Video games have progressed in complexity and scope faster than any other medium of multimedia entertainment, and with these advances, they have also faced an increasing amount of scrutiny from lawmakers, news media, parents and scientists alike. Indeed, many of today’s most popular titles bear very little resemblance, if any at all, to their predecessors. Games like Atari’s Pong (1972) and Namco’s Pac-Man (1980) are not only different in look and feel, but also in interactivity and levels of immersion. In recent years, new genres of video games like the first person shooter (FPS), and combat-fighting oriented games have emerged and gained popularity with youth and adolescents. Grand Theft Auto III (see above left, 2001) is one such FPS, in which the player can control an avatar who has the ability to violently fulfill his every whim in a virtual world, be it shoot guns, kill pedestrians and cops, steal cars, or break any law. The popularity of Grand Theft Auto is astounding, with “worldwide sales [of Grand Theft Auto] approaching $2 billion.” This in turn has increased the levels of concern surrounding what effect and what impact these games are having on the youth of today. But is there an actual cause for concern? U.S. Congressman Joe Baca thinks so. In his January 7th, 2009 press release, he introduced the Video Game Labeling Act of 2009, legislation which would mandate that all video games “with an Electronics Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating of Teen (T) or higher be sold with a health warning label,” a label similar to those found on cigarettes. The basis for this legislation comes from certain scientific studies that “continue to show a proven link between playing violent games and increased aggression in young people.” Congressman Baca is not the first, either, to propose legislation, which seeks to limit the distribution or packaging of violent video games. The major problem, however, with Congressman Baca’s legislation, and other legislation like it, is that it represents one side of a hotly contested debate, without taking the time to adequately define the terms being used. He cites “scientific sources” as his evidence, but what exactly they are saying?
At the very first, there exists an unaddressed issue of the difference between the types of aggression and aggressive behavior. Depending on which frame or lens through which one views these terms, they can numerous applications. Physiologically, aggression may be related to heart rate and skin conductance. Neurologically, aggression could be viewed in terms of increased brain activity in the amygdale. Behaviorally, aggression is defined as the behaviors that cause psychological or physical harm in another individual. The problem that arises from these definitions is that certain studies will choose to measure one or the other in relation to video games and provide it to the public as definitive proof. An example this is well-illustrated in a study conducted at Michigan State University, which, incidentally, was also cited by Congressman Baca as scientific proof. The experimenters used an fMRI machine to track the neural patterns of thirteen individuals while they played a violent first person shooter video game. They overlaid the measurements of neural functions onto the video game itself to track specific instances of activity. One of the main findings of the study “suggests parallel neural patterns between highly immersive virtual environments and real experiences”. However, as the researchers themselves point out, there is very little to link the increase in brain activity to an increase in actual physical aggression. The disconnect between neural measurement and actual effects only shows how the term aggression is sometimes taken out of context to fit the specific needs of individuals and organizations. A second, related issue is with the conclusions being drawn from some of the scientific studies, much like the previous study. This problem has to do with the ideas of correlation and causation. In the field psychology, it is well known that correlation does not imply causation. If a variable, like physical aggression, increases with, and correlates with a second variable, like playing time of a violent video game, it is not possible to definitively state that the video game was the cause of the physical aggression. There may be other factors at work that produced this result.
Another study Congressman Baca cited as scientific evidence, which was also very widely sited in popular news media outlets, was a longitudinal correlation study conducted in both Japan and the United States and published in November, 2008. Per CNN, it looked at how “children and teen’s video game habits at one time point related to their behavior three to six months later.” The study used self-reports of the children, as well as behavioral reports from outside sources, to determine the correlation between violent video games and actual behavioral aggression. While CNN states that in every group, “children who were exposed to more video game violence did become more aggressive over time than their peers who had less exposure,” a closer inspection of the results leads to less conclusive evidence, with a high potential for confounding variables, or variables which could skew the overall data. John Timmer from Ars Technica addresses some of these problems when he noted that there might be procedural issues, such as the fact that “the three surveys targeted different age groups with essentially no overlap, used different measures of violent game content, different measures of physical aggression and performed the follow-up surveys at different time periods.” He adds, “the authors attempt to treat the data as a single unified body when they perform a pathway analysis in an attempt to demonstrate a degree of causality…their decision to do so doesn’t appear to be well justified.” Furthermore, the experimenters noted that the overall weighted correlation rate was only r = 0.28, which by their own words, gives “pretty good evidence,” but not conclusive or statistically significant evidence linking the two together.
Both of the aforementioned studies fail to fully address the problem of correlation and causation, as well as the relationship between neural activity and actual physical behavior. One of the more difficult questions which need to be answered is are we overlooking individual differences in relation to video games and aggression? Do aggressive children actively seek out violent video games, or do violent video games produce aggression in children or adolescents? There is a lot of evidence currently circulating academia which seems to lend itself to providing a link between video games and aggression, either neural or physiological. However, there needs to be more work done in terms of clearly defining terms and not drawing conclusions from facts which do not clearly exist, as Congressman Baca may have done. Furthermore, Cognitive Daily writer Greta Munger proposed that most adolescents can handle one or two risk factors for aggressive behavior, like developmental issues surrounding adolescence and hormones, and environmental issues, but that these risk factors need to be examined in the context of video games to determine the true extent of the influence of violent video games on aggression. Finally, as USC Professor Karen Sternheimer noted in an article from USA Today concerning the blame of video games on aggressive and homicidal youth, “It was a tragic and, very fortunately, rare event and it was discouraging to see that the conversation often started and stopped at video games.” If violent video games are being intensely scrutinized, perhaps other modes of mass entertainment, like television or movies, need to be examined as well.