Are Violent Video Games as Bad as You Think?

Science of Us

There’s been an interesting shift in the psychological profession when it comes to video games. For a while, the only time you’d ever see a psychologist comment publicly about video games was in the context of blaming violent ones for all manner of societal ills — most famously, for school shootings. This has helped build the argument, in the public eye and among government regulators all around the world, that there is an intimate link between the consumption of these games and young gamers’ propensity for committing all manner of terrible acts.

This view still abounds, but in recent years a more nuanced understanding has gradually taken hold. Many researchers have begun to doubt some of the more overheated claims about the effects of video games on behavior, and to push back against the idea that gaming has unleashed some sort of mass pathology on the nation’s youth.

In their new book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, the psychologists Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson, who teach at Villanova University and Stetson University, respectively, offer one of the most assertive yet expert takes on why society should relax, at least a little, with regard to violent video games. Markey and Ferguson describe the concern over violent video games as just another youth-oriented moral panic in a long line of them — think comic books and naughty music and Dungeons & Dragons and so forth — and argue that it’s time to take a more reasoned, evidence-based approach in light of what they see as a paucity of evidence for links between playing violent video games (or consuming other forms of violent media, for that manner) and engaging in violent real-world behavior.

An article Markey published with some other researchers in Human Communication Research in 2015 makes this point nicely. The authors offer numerous rather convincing examples of psychologists making claims about the link between video games and violence that appear to be overbroad and sensationalistic — in both their published research and media interviews alike. One prominent researcher, for example, has repeatedly compared the potency of this link to that of the link between smoking and lung cancer. In a book chapter, two other researchers falsely claimed that video games allow players to practice “to decide whom to kill, get a weapon, get ammunition, load the weapon, stalk the victim, aim the weapon, and pull the trigger” — anyone who has played a first-person shooter knows this is false. After the Sandy Hook massacre, yet another wrote an editorial arguing that “[t]here is no division in the scientific community” about the link between violent video games and aggression.

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