I’m a psychologist, game designer, and researcher studying how people interact with games and how games impact players. I also make games that explore mental health issues and analyze how mental health is represented in games. I love talking about the psychological complexities of designing games and how games can be used to help us understand ourselves. But when it comes to talking about psychology and games, I often spend most of my time answering the same question over and over: Aren’t video games bad for you?
This is a question that has been asked for decades, and before Pac-Man ever said his first “Waka-waka,” the same question was asked about pinball, the radio, jazz music, and even the written word. For the last few decades, our technology-related boogeyman has been video games. Video games, especially those with violent content, have had a bad rap almost since the very beginning. And although many of the concerns about violent games stem from sensationalized media coverage, psychologists have added fuel to the fire by making big claims based on little evidence.
A Brief History of Violent Video Games
Controversy over violence in video games can be traced back over forty years. Death Race, a black and white, coin-operated arcade game, holds the honor of being the first video game to start a media panic in 1976.
“A new coin‐operated driving game called ‘Death Race’ that puts players behind the wheel trying to run down humanoid figures on a television screen is apparently catching on in amusement parks around the country—to the outrage of the National Safety Council.” – The New York Times, December 28, 1976, Page 12.
Arcade flyer and gameplay capture for Death Race, a game advertised as being about “chasing monsters” (not “humanoids”) and which caused a media panic in 1976. Image source.
The rhetoric against violent video games spiked in 1992 with the release of Midway’s competitive fighting game Mortal Kombat.
“Cold blooded murder is making Mortal Kombat the most popular game in history. Kids relish their victory and their bloody choice. Should they pull out their opponent’s heart or simply rip his head off just to see his spinal cord dangle in a pool of blood?…[Mortal Kombat] is expected to sell 2 million copies at $50 a pop. A horrifying possibility for parents…The bottom line, parents wonder if kids can separate fantasy from the real thing.” – FOX, 1993
In response to national media coverage of Mortal Kombat and games like it, Senator Joe Lieberman called a press conference condemning violent video games. He stated, “We’re not talking Pac-Man or Space Invaders anymore…. We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.” A Senate inquiry followed, but due to a lack of evidence connecting violent video games to real-life violent behaviors, senators could only ask the game industry to create a rating system.
The 1999 Columbine High School shooting radically raised the media profile of violent video games. Both gunmen had played the video game Doom, a fact that was highlighted as a possible contributing factor to the shooting. Linking killers with their use of violent video games continues to be commonplace in the aftermath of tragedies such as the Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Aurora shootings. In fact, there’s no evidence of a link between video game consumption and gun homicide.
Psychology and the Violent Video Game Debate
In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) — the leading professional and scientific organization for psychology in the U.S. and a major influencer of attitudes about controversial psychological issues — released a policy statement outlining its stance on violent video game content. The APA stated that exposure to violent video games increased aggressive thoughts and behaviors and decreased helpful behaviors.
Although the recommendations outlined in the statement fit into the social zeitgeist around violent games at the time, the research from which the conclusions were drawn was, at best, weak and inconsistent. The lack of solid evidence was the reason the 1993 Senate inquiry on violent games ended without legislative action. Unfortunately, the APA did not demonstrate the same respect for good research.
In 2013, the APA created the Task Force on Violent Media to review current scientific research on the impact of violent games. The task force’s review was supposed to ensure that the conclusions and recommendations made in 2005 reflected modern research.
Timeline: Controversy over violent video games has raged on for decades.
A lot changed in the field of psychological games research between 2005 and 2013. Before 2005, the vast majority of published scholarly research had focused only on the relationship between violent games and aggressive behaviors. Around 2008, psychologists began examining factors other than violent content that could be responsible for the relationship between violent games and aggression, such as competitive versus cooperative gameplay or family violence. Academic journals like Criminal Justice and Behavior, Psychological Bulletin, Psychology of Violence, and Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking started to publish studies that found no relationship between violent games and behavior, something that was almost unheard of prior to 2005.
The 2013 task force was an opportunity to change the narrative around video games and correct past mistakes. A group of 228 psychologists and media scholars wrote an open letter to the task force noting the decline in societal violence since video games entered the scene and voicing concern about overstating the evidence and drawing broad conclusions from a field of research that was so divided and with such inconsistent findings. The letter closed with an offer to support the task force in their research. However, according to The Huffington Post, over the next two years no one from the APA even contacted this group of field experts.
In 2015, the Task Force on Violent Media doubled down on the APA’s 2005 policy statement and announced they had found “a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive affect and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and sensitivity to aggression.”
Issues with the Task Force on Violent Media’s 2015 Report
Outlets like The Huffington Post, Newsweek, Rock Paper Shotgun, Pixelkin, and Kotaku published reponses and close analyses of the 2015 report following its release, and I recommend giving these a read. Critics called the report, among other things, “dead on arrival,” “nonsense,” “junk science,” and “truly disappointing.”
Indeed, there were several issues with the 2015 report, including the biased way studies were chosen, the quality of the studies, and the questionable objectivity of the task force members (more than half of them had conflicts of interest).
One significant issue with the task force’s report was the flawed way in which they defined “aggressive behaviors.” Completing word fragments with “aggressive” words (e.g., completing MU_ _ER with “MURDER” instead of, for example, “MUTTER”) is one example of how “aggression” was measured in studies the task force reviewed.
Should filling in letters to complete a negative word really be called an “aggressive behavior?” At worst, it’s an “aggressive thought process,” and even that may be a stretch. However, that is one behavior upon which the task force based their findings of a “robust” link between violent game content and aggression.
Including questionable experimental methods like these in their review was exactly what the task force was warned about in 2013 by the 228 psychology, games, and media scholars. It is why the scholars urged the task force to refrain from drawing broad conclusions and offering recommendations based upon unreliable data, as was done in 2005.
It’s Complicated, But We’ll Get There
Human behavior is complex. We often are blind to our own biases and seek out the truths that fit with how we see the world. Simple explanations that, on the surface, seem like common sense are easy to digest and can even feel comforting. It’s easier to scapegoat video games when senseless violence occurs than to accept that we might never know exactly why someone made the choice to end others’ lives. However, making broad statements based on weak and inconsistent research does more harm than good. It obscures the true causes of aggressive behaviors and ultimately hurts the credibility of psychological science.
Here’s what I know based on years of playing and designing games and reviewing and contributing to games research:
- Violent video games don’t make people act violently. But that doesn’t mean that a game’s content is appropriate for everyone, and that includes any online social content a game might offer. Be sure to talk to your kids about safe online practices.
- It is okay for kids, teens, and adults (yes, adults too!) to play video games. As with anything, games should be played thoughtfully, with balance and healthy limits. A study out of Oxford University found that moderate screen time might be better for teens’ well-being than none at all. Check out the iThrive Games Resource Center and blog for specific ways games can support positive mindsets and skills like empathy, curiosity, growth mindset, and kindness.
- It pays to play games with your kids. If you are concerned about the games your kids are playing (and even if you’re not), play the games with your kids. Let them teach you how to play. Ask them open-ended questions about the games (what’s it about, what do you like about it, what do you think of what that character just did?). You will learn a ton about the games and why your child enjoys them. And most importantly, you’ll be spending quality (yes, quality!) time together.
- The info you need is at your fingertips — check ratings and reviews. Commercial games are assigned an age and content rating by the ESRB, the equivalent of PG, PG-13, R, etc. ratings for movies. A quick search of the ESRB games guide will tell you everything you need to know about what’s in the game and who the game is appropriate for. You can also check out family-friendly sites like PixelKin or Common Sense Media for game reviews and information.
- Look into “indie” games. Many independent game developers make engaging games with positive social messages, opportunities for cooperative play, and themes related to helping others or improving the world and its many systems. Check out the Games for Change website, home to over 150 games that engage contemporary social issues in a meaningful way.
What do you think — are we as a culture making progress towards less alarmist conversations about video games? Share with us in the comments!