Violent video games have long been a contentious and emotive topic, striking at the heart of parental fears for their offspring and offering easy pickings for politicians seeking to explain tragic events.
Detractors argue they’re a breeding ground for aggression, corrupting the men, women and children that play them and foreshadowing real life events. Others say there’s no proven link and highlight the positive effects playing can have, like increased concentration, strategy formulation and stress relief.
Now a new wave of research is probing the accuracy of previous studies and seeks to redefine the debate. Academics at the University of York say they’ve found “no evidence” that video games make players more violent. Their experiments with more than 3,000 participants concluded games don’t “prime” players to behave in certain ways and showed increased realism doesn’t necessarily translate to greater aggression.
“The learning effects of video-game play may be overstated,” the team including Dr David Zendle wrote. “We did not ﬁnd any evidence that playing a video game led to the priming of the concepts which featured in that game.”
Against a backdrop of ever-increasing popularity of video games and concerns about the impact of screen-time on children, academic studies are likely to become more vital.
Action game Grand Theft Auto V is nearing 100 million in sales and first-person shooter game, Call of Duty, has sold more than 25 million.
The World Health Organisation recently updated its classification of diseases to include video game addiction.
After a deadly shooting in a school in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, US President Donald Trump accused video games of shaping young people’s thoughts.
"The video games, the movies, the Internet stuff is so violent," Trump said at a White House meeting on school safety. “It’s hard to believe that, at least for a percentage — and maybe it’s a small percentage of children — this doesn’t have a negative impact on their thought process. But these things are really violent.”
It’s not difficult to see why such arguments appeal to those seeking to imbue meaning and apportion blame in the aftermath of unthinkable crimes.
In a review of literature published in 2015, the American Psychological Association concluded that playing violent video games did lead to an increase in aggression and a decrease in empathy and sensitivity to aggression. It didn’t find enough evidence to connect the games with criminal violence or delinquency and it also raised concerns about the sample sizes of some of the research.
Quality of previous studies that found a link are increasingly being called into question.
According to Christopher J. Ferguson, Professor of Psychology at Stetson University in Florida, much of the research is poorly standardized, concerns groups that are too small or focuses too much on college students. In his 2015 analysis examining 101 studies, he concluded violent video games had little impact on children’s aggression, mood or grades.
The University of York study focused on the idea of “priming” or the view that exposure to violence makes players more likely to replicate that behaviour in real life. In a separate experiment it investigated whether increasing the realism in a combat game influenced the aggression of those playing.
A different study from other academics published in March, showed no significant changes in behaviour between a group of players who played Grand Theft Auto V daily for two months compared with those who played the non-violent video game The Sims 3 or no game at all.
Even so, both of those studies focused on adults and the York University researchers acknowledged they didn’t capture some of the most cutting edge techniques being used.
All this underscores the need for more work and a deeper understanding of the factors at play.
“It may be the case that playing violent video games really does lead to negative effects on players,” Zendle and his colleagues wrote. “It may well even be the case that these effects are currently leading to societal damage. However, in order to understand what these effects are, and whether they really exist, it is necessary to ﬁrst deal with any misleading evidence within the experimental literature.”