A new study by Christopher Ferguson at Texas A&M University once again showed no causal link between violent game play and actual overt violent or aggressive behavior. Ferguson is a name you should know, as he is one of a handful vocal academics who look beyond laboratory effects studies and who look towards social and personality factors as the main causal factors for aggressive behavior, instead of video games.
In this study, a final sample of 302 youths aged 10 to 14 were drawn from a representative sample in a city with a Hispanic majority (97% Hispanic). 75% of them played video games regularly, 40.4% of which were violent games and 20.9% were M-rated games on the ESRB scale. 7.3% reported to have engaged in at least one criminally violent game in the last 12 months.
Results showed that current depressive symptoms were the largest predictors of actual aggressive or violent behavior. Video game violence however, was not a predictor for this behavior. Read on if you want a more thorough breakdown of this study for more insight into how these kinds of studies are performed.
The games part
For this study, Ferguson used the ESRB ratings as a scoring mechanism to rate games (6 = Adults Only, 5 = Mature, etc.). He then let a couple of research assistants play a sample of 10 games for about 45 minutes each, and let them rate the violence level on a 5-point scale. These assistants were not heavy games and hadn't played the games before.
The games in question were: Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, Call of Duty 4, F.E.A.R., Bioshock, Race Pro, Baja: Edge of Control, Sonic Unleashed, Spiderman 3, Silent Hill: Homecoming and Lego Indiana Jones. That's a pretty well-rounded sample of games. Keep in mind that studies can sometimes take a year before they are published, so these games were not necessarily "old".
The assistants rated these games independently, but scored them almost the same way. More interestingly, they showed a 98% correlation with the ESRB ratings, providing some support for the rating system in the process. A similar method was used for TV shows with the Parental Guidelines System, which provides ratings for TV shows, and similar results were found.
The children listed their 3 favorite TV shows and games and gave an estimate of how often they watch TV or play games. They were tested at two time periods to control for differences between periods.
A number of scales measured factors like family environment, family conflict, negative life events and others. I won't go into detail to what they contain exactly, but let's run through them to give you a clearer picture of how such a study comes to its conclusions.
To measure the behavior of youths, the validated (that means it's good) Negative Life Events instrument was used. It measures things like neighborhood problems, how much time kids spend with their family, and how many of their peers are delinquents.
The Family Environment Scale is another reliable scale that can distinguish between functional and dysfunctional families dealing with things like substance abuse problems, physical abuse and psychiatric problems within the family.
A standard self-report questionnaire was used to measure depressive symptoms among children. It's your usual depression scale where people have to check statements like "I feel sad".
The child's primary guardian filled out the Conflict Tactics Scale, which measures how partners treat each other in a relationship (i.e.: using aggression during conflicts). This scale is used a lot in family violence studies. They also filled out the Child Behavior Checklist, which shows whether a child's behavior may be psychopathic in nature.
Finally, a bullying scale with statements like "In the past month I have forced another kid to do something they didn't want to do" was included.
That's a lot of scales! But unfortunately, you are often tied to that problem when doing a study like this. You can't just use three scales with one group and three scales with another, only to make some ridiculous claim afterwards. This range of used scales does show that violent game content is not at the center of the design. Ferguson's previous studies already provided evidence that aggressive personality is a key predictor of aggressive behavior, with family violence as a predictor for that personality trait.
A small amount of people who may act out violent behavior tends to have a reason for that. Media just offer a stylistic way to act it out "at best", it's not a causal factor that turns normal people into psychopaths overnight or over the course of 10 years.
Other than 75% playing games, 40.4% of games being violent and 20.9% being M-rated, boys were also more likely to play violent games than girls although it was not a huge difference. Neither the age nor the GPA of the child correlated with video game "exposure". And neither did the amount of hours spent playing games predict their GPA. Too bad no child will have made it this far to read that, eh parents?
Crime and rule-breaking
Based on results from the Negative Life Events scale, only 22 kids (7.3%) reported they engaged in violent crimes, most commonly physical assaults or using force to steal objects or money (e.g., "That's a nice lunchbox you have there, i.e.: it's mine."). 52 kids reported they engaged in at least one non-violent crime in the last 12 months, most commonly minor shoplifting and thefts on school property.
Parents and children reports for rule-breaking were proven to be consistent. Although children did report higher levels of rule-breaking than their parents did. Then again, we always did more stupid things when were kids than our parents caught us doing, right?
There was a correlation between violent game exposure between the two measurements at the two time periods. Ferguson does state that: "... however, the effect size was small, allowing a considerable amount of variance across time in video game violence exposure, probably as children put away older games and pick up new games that are different in genre and violence content."
While correlation is never a predictor for actual behavior -- just like driving a red car doesn't predict you are a douchebag -- exposure to video game violence proved to have no correlation with actual rule breaking, aggression or crimes. However, a small correlation was found with bullying (18%). Correlations don't predict anything though.
Although video games showed another analysis found no predictive effect on any measured behavior, while some other factors did. Depressive symptoms were a strong predictor of aggression (beta = .66) and rule-breaking (beta = .62). Peer delinquency and interaction between depressive symptoms and antisocial personality traits both also had a predictive effect, although it was a smaller one (beta = .12 to .15 range). Just imagine this beta to be like a multiplier of sorts for your total score; a psychopath will hopefully have a bigger multiplier based on his psychopath scores than you will.
A strong attachment with family was actually a negative predictor for violent crime, meaning that having a close family helps a bit with your child not becoming a delinquent. And although bullying was significantly (as in: true for 95% of the cases) correlated with video game violence, this was not a predictor for bullying. Instead, depressive symptoms and antisocial personality were once again the main predictors for bullying.
All in all, no predictive effects were found for violent games. Instead it's almost as if the people who act out violence are like actual human beings, instead of some passive sponge lifeform that just absorbs violent media and reacts like an automaton. Depression and personality, previous aggressive or violent behavior and a person's upbringing tell a clearer story about what makes people act out violently.
Of course you can always choose to not measure those things, but instead only measure a person's reaction time on pressing a button that you're told will release a loud noise blast to another participant. And if they do it faster and longer after playing a violent game, then obviously violent games turn our children into serial killers. Which in a nutshell summarizes the "violent games = violent behavior" studies that made it as far as a Congressional hearing.
It's exactly because some (methodologically unsound) experimental studies do find negative effects for violent video games, that we shouldn't just go "duh" or "Captain Obvious" whenever a study shows that people instead act pretty normal; something we may think should be common sense. Unless you disprove it, it can slowly trickle into policy or bills. We've seen it happen with previous "violent game bills".
Researchers like Ferguson and Cheryl K. Olson (author of Grand Theft Childhood) are among a small but growing group of researchers who do proper studies on video game effects. They are out there, but what major news channel wants to report on a not-scary story these days? Disproving a horror story about violent games is just not as exciting as telling parents that video games are addictive like crack, or that the Columbine shooter played the same games their kids played.
Good thing we have the Internet.
Ferguson, C. (2010). Video Games and Youth Violence: A Prospective Analysis in Adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 39
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