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Do Violent Games Create Violent Players?

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When analysing the claims made by those from various fields with regards to the negative effects of gaming it’s tempting to come to the same conclusion each time. These claims, inevitably presented without evidence (and unable to offer evidence when it is asked for), tend to rely on uncited anecdotal stories of individual cases. Whether it is suggestions that games cause addiction, violence, sexual crimes or murder, we are told about one child, or one individual, whose behaviour appears to be adversely effected while playing games. And the conclusion that’s so tempting to reach for each time is: perhaps this individual has unique circumstances that reach beyond a pathology created by the games they play? But there’s a problem. While this conclusion may appear extremely reasonable given the evidence, it’s still an unproven assumption. It’s just as bad to declare as the unproven assumptions being contested. Which makes a new study (as reported by GI.biz), that finds violent behaviour in response to games to be directly linked to individual predispositions, something of enormous interest.

The study (pdf), by Dr Patrick Markey of Villanova University and Dr Charlotte Markey of Rutgers University, found that,

“Only some individuals are adversely affected by VVGs and that those who are affected have preexisting dispositions, which make them susceptible to such violent media.”

The methodology used was to analyse the data from multiple studies into the effects of videogames on violent behaviour, in the context of a Five-Factor Model of personality, to see what correlation there was between personality types and responses to violent videogames (VVG). This becomes quite astonishingly complicated, involving spherical diagrams that made my brain hurt a bit. But fortunately I caught up again by the conclusion, where they explain the reason for this approach.

“More recent research (e.g., Arriage et al., 2006; Giumetti & Markey, 2007; Markey & Sherer, 2009; Panee & Ballard, 2002; Ravaja et al., 2008) suggests that the notion that all, or even most, individuals who play VVGs will inevitably become aggressive may be unwarranted. Instead, it appears that it is crucial to consider various personality traits of the person playing the VVG when predicting whether or not the VVG will have adverse effects.”

So what are these personality types that appear to have adverse effects from gaming?

“It appears that the “perfect storm” of FFM traits in this context is high neuroticism (e.g., easily upset, angry, de-pressed, emotional, etc.), low agreeableness (e.g., little concern for others, indifferent to others feelings, cold, etc.) and low conscientiousness (e.g., break rules, don’t keep promises, act without thinking, etc.).”

They found that without multiple personality traits of this nature the same negative responses were not so reliably shown. And most of all, that without these traits there was little evidence to suggest any change in violent behaviour in response to VVGs at all. Pointing out that tens of millions of young people play VVGs, without there being tens of millions of episodes of violence in response, they make the comparison with a doctor trying to identify why most of their patients don’t have an adverse reaction to peanuts, while a very few do. They finally conclude:

“It appears that VVGs only adversely affect some individuals and those who are affected have a preexisting disposition (i.e., high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness) which make them susceptible to such violent media.”

Let’s put this in context. The conclusions found by this study demonstrate that a negative response to violence in games is only shown in those with pre-existing dispositions. Something’s already wrong before the game gets to the individual. So let’s quickly look at a recent example.

Two weeks back there was the remarkable story in the Lancaster Evening Post that games were as dangerous as class A drugs, based on statements made by a former lawyer and local therapist, Steve Pope. Pope, in his entirely unproven claims that two hours of gaming is equivalent to a line of cocaine, gave a number of anecdotes to support the fears he holds for gaming. This was one of them relating to a violent response:

“I saw one 14-year-old Preston boy who played on games for 24 hours non stop and had not eaten and was showing signs of dehydration. When his parents tried to take his console away, he became aggressive and threatened to jump out of a window.”

When investigating this a fortnight ago I wrote,

“There are two possibilities here. Gaming itself caused this to happen. Or this person suffers from one of very many different conditions that can cause children and teenagers to behave in excessive, self-harming ways, and used games as part of this. Since all 14 year olds who play games don’t do it for 24 hours and then jump out a window, it seems reasonable to postulate that this individual has a distinct pathology that isn’t perhaps caused by playing a game. I’m being equally anecdotal, of course, but one situation is certainly more likely than the other.”

It seems the supposition – a tempting one to come to if one is attempting to defend gaming, but of course to do so abandons the appropriate rigour and demand for evidence – can now be given weight through Markey and Markey’s findings.

The sad story of the 14 year old boy cannot be used as an example of what gaming results in for players. Instead it demonstrates the negative results of gaming for an individual with a pre-existing disposition toward such behaviour. This is extremely serious, and shows that there absolutely is a need for parents to consider the appropriateness of games for their own children. However, it shows us that the context in which the anecdote was used – an attempt to imply that gaming was the cause of this boy’s condition – is entirely inappropriate and seriously misleading.

It’s important to pay serious attention to the findings of the many studies over the decades that have demonstrated, as shown in this latest paper, that violent games do leave those with a predisposition to violence more likely to commit violence. However, it’s equally important to understand that the violent games do not create violent pathologies in their players, as is repeatedly claimed by many attempting to denounce gaming. All evidence suggests this is a completely false claim, and when violence does appear to have been a result of gaming, then that individual case requires a great deal more scrutiny to learn the unique disposition of the individual involved.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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