you review it with respect to how much better a game it’s actually *possible* to make. Criticising a game because it forces you to interact with it through a screen rather than beaming images directly into your brain would seem a bit weird because no game can do that yet.

        So it is with this. Saying things like “But this is entirely based around correlation.” Well, yeah, this is trivially true, but I find it a little bit of a weird thing to say because so is *all* science. That’s how it works – you notice a correlation between two things and then you try to a) figure out a logical relationship between them and b) eliminate other factors. From flicking through the study they don’t seem to have gotten as far as b), but then I wouldn’t have expected them to. They’re reporting their findings of a correlation and providing one possible explanation for it. It’s not ‘proof’ of anything but then it’s not supposed to be.

        If all you’re trying to say is ‘let’s not get carried away by this’ then I’m with you 100%, but you seem to be criticising the study itself for asserting things that I don’t think it actually does.

        • Vorphalack says:

          ”From flicking through the study they don’t seem to have gotten as far as b), but then I wouldn’t have expected them to. They’re reporting their findings of a correlation and providing one possible explanation for it. It’s not ‘proof’ of anything but then it’s not supposed to be.”

          That is the problem though. Pulling out a potential cause from some loosely related statistics can do some serious damage if it just happens to be wrong. The MMR vaccine was a great example of that in action, as was the salmonella egg scare back in the eighties. I think it is fair to say ”when you are uncertain, keep quiet”. Speculation can be damaging, and a scientific process that allows speculation to be cited as an official source should be criticised.

          • Vitruality says:

            I see what you’re saying, but to my mind it’s not a problem with the science or the scientists, it’s a problem with the way scientifically illiterate journalists and politicians sieze on papers like this as ‘Science says X’ when science doesn’t work that way. I would vehemently object to the idea that the solution to this problem is for scientists to shut up and keep quiet until they’re ‘certain’, because nothing in science is ever really ‘certain’ and because open discussion of ideas is absolutely necessary to the scientific process.

            Take the Higgs Boson, for example – it was first proposed that it *could* exist in 1964. 50 years, masses of work and a gigantic particle accelerator later, we’ve now discovered a particle that we think *might* be it (contrary to what you might read in the papers, there is still some doubt about it). But we would never have gotten even this far if Higgs and his team had decided to keep schtum because they were ‘uncertain’.

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        Rise / Run says:

        So I am a scientist, though not one who is social. Hence the playing of games and reading of RPS. But in any case, the first thing that jumped into my head when I read about this study (in the NYTimes article you mentioned) was not that they are correlating random crap, but that what they [may be] finding a correlation between is a good economy (buying more stuff) and a drop in violence. I’m pretty sure hat’s a well established relationship that even has some causality. I haven’t read the original study, so I’m unsure if that was controlled for / examined.

    • Nate says:

      Well, my thought-about-it-for-thirty-seconds way of evaluating this is to find 2 million kids that want free video games, split them randomly, and email half of them a copy of a violent video game. Look them up ten years later and count the violent convictions. If you see a significant difference, that suggests that increased access to violent games (the main difference between your samples) was the reason.

      This is potentially expensive (but potentially not, because video games aren’t expensive to make copies of). It requires more patience than most social scientists are known for. It can be hard to look people up, but at least in the US, violent convictions are a matter of public record, so you don’t have to find all of them, just the convicts. You’d be creating some volunteer bias (are you going to find 1 million parents who don’t mind if you send their kid a violent videogame?) You could probably do it with participants who are of age, to get around that.

      Even in social science, causality can be established. It’s just that the scientists frequently lack the time, money, and motivation to do so.

  7. Milky1985 says:

    “And this is all ignoring that they took their sales data from VGChartz.”

    This is something I have never understood, everyone seems to dis VGCharts data but then provides no counteracting data other than “its wrong and always is”. I don’t think i have ever seen someone say “its wrong, this is why and here is the counteracting data”, maybe its because companies like to keep this close to their chest (which to me screams, crap things are going downhill).

    Is there anywhere else other than vgchartz where us mere mortals can see any sort of data, if it wasn’t the ONLY place to get the sodding stuff we would have something to say “yes its wrong”. At least those guys say where they get their data from and admit that its estimations at time :/

  8. Lawful Evil says:

    Until this is published in a respected peer reviewed journal, we might as well forget about it.

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      I am not convinced that peer review is truly the keeper of legitmacy its sold as. Lazily copying from the wiki:

      Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of Journal of the American Medical Association, is an organizer of the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, which has been held every four years since 1986. He remarks,

      There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.

      Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, has said that:

      The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability—not the validity—of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.

      • Lawful Evil says:

        Peer review is still far superior to everything else people use to assess scientific works.

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          Bluerps says:

          Yes. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have.

          • SuperNashwanPower says:

            The Cochrane Collaboration have a rather interesting approach to it I believe. It is at least set up to detect bias and reporting errors etc

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            Lambchops says:

            This. It’s open to abuses and can’t stop sheer negligence but on the whole it does a decent job.

        • Strangerator says:

          Peer review produces some extremely dubious science. It is only meant to shut down criticism and force things through without recognizing the right of the entire scientific community to pick apart any study or claim. Peer review limits the number of people who need to rubber stamp a study to a select few within the same field as the one who conducted the experiment. If you don’t think scientists within the same field have formed peer review mutual agreements or even organized bribe structures (or even biased “group think”), you have an overly high estimation of the infallibility of scientists. When you consider that actual policy shifts often hinge on these peer reviewed studies, you also have to take into consideration the taint of politics. Oh and also the funding process can taint the motivation of the studies.

          It only takes one critic to reveal the false conclusions, illogical structure, and correlation/causation swapping in any particular study. So to increase odds of survival for bad or “expedient” science, we short circuit the approval process and give all power to a few people. Our current system canonizes some real tripe and releases it in the wild where it is ingested as fact by the general public. People seriously overestimate “peer review”. It’s just a short-cut between bad science and bad policy.

    • dE says:

      It’s not even just that. This whole thing is based on a discussion paper. Folks need to understand that Discussion Papers are unfinished Reports, meant to generate discussion within the scientific community. They’re meant to be dismantled and torn apart, so the researches can improve upon them.

      For example, this is, as far as I could find, an earlier version of the paper:
      http://www.zew.de/en/publikationen/publikation.php3?action=detail&nr=6273

      Compare it to the one above and you’ll notice several key differences. They ditched entire tables, reworked their methodology, reworded several of their phrases and cut entire sections. This thing isn’t even done, it’s probably not even as much as glancing at print. Why is the media even on it? It’s unfinished. Not yet done. Work in Progress. It just so happens to pop up everytime the whole videogame debate shows up.

  9. JonasKyratzes says:

    This is an excellent analysis.

  10. Crosmando says:

    This is like how Japan has like the lowest rates of rape in the developed world, yet like every hentai in existence features some big-eyed girl being coerced or raped, sometimes by tentacle monsters…

    • frightlever says:

      You just opened a can of worms there.

      What? No, not a pun. Really.

      There are a bunch of reasons why Japan might have the lowest REPORTED incidence of rape in the developed world, but cartoons aren’t likely to be one of them.

      • solidsquid says:

        This is kind of the debate though, if violent games can act as a vent for people with violent urges, why couldn’t some types of porn have the same effect on those with related urges. You are right that it’s unlikely to be the only factor, but it’s possible it could be a contributing one

        • dE says:

          The keyword being reported.
          No really, it’s a cultural thing and a rather bad one. It’s not that rape doesn’t happen, it doesn’t get reported for reasons of cultural stigma, submission and a whole basket full of gender issues.

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    Gap Gen says:

    I know you’re being flippant at the end, but it’s worth pointing out that the entire x-axis in the left hand plot covers maybe two data points in the right hand plot. So unless you’re just being silly with the whole article (which would be fine), the figure at the end might undermine your argument, because the figures don’t show any correlation between migration rates and iphone sales at all.

    Oh, and I do agree that the biggest effect people talk about is a long-term impact of violent media on individuals, but it’s an interesting result nonetheless, if they can prove a consistent effect after the release of every multi-million-selling violent game, independent of other events.

    • Askeladd says:

      Just hit the interpolation button and the fools won’t notice. My program makes my own data points. Study is done.

    • John Walker says:

      Yes they do. The region of the graph for 07-09 on both shows the same slope.

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        Gap Gen says:

        Two whole points!

        But yes, I get your point, and there are only so many hours in the day for finding reliable correlations with no causal link (unless it was your point that this study is pulling correlations out of statistical noise).

  12. coffeetable says:

    Note that the SSRN is a preprint repository. Stuff uploaded there hasn’t been peer reviewed. This means that while most every good paper gets posted there, not every paper posted there is good.

    See: the arXiv or viXra and crackpot papers

  13. povu says:

    Thanks for this article RPS. Just as we should be sceptical about studies finding that videogames cause violence, we should be just as sceptical to studies finding the opposite, even though that suits us better.

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    amateurviking says:

    There is some pretty compelling evidence that the drop in violent crimes reported pretty much globally, is down to the continued reduction in use of tetraethyl lead as a fuel additive.

    Links coming once I can find the papers buried as they are in the depths of my reference manager.

    As a side note, the problem I have with a lot of this kind of research is it seems to be either inadequately controlled or hopelessly biased (in the scientific sense rather than through any ulterior shenanigans).

  15. inch7706 says:

    The number of shark attacks throughout the year correlate with the number of ice cream sales. It’s obvious that sharks love ice cream.

  16. Jamesworkshop says:

    Personally I don’t think there is any appreciable link outside of the fact that gamers spend soo much time indoors and they can’t be in two places at once and that would reduce violent crime.

    I don’t think aggression is even a bad thing of itself much like how anger is a perfectly justifiable emotion for humans to feel, we have these things for a reason, Everybody is capable of violence and for a good reason it keeps us safe, what humans are we talking about if we say violent/non-violent people, we say certain people are “Angry” but which person can we name that has no concept of anger or never feels it no matter the context.

    Violent conflict is endemic in gaming but how much of it is criminal, most almost always revolves around military figures for instance, we don’t confusing killing with murder when talking about a war so why making inaccurate comparisons to inter-personal violence like a bar fight or a mugging to space engineers vs the spiky space zombies.
    GTA is huge but is pretty much the anomaly in gaming, they get released quite slowly and few make copies of it with their games, hell the GTA games were a heavy inspiration on the LA Noire game and that was you playing a law enforcer.

  17. Garg says:

    Great article.

    The drop in violent crime could be due to anything, it has even been suggested it is due to the outlawing of leaded petrol http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13799616

    The problem is that with the softer sciences there are so many inter-relating systems that it becomes impossible to model anything. Designing rigorous experiments is a real challenge.

  18. brulleks says:

    And now a quick glance at the currency cat

    • John Walker says:

      I am actually haunted by that phrase. Every time I hear Radio 4 news say, “And now a look at the currency news” my brain pipes up “currency cat”. EVERY TIME.

    • f1x says:

      So, Euro = germany?

      • Dozer says:

        Yep. The Euro is a rebranded Deutschemark, essentially. Either that or it’s an old image.

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    UW says:

    As you say, this issue stretches far beyond just video games. It’s prolific in the media, even to some degree in documentaries. I have reached a point where I am incredibly skeptical of everything I read without researching it myself at length (Which I don’t have the time to do on every subject I come across). Even the so-called “intellectual” media outlets perpetuate this. News is almost entirely about sensationalism, taking select quotes and using them out of context to either exaggerate or completely misinterpret a point. This is the age of disinformation.

  20. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Thanks for this balanced view at the issue, John. Seriously. A great read. And leaves me without anything more worth saying.

    And I’m happy that at least on this issue I can find an echo with your position. I’d hate the feeling of being always on the other side of the fence when it comes to the social aspects to gaming. It may not matter to you of course, but as a reader it’s important. Trust me on that. Finding some concordance amidst the disagreements, helps validate our presence here and alleviates the pressure of being constantly in disagreement with someone who is the source of reading material.

  21. JohnH says:

    I wonder what the error margin is on these statistics? I bet it’s higher than 0.3%. :P

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    Lars Westergren says:

    Good article. There is of course not just one factor we can point to with regards to something as complex as increase or decrease of violence and crime in society, but I think lead has sailed up as one significant contributor in research the last decade.
    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline

    Personally though, I think it clear dutch art is a major contributor to increased violence in painted Cocker Spaniels.

  23. lijenstina says:

    Causation and correlation two big problems with any social study and any science at all (albeit the environment variables can be better controlled in an experiment in let’s say physics that in a society that has millions of people and where margins of errors are much higher).

    Also, there is the perception of the level of violence through media. For instance, the murder rate can go down, but in an attempt to make more views the coverage about them can go up which makes people think how there is more violence now compared to the past.

    • Sheng-ji says:

      You’re not wrong, but physics as an example of being able to control every parameter? Remember the uncertainty principle and the observer effect come from physics!

      • lijenstina says:

        environment variables can be better controlled in an experiment in let’s say physics

        You’ve jumped from it can be better controlled to controlling all which is a strawman :) Of course, physics has errors of measurements nobody can deny that, just it has more possibilities of making and conceiving an experiment in a controlled environment which is not always possible in a society.

    • Jim Dandy says:

      The reportage of violent crime and the incidence of violent crime are completely out of whack. As an example: ‘approximately half of crime news in New Orleans focused on homicide in 1981, while only 0.4% of the total crimes committed were actually homicides (Sheley & Ashkins, 1981).’

      Sourced from this quite interesting blog:

      http://dartcenter.org/content/violence-comparing-reporting-and-reality#.URzlq6X7AYs

  24. Hazz-JB says:

    It’s worth mentioning that this does show that anyone can play this game, and it dilutes the importance of the findings in the opposite direction which are also based on dubious correlation.

  25. NathanH says:

    I remember reading a wonderful article which elevated this sort of nonsense to an art form. They’d gathered data about car use and bicycle use over the last 50 years or so. They fit simple models for car use as a function of time and bicycle use as a function of time. Fair enough. Then they eliminated time to get car use as a function of bicycle use. Fair enough, I guess. Then they argued that therefore if we were to increase bicycle use we would reduce car use. Yes, and apparently also SEND US BACK IN TIME!

  26. noodlecake says:

    I’m a pacifist and generally see myself as a bit of a hippie. I worry about everyone. When I get messages on dating sites from guys saying “hi sexy wanna meet up” I can’t help but respond with a long message explaining where they are going wrong because the notion that they will continue to do this and be single and lonely forever upsets me. I’m vegetarian and empathise with most living creatures in some level.

    I also love running elderly people over with lorries on GTA IV in slow motion and kicking homeless people off walls and generally being pretty evil and sadistic.

    If I ever got into a fight in real life and ended up punching someone I would probably be a crying weeping mess and feel terrible about myself.

    I am not a violent person. Doing ridiculously violent things in video games is fun, especially when it’s in something like GTAIV which has some of the best physics and procedural animation in any game ever, making the violence more fun. I can make the distinction between watching something comically violent in a video game and going “Woah!” and watching something violent happen in real life.

    Real life violence = shocking and traumatic. Video game violence = enjoyable and amusing.

    It’s one of the few situations where I would ever use the term “liberal media” in a negative way because I am extremely left wing… But video game violence is okay! There is no level of violence in a video game that we should worry about because it’s not real, and it tends to be the left that have a problem with this kind of thing.

    • Jim Dandy says:

      Noodlecake, I’m not sure I’m with you on this:

      ‘There is no level of violence in a video game that we should worry about because it’s not real, and it tends to be the left that have a problem with this kind of thing.’

      Would you agree that ultraviolent video games (ie Manhunt) are probably not good for kids to play? If so, why?

      I’d also hesitate to single out lefty journals as the sole source of anxious hand-wringing about these issues. The righties tend more towards purple-faced apoplexia, but that’s just a style thang.

      It’s a piece of piss for a lazy journalist to freak out an average non-gamer by showing them 30 seconds of out-of-context GTAIV footage. It’s a lot harder to explain to someone who doesn’t know (or care) about gaming what kind of context can make simulated granny-bashing not only OK but kinda fun.

      There are plenty of morons/children out there who played GTAIV without any awareness of or interest in Rockstar’s grand satirical vision. In a very real sense those people were playing a granny-bashing simulator.

      I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the GTA series, but I’m not sure that they’re absolutely healthy.

  27. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I believe the real problem here is the idea that a study can offer a relationship between violence and video games (be it positive, negative, existing or absent).

    Statistical data cannot replace proper science. And confusing science with statistical analysis has been a real problem in modern science and one of the reasons we are experiencing an unfortunate decline in popularity.

    The push, the focus, should be in the proper application of the scientific method in the study of violence. What it is, what triggers it, how it manifests itself as a biological entity. The World Health Organization is very clear in that we know next to nothing about violence.

    When President Obama called in for independent studies, he should have called in for scientific research instead, and maybe we would have been spared these inconsequential studies. Of course this is also a hint for any researcher out there, and that particular field of research has been an ongoing effort for more than a century. But clearly the understanding of what may answer the question of violence and video games is being misguided when statistical studies are considered evidence.

    I cannot finish my little rant without saying that I’m not necessarily removing all value from statistical analysis in areas of scientific research. But they serve only as introductory elements to the prime and proper application of the scientific method. The question of whether video games cause violence is a cry for a Theory of Violence. Statistical data can be collected to help guide that research and define the type of tests and methods to be applied. It can never, ever, alone support the formation of theory. In this or any other scientific field.

    • wisnoskij says:

      Scientific research cannot be done into psychology or if a violent person is likely to purchase a violent video game and then do less violent crimes because he is busy playing the game.

      Research into biology is only useful so far, and will never tell up how a group of people will act in the real world.

      • Mario Figueiredo says:

        Actually, you’d be surprised.

        You should read more about the developments in our understanding of the biology of the brain. I suggest perhaps A. Damasio for a lighter reading (maybe start with Descartes’ Error), and he punctuates all his works with enough bibliography for when you wish to dig deeper.

        Human behavior is far more predictable than you may be lead to believe and has its causes in biological manifestations. Naturally we are far from understanding every little detail (and there’s something unnerving about that idea). But here we are discussing the wider concept of Violence. And that’s comparatively a much easier and approachable task.

        Anyways, my point is that it is exactly by studying violence that you can understand its mechanisms and its causes. You cannot study the issue of violence and video games without first understanding violence.

        • wisnoskij says:

          But you would not want to bias the statistical result with knowledge. Yes, studying biology is part of the solution, but it exactly the lack of knowledge in medication trials, for example, that makes the results significant evidence.

          Not only do you not need to know anything about biology or the pill you are doing a study on, you should know as little as possible, at least about the pill.

          So, yes, studying the biology of violence can give us loads of awesome and informative theories, but the only direct evidence of what a video game does to society is to do statistical studies of society.

          • Mario Figueiredo says:

            “but the only direct evidence of what a video game does to society is to do statistical studies of society.”

            Ugh! :(

            Is all I can say. Really. Anything I had to say, I said on the first post above. That thought is in a nutshel exactly what’s at the core of the problem of how people perceive science today and what best describes the concept of bad science. You couldn’t have actually said it any better. Unfortunately.

          • dE says:

            I reckon you’d love to chat with Max Weber, were he still alive. He wrote something about the progression of rationalisation and how we could now – in theory – calculate and determine everything, essentially disenchanting the world. Know when he wrote that? 1912. That’s a hundred years ago. And here we are, still firmly believing that science can explain everything, if only it is done right. In a merry go ’round, we’ve been fighting to find out who gets to be the right kind of science ever since.

            So much time has been wasted on this utterly ridiculous, childish banter about who may sit on the pedestal. There’s fighting within disciplines, fighting between disciplines, fighting between entire sciences. And each and everyone claims to be and to actually possess the one ultimate truth. For a so called rational society, supposedly based on facts, all sciences are one big fucking Disney Land of Make believe (my truth is better than yours!), at times even moreso than Religion Land.

  28. wisnoskij says:

    Actually, this is some pretty ingenious statistics. You cannot make longitudinal society wide studies of video games and violence, as we already know the trends and we knows that there are far too many other variables for that to yield anything.

    Taking many tiny slices like this proves that there is a CORRELATION.
    And in this case a video game release is not a big multi variable event, it is not going to effect a whole lot other than the people buying the game and is not going to be effect by many external factors itself. So it is logical to assume this is a CAUSATION.

    It does not matter if the causation is because violent video games appeal, in part, to the violent and after they purchase them they cannot economically go out or are too busy to go out or their violent tendencies are sated. Every single case you can come up with is finding an alternative to real world violence, if our assumption of a direct causation is true. And how could it be possible that violent video game release dates are caused by a third variable that also cause reduced violence rates at the same time?

    I know you are used to making fun of improperly interpreted statistics, but assuming the other graphs look like GTA4 this is how statistics are supposed to be done. The one problem they might not have been accounted for is if these violent people make up their their lost violence after the time range of these studies; But it should not have been too difficult to see if the tie between releases followed the average they would expect or not. Also, this study would of course have to prove that this negative spike was significant and not something that happens all the time.

    All of which is ignoring the effect of the advertising, and other real world things that accompany a significant release. But if seeing an advertisement that contains violence about a just released video game can reduce violence, then that is still evidence of violent media reducing violence.

  29. Calabi says:

    This is how most studies in science are done though. They correlate this with that, and see how the data tracks. Its how they come up with these studies claiming cancer is caused by all kinds of things.

    People have been trying to work out for years why crime in the US has dropped so dramatically. There are lots of theories lead poisoning(through a compelling correlation), abortion being available, prisons etc.

    This is some evidence to prove that an increase in violence does not correlate with videogames. Its a start, you need more evidence, more varied to adequately prove it, but its a start. If its accepted into a journal and peer reviewed then it definitely is.

    And I’m pretty sure you could tell whether without violent videogames, violence would have been reduced more, by the blips in the data, as violent videogames are not released all the time.

  30. bill says:

    It’s late and I’m too tired to read in detail. But isn’t what they are really investigating a lack of causation?

    While it’s hard to prove causation, it seems much easier to infer with confidence a lack of causation. If sales of violent games have increased dramatically, and violent crime hasn’t increased at all, then that would imply a lack of a link. Unless there is a massive third factor at play that cancels out the rise due to violent games. Which is possible, but rather unlikely.

    Anyway, I thought iphones had ended vandalism. So that’s good.

  31. Shazbut says:

    Great stuff

  32. Zarunil says:

    Soooo…. 7 / 10?

  33. Dozer says:

    I’m going to use those last graphs to persuade UKIP supporters to campaign against Apple.

  34. Premium User Badge

    psepho says:

    My wife did a narrow longitudinal study on violent games effects. Her conclusion is that violent games definitely correlate to me becoming loud and obnoxious. But I think the study might be invalidated by her ‘switching my PC off at the wall’ methodology.

  35. mcindex says:

    Actually, this study isn’t just based on correlation – they make an honest attempt to get at causality. You just need to know a little about econometrics to understand it:

    “To address possible endogeneity of game releases with unobserved determinants of crime, such as
    the coincident release of non-gaming violent media, we instrument for weekly game sales with
    game characteristics, such as time a game has been on the market and experts’ reviews of each
    game in our sample using Gamespot, a video game review aggregation website.6 Our
    identification strategy requires game quality to be uncorrelated with the unobservable
    determinants of crime.”

    Read up on 2SLS here –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_variable

    It’s not perfect and carries its own assumptions, but it’s a large step away from “simple” correlations.

  36. ix says:

    What it does show is that games don’t cause huge rises in violent crime. All the other bullshit in the paper is just padding. (I note it’s a working paper)

    Yes, your point is correct, it could actually be causing a minor increase while something else is reducing violent crime (I’d hazard a guess: demographics?). The whole point is that you can’t really show any causative links at all, nor is the correlation particularly large and in your face. To the point that you can actually claim video games reduce violent crime as well as you can claim they increase it.

    I’m actually surprised you took the time to spell this out, since the new york times points all this out pretty well. But apparently reading comprehension is dead and every gaming blog on the planet is running with this story.

  37. HyenaGrin says:

    I don’t think this is quite the right way of looking at it. You’re quite right, John, in pointing out that correlation doesn’t equate to causation, but you have to look at this study within the scope of the larger debate.

    Studies which aim to show that videogames increase violent behavior tend to do so on the micro scale; they look at individuals and their short term response to playing violent games. They show that violent games can increase aggressive behaviour and reduce empathic response to pain in others. These are true – though misguiding, as you can easily achieve the same results immediately following many other activities that society has deemed acceptable.

    What this study is doing is looking at the impact of games on a macro scale. It is not enough to look at the micro scale, it is important to take into consideration what these individual changes appear to do within the context of society.

    The debate is really asking the question; should we pass laws to limit violence in games, or at least exposure to violence in games. In order to say yes we must demonstrate that games have a significant and reliable impact on violent behaviour within the context of society.

    What you seem to be protesting here is the inability of the study to show on an individual level that games have any effect whatsoever. While that is a valid concern, I’m not sure that was ever the point. While this new study does not help us determine the actual effect of games on individuals, it does a pretty good job of pointing out that regardless of individual impact violent games do not appear to be having a significant effect on overall violent crime.

    At this point it doesn’t really matter whether violent games can potentially lead to violent crimes in the rare individual. Where it comes to creating laws to govern games, it makes no sense to pass laws limiting freedom of expression in games over something which appears to have no tangible effect on society.

    In other words, you can claim that games have a psychological impact on individuals, but you cannot demonstrate that this psychological impact is any worse, or manifests any more apparently, than any other experience that is deemed socially acceptable within society.

  38. Baresark says:

    Nice. This is one of the better documented studies I have seen. And out of all the so called “Scientific” studies out there, this one takes a stance explaining the shortcomings in available data and the shortcomings of their methodology. It’s gratifying to see that. My only concern with any of these studies either against or defending violent video games is they don’t yet have any way of explaining the exact mechanisms themselves. There are a couple of running theories on both sides but they all fail to take into effect the exact mental reasoning (either conscious or subconscious) as to why it would either prevent or increase the rate of violent crimes. One day, thirty or forty years down the road there will be books full of studies, and maybe even a few that can explain their hypothesis. This one is based off of statistical data which is unfortunately the closest thing we have to truth at this point. Nicely written article, food for thought.

  39. datom says:

    Err. I love John Walker’s articles but… not this one.

    OK, the problem is here that your target is the ‘research’. That is not the right target. The research, following my first glance, is valid. The problem is the New York Times, who are misrepresenting the research question. They should be the target for your scorn.

    What you ask of the research is problematic – it needs to include laboratory experimentation?!?! Research doesn’t work like that – these researchers posed themselves a manageable research question (Does violent crime correlate to the purchasing of video games?) and found the answer to be no.

    What you seem to be asking is someone writes a MASSIVE UBER-STUDY THAT PROVES A CLEAR LINK OR NOT BETWEEN VIOLENCE AND VIDEO GAMES. That is never coming. A desire for science to work like that is exactly why newspapers do such a bad job at communicating scientific messages. And thus the article repeats the mistake of the New York Times, in its hunt for a true answer. The best you will get is 1,000 mini-answers that pulled together speak to kind of truth.

    It also probably isn’t worth pointing out that immigration has stablilised over the last five years, while Iphone sales have increased markedly. ;)

  40. ScubaMonster says:

    Sad thing is, studies like this will be completely ignored by the US government, politicians, and pundits in their quest to find the link between gaming and violence. They have already made up their minds, that much is obvious. Any studies conducted will be biased in their favor just so they can have the “proof” they need to pass legislation. Our government is fucking stupid.

  41. Voidy says:

    Viconia from Baldur’s Gate 2. The woman who had been buried alive and literally clawed her way to surface to get revenge on the would-be undertakers. You can’t but fall in love with someone so savvy about their manicure.

    It’s weird to admit, but dating her in-game also prepared me for some of the most complicated and enjoyable (but not necessarily romantic) relationships I’ve had in my life.

  42. deadly.by.design says:

    Let’s just cut to the chase: Do games reduce misogyny?

    • Premium User Badge

      RedViv says:

      “Research links Online Gaming and Misogyny: Shocking results!”

  43. robby5566 says:

    One moment trailers for games like The Last Of Us has RPS writers up in arms about being too violent and too realistic for society, lecturing us how BlOps is forcing kids to turn into mindless, racist murderers, the next RPS is all “Oh hey videogames reduce violence!”. Kind of getting mixed messages here.

  44. MentatYP says:

    Well, I have seen a lot more immigrants with iPhones around here lately. QED.

  45. Sugoi says:

    Well written and well considered.

    Indeed, even if this study says things we want to believe, that doesn’t make it good Science. If we’re going to be mature about this, we need to hold all research to high standards, and it makes me extremely happy that you’ve done so.

    And that VGChartz dig was just delicious icing on the journalistic cake. :)

  46. Geewhizbatman says:

    Though for me this helps to give a possible explanation for why the gaming community is so aggressive, violent, and reactionary overall.

    In the same way that a possible explanation for why violent movies released in cinemas show a drop down in violent crimes during their showing is that violent offenders are more prone to seek out violent movies and there for, ya know, kind of busy for at least the time the movie takes to watch in the theaters. So, instead of going out and committing violent crimes, people prone to that behavior go to video games and gank noobs all day long. Still better than ganking noobs on a RL street, but blows either way.

    In conclusion–People are awful regardless of the medium they use to express themselves. YAY! :D

  47. Josh W says:

    I have an alternative explanation for this potential caual link; playing grand theft auto takes a long time!

    My suspicion is that people playing it are staying out of trouble because they are two busy playing the game, as with just about every after school program or entertainments program designed to reduce crime.

    Be interesting to compare the dip to the statistical properties of the time spent playing the game, combined with it’s purchasing.

  48. manveruppd says:

    Well said. Thank you for being the voice of reason once again!

  49. stuffisthings says:

    So I have a couple problems with this analysis, in addition to what other commenters have mentioned (and it is overall a good attempt for a non-social scientist). Issues of correlation vs. causation and the unpredictable interplay of factors that drive human behavior are indeed major issues, but that is the work that social scientists do. This study has essentially the same purpose as an experiment like the Large Hadron Collider: if they found a correlation between violent games and violent crimes, THEN it would be worth designing a good study to determine whether that relationship was CAUSED by the violent games. If they fail to find such a correlation, it’s an indication that maybe any theory about a link between violence and video games is flawed (just as not finding the Higgs Boson would have meant our models of physics are flawed).

    The main conceptual problem with this study, then, is not its failure to investigate causation but the confounding factor that violent crime rates have been in steep decline for the last two decades (key phrase: “Correlations between video game play and crime may or may not reflect a causal relationship if the unobserved determinants of crime are correlated with the determinants of video game play.”) However the researchers did, in fact, make a good attempt at using instrumental variables and a fairly granular data set to cut through that noise — the fact that they find a significant relationship with violent games but NOT non-violent games is actually a rather important and salient indicator that SOMETHING is going on here.

    Also, they do not “ignore every other factor” — any time a statistical analysis like this is conducted, “every other factor” is included in the error term Et which is then checked for correlation with the independent variable (this is what they mean when they say they “address this potential endogeneity of video games” by instrumenting with time on market and reviews.) They also did a number of other more technical statistical checks for robustness and spurious results due to seasonal factors.

    In short, it is a well-designed study and most of your criticisms would apply to pretty much any work in any branch of social science, economics, epidemiology, political science, etc. THAT SAID there are some potential problems with the instrumentation because they seem to have focused mainly on factors that would influence both game-playing and crime-committing, such as free time or bad weather, rather than the characteristics of individuals who have a propensity to both buy violent video games and commit violent crimes. Plus the lack of data on the geographic distribution of games sales makes it hard to control for fixed effects that have a major impact on crime rates (such as being in a city). Getting the “wrong” sign (or one you didn’t expect) is often an indication of a bad instrument, and I don’t think even the strongest proponent of the catharsis theory would have expected such a significant DECREASE in crime.

    This classic study on the relationship between gun ownership and crime goes into some detail on how instrumental variables should work in this kind of research (he used subscriptions to gun magazines as an instrument for changes in gun ownership down to a very granular geographic level). In fact, if we still had video game magazines that anybody actually read, you could probably design an almost identical study around them!

    Also, I can’t resist linking to my favorite bizarre correlation of all, the link between penis size and economic growth. (They did the analysis as a lark, but then found the correlation was stronger than most statistical relationships you see in economics. Puzzler!)