Study Finds Violent Games Reduce Violence – Hmmmm

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.


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


  1. majormaple says:

    John Walker, thanks for this. An insightful and well-written article on a tired but persistent issue, and you manage to capture both sides clearly and intelligently. RPS, thanks for this. I’m a huge fan of your site, a wonderful mix of entertaining reviews/previews, acerbic wit, and intelligent articles like the one above. Oh, and acerbic wit.

  2. DReview says:

    This article might be tying broad statistics of crime vs video game sales but it is not mentioning the type of crimes that have shifted in a new modern light. I’m talking about war on Drugs in poor areas vs the war on violent video games.

    There was a spike on crime due to Crack Addiction in urban locations and how policies were training our police to deal with it (it was way too violent). Once that shifted so did the rate of minorities being arrested.

    The minute the mainstream public lost interest on crack and heroin so did crime, and the types of crimes surrounding it are going down. But new crimes and behaviors are forming and going up (we were down to 16 million acts of violent acts in 1996 – 2000 now we are back up to 27.5 million. This is a rough estimate but I did the research)

    If anything the violence now in small rates is worse than the high rates of violence from the 90’s. Because now a 5 year old is a statistic of a violent crime during a school day. I was born in Colombia and every time I go down there people ask if I’m safe, and that I should move back because the US is too dangerous. Crime in Colombia makes sense due to poverty, and yet Colombia is rated as one of the happiest countries in the world. I can link the mainstream media and happiness in Colombia. There’s so much love and happiness in their media, and dancing. No wonder Colombians are so nice.

    New crimes of violence are emerging in the United States and violent video games are some how involved in the formula for this new face of evil we are facing. Aurora Shooting is unprecedented, Newton Massacre is unprecedented.

    I’m talking about random massacres and shootings at malls, universities, high schools, and kindergartens. This type of violence is a new statistic and we need to start shifting our studies of video games, and how they are tailored toward specific images young people are imitating.

    Also public policies are a huge influence on how crime is curbed. For example: Marijuana has reached new levels of toxicity which is highly addictive and creates long term effects of delusional thoughts. (legalize and regulate weed at cheap industrial price, monitor its toxicity levels, and you get rid of that problem; and a shift in gun distribution will also help curb those crimes.)

    We also need to look at how minorities are being portrayed in the media and compare the statistic of stereotypes being mimicked by the young. Because that is also an influence of the future.

    Lets scrap the data and start over. There is definitely an influence here. Violent Video games are not the root of the problem but they sit in the same room of the other problems.

    In my personal opinion, if we legalize marijuana and regulate the THC levels and distribute it at a lower price than black market, we get rid of the marijauna violence. Also as a personal smoker I don’t hang out with criminals, but I’m treated like one, and I’ve found myself in weird situations because I’ve had to go to bad areas and actually hang out with criminals. Also Marijuana now has reached a new level of toxicity and from personal experience I have seen the refer madness and have had delusional panic attacks.

    Second Point is: We need to lower the frequency of violence in the media and we will see a more positive influence in lowering the amount of unnecessary violence in schools. Violent Video games aren’t bad, there’s just too many of them and not enough options for young people.

    I believe those two changes might be able to curb unnecessary violence.

    You fix a problem you create another one! EVERYTHING IS INVOLVED AND WE NEED TO LOOK AT THE BIGGER PICTURE!!!

    Violent videogames fit in the big picture… We lower the frequency of violence in the media, we lower the impact of that one factor of many, and can move on to the next one. (personally I think drug policies still have a worse influence on young that video games. I’ve seen friends drop out because of prescribed addictions.) We need to look at the bigger picture.

    My ultimate conclusion reflecting the title of the article:

    Violent Video games might seem like they are lowering crime rates… But crime rates have been steadily going down because of the stabilizing of the war on drugs from the 90’s. After that a new spike is forming and new forms of crimes are appearing and new forms of violence are being acted in none violent areas. We need new studies to tie in the specifics and find the real truths. It’s just not violence but it’s also the imitation of stereotypes, petty theft, parents, drugs, and war. I can even bring in historical figures and say that they won’t be satisfied with how the present is when they were talking about their dreams.

    ULTIMATELY: its just an illusion seeing the trend of violence going down because of video games. Bluntly I’m going to say that they are linked to the new rise of the new statistics. Which is not mentioned here.

    To finish off I’m going to list other things I believe are reasons there is violence and why video games sit in the same room:

    1) Military Owning Shares in Hollywood and Video Game Industry
    2) NRA being a share holder in gun distribution to the Military.
    3) CIA making our people paranoid/ and also owns shares in Hollywood and Video Games (completely separate from military with different agendas.)
    4) Poorly trained police personnel (uneducated as well)
    5) Not enough teachers in schools in poor neighborhoods
    6) Microsoft buying RARE for 375 million dollars to make sure there’s less none violent games being developed. It’s a fact they bought rare to destroy it.
    7) Xbox being one of the highest distributers of violent games and also one of the highest bought consoles in the US. (it’s blocked on release dates in some countries because of my argument, and some of its games are also banned in some countries (the US should do the same))
    8) Microsoft being called out by Snowden showing that they have had close relations with the latter.
    9) Compare Japan violence rates with US violence rates and violence in media comparisons.