Video games are awesome. They’re also controversial. The debate over whether video games contribute to violent behavior, especially in younger users, rages on, fueled by first person shoot-em-up games full of gore (and zombies). But a new study introduces a twist into the video game discussion: that violent video games don’t cause kids to act violently, and may actually have a calming effect on “vulnerable” players.
The link between video games and real-world violence has never been scientifically proven. Many people, including Donald Trump and Ralph Nader, conclude that there’s a causal connection between the two, but scientists have been looking for definitive proof for some time — there have been at least 25 studies conducted since the mid-1980s, and the results are conflicting.
Some studies, such as the University of Georgia’s 1984 work on “Video Games, Television, and Aggression in Teenagers,” linked video games and violence, but just a year later, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine concluded that video games allowed users to blow off steam. Since then, studies have become larger and more complex, but have carried the added weight of possible bias. Given that violence is such a hot-button issue, these studies often have foregone conclusions, and it’s tough to know when a study is gathering and analyzing good data and when researchers are looking to prove a connection or conclusion they’ve already reached.
In 2011, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s study concluded that exposure to violence can cause children to become “immune or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior.” They also suggest that “children with emotional, behavioral, and learning problems may be more influenced by violent images.”
Scientists from Stetson University in Florida weren’t convinced. Psychology professor Christopher Ferguson, who specializes in the effects of video games, maintains that “evidence has pretty well ruled out the idea that video game violence causes ‘normal’ kids to behave violently.” Ferguson led a recent study that directly challenges the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s conclusion that children with emotional and learning problems might be more greatly influenced by games.
Ferguson and his colleague Cheryl Olson recently published a study that focuses on the effects of video games on kids who have neurodevelopmental or emotional disorders such as depression or ADHD. The new study suggests that these “vulnerable” kids aren’t more affected by the games at all, and further suggests playing the games “had a very slight calming effect” on these users, and actually “helped to reduce their aggressive and bullying behavior.”
Ferguson acknowledges that in extreme situations such as mass murder (Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, for example), it would be unusual to find perpetrators who didn’t play violent video games at all, given the demographics of such crimes and the popularity of such games. But that doesn’t prove that video games induced violence.
The study certainly doesn’t suggest that parents encourage no-holds-barred playing of violent video games after school, but Ferguson hopes it will ameliorate some of the fear parents have that letting their kids play these games will turn them into killers. I guess that means that Ferguson, if he has kids, lets them play Grand Theft Auto.