Saturday, April 30, 2011

The effect of violent video games

In the April issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Hall et al wrote an interesting review on the effect of violent video games. Unlike the frequently unscientific or selectively scientific "debates" that occasionally crop up in the media (typically after a tragic and violent event), these authors did their best to summarize all available evidence. They also point out that the debate about video games has a number of parallels to prior societal debates such as the debate about comic books from the 50's, including the ideas that comics (video games) teach violence and increase aggression, that anyone in favor of continued access to comics (video games) is biased, and that comics (video games) should be restricted to minors.

The authors start by reviewing the fact that debates about video games often end up in court and they also talk about how prior case law has set standards for evaluating scientific evidence and expert opinion. They introduce two competing theories about video games:

  1. One, that video games teach people to be violent and antisocial and are therefore, harmful
  2. Two, that video games provide a socially acceptable outlet for violence and are therefore helpful or at least have no detrimental effect on society.

For the first theory, there is some evidence that playing violent video games makes people likely to wait longer before being helpful to another person (ie: someone on crutches in need of assistance) but this was also found in people after watching a violent movie. They also found evidence that some people are more likely to play violent games (men and people with low self-esteem or personality disorders) These lines of evidence, however, clearly are not the same as a person being driven to harm another person after engaging in violent media.

For the second theory, the authors first point out that there are many studies which examined similar outcomes to the studies noted above and found no effect and no relationship between video games and behavior. Other studies have found that much stronger predictors of violent behavior include: abuse by others (such as parents), depression, personality disorders, and having delinquent peer influences.

In the end, the authors conclude as many do, by calling for more robust research. They correctly note that "correlation is not causation". Lastly they note that even if there is a measurable effect of violence on behavior, is it a large enough effect to worry about it? Rather, should not our attention be focused on more important and root cause issues like educational disparities, violence and abuse in the home/family, and adequate mental health access?

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