Criminal behavior literature review: Video game violence
One of the most controversial contentions in the recent debate over the causes of violence in American society is that violent video games give rise to violent behavior. After the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Arizona Sun reported that local organizers in the community of Southington, Arizona held a violent video game buy-back, much in the same way that other communities had buy-backs of firearms. "Although the organizers are careful to note there's no evidence violent games contributed to the Sandy Hook shooting, the implication is nonetheless clear. So too, the organizers claim that research links video games with other aggressive acts and desensitization" (Ferguson 2013). The head of the National Rifle Association (NRA) likewise made a link between criminality and video game violence -- but not the presence of guns in American society -- in a much-maligned press release.
However, according to the American Psychology Association, the link between criminal behavior and watching video games is far more dubious. "The American Psychological Association declined to participate in the 2011 Supreme Court case on video games, citing inconsistencies in the literature. Most studies of media violence have historically employed weak and dubious measures of aggression. Those few that actually examine youth violence have generally found little evidence for concern" (Ferguson 2013). The link between real life violence and playing violent video games is a subject of continuing debate, even amongst research psychologists.
Controversies in psychological research correlating what people watch with how they behave actually predate the existence of modern video games. There is over forty years of extant research about media and violence, including "laboratory experiments, field experiments, cross-sectional correlation studies, and longitudinal studies" (Anderson 2003). Perhaps the earliest studies regarding the phenomena of how viewing violence causes the imitation of violent behavior are those of the 'Bobo' studies of researcher Albert Bandura. Bandura would eventually become an exponent of what he called 'social learning' theory, or the idea that many human behaviors were learned or acquired through observation of others, rather than due to inherited traits, "The Bobo Doll Experiment was performed in 1961 by Albert Bandura, to try and add credence to his belief that all human behavior was learned, through social imitation and copying, rather than inherited through genetic factors" (Shuttleworth 2008).
The Bobo experiment demonstrated that children who witnessed adults interacting with an inflatable punch-bag doll in a violent fashion were far more likely to copy that behavior than children exposed to passive role models or no role models at all. Boys were found (as predicted, despite Bandura's insistence that he believed that 'nature' had minimal influence on human behavior) to behave more aggressively in general. But while "male subjects exposed to non-aggressive role models were less likely to use the mallet to hit the Bobo doll. Strangely, male subjects placed with non-aggressive female models were more likely to use the mallet than the control group," perhaps in an effort to prove their masculinity (Shuttleworth 2008)
The much-criticized Bobo study is still often used as proof that nurture rather than nature causes youth violence. But critics quickly noted that "the Bobo doll springs back upright when it is hit and there is a strong possibility that the children saw it as a game rather than anything else," and the toy seems to suggest that 'punching bag' behavior is acceptable, given its very design (Shuttleworth 2008). Also, " there was a follow up experiment, in 1963, which used the same methodology but showed the subjects violence via video; this had a much less defined response than the initial experiment," which further argues against using the Bobo studies to justify the regulation of violent video games in an effort to curtail real world violence (Shuttleworth 2008).
While it is true that some people who engage in violent behavior do watch violent video games, another psychological phenomenon may be at play called confirmation bias. "When events like Sandy Hook happen, as a society we tend to experience what psychologists call 'confirmation bias.' If the perpetrator is a young man, it is often assumed video games contributed. But when a perpetrator doesn't fit the stereotype, such as 62-year-old William Spengler, who killed two volunteer firemen in New York this December, media is not mentioned. Nobody bothers to point out that Spengler didn't play video games" (Ferguson 2013). Correlation does not imply causality. While violent persons may enjoy consuming violent media, this does not necessarily mean that the violent media is the root cause of the behavior, given that many violent people do not consume such media, and many nonviolent persons do play video games.
The perpetrator of the Sandy Hook killings was a young man, and many young men watch violent video games, but his youth rather than his status as a killer is likely the reason for his video game consumption, contend naysayers to the social learning thesis. However, defenders of the link between consumption of violent media and real-life violence, stress that video games are unique by their interactive potential and to some extent 'invite' a blurred line between reality and fiction. "Two features of video games fuel renewed interest by researchers, public policy makers, and the general public. First, the active role required by video games…it also may make violent video games even more hazardous than violent television or cinema. Second, the arrival of a new generation of ultraviolent video games beginning in the early 1990s and continuing unabated to the present resulted in large numbers of children and youths actively participating in entertainment violence that went way beyond anything available to them on television or in movies" (Anderson 2003).
Many aspects of adolescent media from rock n' roll to comic books has been blamed for an escalation in teen violence (Ferguson 2012). However, video game's critics state that the interactive nature of the medium makes it even more noxious and potentially dangerous in terms of how it impacts the reward sector of the brain, thus having a desensitizing effect. Evidence that such 'desensitization' occurs has not been established, and research on exposure to television programs indicates that there is an empathetic, cognitive ability to discriminate between 'real' and fictional violence. Ramos (et al. 2012) "found that exposure to violence on screen had no influence on viewer empathy for victims of real violence" (Ferguson 2012). The Ramos study involved 238 young people exposed to either violent or nonviolent TV show who were then exposed to mages of fictional and non-fictional shows depicting violence. "Participants were significantly more empathic of victims' suffering when they knew they were watching real violence rather than fictional violence. Previous exposure to a violent or nonviolent TV show did not reduce empathy" (Ramos 2012).
In a literature review conducted by the Australian government when contemplating the enacting of legislation to more heavily regulate violent video games, the ensuing report divided the two sides of the debate into two camps: that of the causationists and their critics. Causationists "have consistently argued that playing VVGs increases the risk that participants in laboratory and survey-based studies will behave, think and feel, more aggressively. They also argue that VVGs may have a host of other related negative effects such as desensitization and lower levels of empathy" (Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression. 2012, Commonwealth of Australia: 6) But critics of causationists "focus on the impact of VVGs as being determined by context. They tend to look at the player's interpretation of game content and a range of social, economic, cultural and even biological factors" (Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression. 2012, Commonwealth of Australia: 6).
In general, causationists have focused more upon scientific, experimental data conducted in laboratory settings when drawing their conclusions about the impact of video games on violent behavior. Some experiments assessing the short-term impact of video games on human behavior under laboratory conditions have found a demonstrable increase in aggressive behavior amongst young people even after brief exposure to more violent media than the members of a control group. But "the extent to which such actions are meaningful in assessing long-term behavior" is not clearly established (Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression. 2012, Commonwealth of Australia: 18).
For example, a recent study found that "the use of a light gun controller, higher amounts of blood, and more 'real world' violence tended to make players more aggressive" in their language and attitudes in post-game interviews (Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression. 2012, Commonwealth of Australia: 18). But this seemingly disturbing conclusion "was drawn from subjectively-graded evidence… [which] used responses to 'story stems' involving judges sentencing criminals and parents punishing children to measure aggressive thoughts" that were then graded by researchers (Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression. 2012, Commonwealth of Australia: 18). Additionally, "these sorts of questions may be…