For decades, the argument about whether or not playing violent video games makes a person violent has raged in lecture theatres and across dinner tables. While both sides of the debate support their argument with evidence, the ‘ayes’ tend to rely on one-off anecdotal evidence, while the ‘nays’ support their argument with aggregate statistical data.
Opponents of violent video games sometimes site tragedies such as the 2011 Norway Attacks or 2012 Newtown Connecticut school shooting and emphasise that the perpetrators owned and played first person shooter video games, and so conclude that there is a causal link between playing these games and committing violent acts. While this argument may seem logical, it is a fallacy which has been refuted and disproven. This is because correlation does not equal causation.
Just because two things happened in tandem does mean that one caused the other. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of people who play video games do not commit violent acts. For example, 90 per cent of Australian households own at least one game console and 71 per cent of working age adults play video games. Despite this, 71 per cent of adult Australians do not have a criminal conviction. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that only 42 000 of Australia’s 24 million citizens (or 0.17 per cent of the Australian population) are currently incarcerated. If playing video games definitively causes aggressive behaviour, the incarceration rate would be far higher.
Opponents of violent video games sometimes site studies, in particular the works of Dr Craig Anderson, as evidence that expectations of aggression positively correlate with time spent playing video games. In one 2000 study, Dr Anderson and Dr Karen Dill argue that video games are immersive in nature and require the gamer to perfect their in-game violence in order to reach their objective. As such, video games cognitively prime gamers to be more aggressive and to expect aggression in real-world interactions. However, this study has been heavily criticised for being conducted in a laboratory instead of a real-world setting and thus lacking any non-standardised aggression measures. That is to say, this study did not take into account other factors such as inter-personal relations, previous trauma and cultural norms which may contribute to a person’s attitudes towards violence. Additionally, these types of studies measure attitudes but not actions. Therefore, even if a gamer reports heightened feelings of aggression after prolonged game play, they still have not acted on these impulses and so have not demonstrated a causal link between violent video games and violent actions.
In fact, recent quantitative studies into the causes of violence have found that the role of video games is statistically insignificant. In 2017, Dr Whitney DeCamp and Dr Christopher Ferguson conducted a study involving 5133 Year 8 students and 3886 Year 11 students, and determined that students who had experienced verbal or physical abuse from parents were more likely to have physically assaulted someone. In some of the cohorts, the participant’s ethnicity also significantly affected their likelihood for having committed an assault, while across all cohorts, having healthy attachment to their parents significantly reduced a student’s likelihood to have committed an assault. Across all cohorts, if and for how long a student played a video game did not have a statistically significant effect on their propensity for violence.
Finally, and perhaps most damningly for tauters of the causal link between video games and violence, is the fact that statistical data shows that the release of several violent video games have been immediately followed by a drop in violent crime rates. In fact, these two events have been found to have a consistently inverse relationship in the United States over the past 30 years. FBI statistics show that forcible rape (their term, not mine), murder, assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft have all statistically decreased at the same time that market statistics show that video game revenue and penetration rate has been steadily growing. If the causal fallacy were to be applied, it should say that playing video games makes people less violent.
For the interested reader, you can find the references mentioned in this article here.