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American Psychological Association Continues Bad Science Relating To Video Game Violence

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Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the open letter was in response to the APA’s latest publication. It has been updated to be more accurate.

Despite a coherent effort by academics to stand up to the bad science about video games being spread by the American Pyschological Association, they have released another study making all the same mistakes. Unfortunately, the APA has a history of taking a deeply skewed and unscientific approach when it comes to data on this subject, as we reported in 2011. In 2013, 230 academics and scientists signed an open letter stating their objection to the claims being made by the APA, calling them “misleading and alarmist”. It didn’t seem to make a difference.

This new publication by the American Psychological Association is awfully familiar. It is, they say, the culmination of a taskforce’s efforts to review hundreds of studies and papers on the subject published between 2005 and 2013. They state,

“The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”

A statement that’s awfully familiar to anyone who remembers their 2005 policy statement entitled “Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media”, a wildly peculiar publication that wholly ignored studies that found no links between gaming and aggression or violence, but only focused on those claiming positive results. We explored its strange ways in 2011 when Dr Carole Lieberman made outrageous and wholly inaccurate statements to Fox News, and then attempted to use this study to defend her entirely false claims about Bulletstorm. At that time we said of their study,

“The entire article of studies absolutely ignores all the contrary studies – something that seems wildly ethically unsound. It’s certainly relevant to gather together studies on the subject, but such selective choosing implies something else is afoot.”

When we went through studies cited by the APA, we discovered many were completely irrelevant to the claims they were making, not from scientific studies (one was a parents guide to Christmas shopping!), and even – astonishingly – unpublished papers. It’s from this perspective that we approach any findings from the American Psychological Association at this point.

So, it seems, do an awful lot of psychologists, criminologists and media scholars, who banded together in their hundreds to tell the APA to just bloody stop it. Well, they put it slightly differently. They phrased it as,

“…the scientific evidence is inconsistent and that the APA should adopt a neutral stance rather than maintaining policy statements.”

Of course, like the 230 names behind this letter, we at RPS enormously welcome any and all studies that attempt to research links between gaming and violence. As we’ve repeatedly said over the years, if there’s a genuine link, we’re the first people who want and need to know. It’s a matter so serious that we must demand the best and most rigorous science, and we’re critical of bad science whatever the conclusions.

This open letter also points out that the 2005 study we found disturbingly flawed was scientifically improper. They say,

“We express the concern that the APA’s previous (2005) policy statement delineated several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence. Research subsequent to that 2005 statement has provided even stronger evidence that some of the assertions in it cannot be supported.”

They go on to describe the APA’s policy statements as “ideological”, and say that such publications can “serve to stifle scientific innovation and new theories and may inadvertently serve to increase publication bias, particularly given concerns about both disregard for null findings and researcher degrees of freedom.”

In fact, just as we concluded in 2011, the 2013 open letter observes that the APA is leaving out studies that do not find a link between gaming and violence, or those that fail to replicate the claims of previous studies. As such, they say, “we will not have a full view of the data in this field.” They go on to point out a number of flaws in the methodology used in the papers the APA did see fit to include, especially the ignoring of key variables that could explain results, and the unscientific assumption that laboratory measures of behaviour have perceivable effects on real-world behaviour. This latter concern has certainly been the undermining factor of even the most rigorous studies that we’ve read, which acknowledge the flaw themselves, but still do not propose any further study to explore the matter.

The unimprovable letter goes on to make the rather colossal point that youth violence is at a 40 year low in the United States, despite the mainstream success of gaming, and has only gone down further since the claims made in the APA’s 2005 statement. They of course don’t suggest that gaming is in any way responsible for the drop in violence, but make the observation that the low figures suggest the APA’s conclusions do not reflect a credible health concern. In other words, as gaming becomes increasingly ubiquitous, you’d expect to see some real-world manifestation of their outlandish claims. The open letter continued,

“Fundamentally, we are of the belief that the task force has a tremendous opportunity to change the culture of this research field to one which is less ideological and open to new theories, data and beliefs. So too, should scholars feel free to argue for existing theories. We believe that the field is beginning to undergo theoretical and data-driven changes that challenge previously held beliefs. Only with the freedom for data to sort itself out can this field progress… Policy statements based on inconsistent and weak evidence are bad policy and over the long run do more harm than good, hurting the credibility of the science of psychology. We are certainly happy to help the Task Force however we can in support of their important work.”

The letter is so superbly worded, a Trojan horse of politeness, containing some damning statements. We tend toward the more direct route of just saying that the APA are scaremongering and spreading misinformation, which not only does no good for the public’s understanding of the subject, but also makes the whole scientific community look bad. And worse, such obvious bias makes people far more prone to dismiss the subject, rather than keep an open mind about such an important topic.

So it is an enormous shame to see the APA continuing on, ignoring these pleas, once again publishing findings that ignore studies that dispute the agenda, and conclude that violent video games are a “risk factor” that, when combined with other such ambiguously identified factors, “lead to aggressive or violent behaviour.”

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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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