Violent games - link with aggression but not criminality?

Ella Rhodes on an APA report.

A report from a task force of the American Psychological Association has found that although violent video game play is linked to increased aggression in players, there is insufficient evidence to link such games with actual criminal violence.

The APA Task Force on Violent Media carried out a review of research literature published between 2005 and 2013, which included four meta-analyses that reviewed more than 150 research reports published before 2009. The group then conducted a systematic evidence review and a quantitative review of the literature published between 2009 and 2013.

A consistent relationship was found between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression. Mark Appelbaum, Chair of the task force, said in a statement that there was very limited research into whether these violent games lead to acts of criminal violence, while the link between violence in video games and increased aggression in players is well established. The report stated: ‘No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently. Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor.’

In light of the group’s conclusions the APA has called on the industry to design video games that include increased parental control over the amount of violence the games contain. The APA’s Council of Representatives adopted a resolution at its meeting in Toronto to encourage the Entertainment Software Rating Board to refine its video game rating system to reflect the levels and characteristics of violence in games. The resolution also urged game developers to design games that are appropriate to users’ age and psychological development.

The report pointed out limitations in the research, including a failure to look for any differences in outcomes between boys and girls who play violent video games; a lack of studies that have examined the effects of violent video game play on children younger than 10; and not enough research examining the games’ effects over the course of children’s development. Appelbaum added: ‘We know that there are numerous risk factors for aggressive behaviour. What researchers need to do now is conduct studies that look at the effects of video game play in people at risk for aggression or violence due to a combination of risk factors. For example, how do depression or delinquency interact with violent video game use? While there is some variation among the individual studies, a strong and consistent general pattern has emerged from many years of research that provides confidence in our general conclusions.’

In 2013 around 230 media scholars, psychologists and criminologists signed an open letter to the APA expressing concern over the generalisation of findings in lab-based studies onto the general population, as well as the use of meta-analyses which can be misleading. They wrote: ‘As a simple matter, boys both consume more violent media and are more aggressive, so small correlations may reflect gender effects. Naturally, other variables may well explain small correlations as well. From our observation, considerable research data bears this belief out.’

- Further reading: Christopher Ferguson’s article 'Is video game violence bad?'; and 'The civilisation of virtual worlds'.  

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