Why Video Games Really Are Linked to Moral Panic

My friend (and Annenberg officemate) Bill Herman has written a post over at Shouting Loudly about a Slate article claiming that games encourage violence. Bill invited me to contribute to Shouting Loudly many months ago, but I only pop in occasionally because I’m on shaky ground in his areas of research. I had actually been planning to write on this same Slate piece, so I just wrote a ludicrously long comment to Bill’s post. Considering how long it was, I figured I might as well repost it here, edited for accuracy, clarity, and a new context. Head over there to follow the conversation going on in the Comments.

As I’ve previously written about here and elsewhere, connecting video game violence to real-world violence is a tricky game. On the one hand, you seem to have a mountain of evidence in the form of academic research; on the other hand, there must be a reason that legislation to regulate games keeps getting overturned in court. Plus, the lack of popular articles covering opposing evidence seems a bit suspect, such as in a recent Slate article boldly titled “Why video games really are linked to violence.” My argument here, then, is that concern about video game violence has less to do with actual media effects than with a surge in fear and misunderstanding surrounding a new medium. Video games are at the center of a moral panic, and their impact has been grossly blown out of proportion.

Law reviews and magazine articles discussing video game violence typically start with some invocation of statistically unusual school shootings in which police and judges have consistently dismissed video game play as a causal factor. See, too, Dmitri Williams’s content analysis “The Video Game Lightning Rod,” which demonstrates how journalistic coverage of games has followed a fairly typical pattern associated with earlier moral panics surrounding popular media. Many columnists and politicians are still attempting to ride the Virginia Tech massacre even after responsible news outlets who checked their sources have noticeably distanced themselves from such claims: the shooter owned no video games, and hadn’t played Counter-Strike since high school, four years ago. In other words, this seems to have more to do with following trends and controversial issues than with the actual state of current research on game violence, or even current social problems actually linked to games for that matter.

In fact, the author’s approach to the literature in the above-linked Slate article is strangely reminiscent of the way the defendants in video game violence legislation cases described this body of research. Schaffer somewhat reductively focuses on literature by Craig Anderson and a small group of others who have transitioned from working on TV violence research, much as the defendants in such cases have done. In Judge Kennelly’s statement overturning Illinois’s doomed game regulation law, the judge explains that the defense seriously weakened its argument by only presenting research that agreed with its position, rather than addressing any of the research that comes to other conclusions.

There’s more of this literature published than you might expect, too: consider Williams and Skoric’s short-term longitudinal study of an MMO (which found no effect) and John Sherry’s meta-analysis of video game violence research (which found a positive effect, but less than other studies, and put into perspective). Meanwhile, the British Board of Film Classification is considering adjusting its game rating practices in light of its recent study suggesting that games are actually less emotionally engaging than other media.

As John Sherry suggests, a much more scientific way to approach game violence research is to try to prove that games don’t cause violence than to try to prove that games do cause violence. (To paraphrase: which would you rather drive on, a bridge that the engineer tried to break or a bridge that the engineer just tried to stand on?) With all due respect to Craig Anderson and colleagues, setting up treatment and control groups with the relaxing puzzle game Myst versus the faster-paced and competitive Wolfenstein 3D is an apples-and-oranges scenario. It’s not actually very difficult to conceive of scenarios that show some effect on aggression: I only know of one study on Bible passages’ effects on aggression, for example, but it also found a causal relationship. I imagine that sustained research on the effects of watching and especially playing football would also find effects on aggression, as I’ve heard Steven Johnson has suggested. Why is it that more people aren’t calling for these studies to be done, that legislators aren’t clamoring to regulate an activity that actually requires you to physically attack another person?

Even when considering the literature that does find a causal relation between video game play and aggression, consider Kennelly’s (and Sherry’s, and others’, and my) contention that what gets measured as “aggression” is still a far cry from real-world “violence.” Honking a horn at someone really loud or writing swears on a piece of paper are not adequate measures for violence. We need more longitudinal studies in natural settings to measure actual violence, and one of the few that has been done is the one cited above which found no effect.

Moreover, what if the “aggression” these studies are picking up is a good thing for many or most players? To quote from my earlier post:

The “aggression” encouraged by playing games might not necessarily be a bad thing. A member of the Quake Grrlz movement (as quoted by Henry Jenkins in his Senate testimony) once suggested, “Maybe it’s a problem…that little girls DON’T like to play games that slaughter entire planets. Maybe that’s why we are still underpaid, still struggling, still fighting for our rights. Maybe if we had the mettle to take on an entire planet, we could fight some of the smaller battles we face everyday.”

Seeing as how I’m currently working on a dissertation on “geek culture,” it might also be worth noting in passing that middle and high school ethnographies have indicated that non-aggressive boys are particularly likely to be labeled “geeks” or “nerds,” and these titles (perhaps not coincidentally) have also long been applied to gamers.

I won’t claim that video game violence research is without merit or that it fails to show some sort of influence, but I will insist that video game violence is not the problem it’s being made out to be. There are too many stumbling blocks along the way to making a conclusion that this medium deserves such disproportionate attention compared to other media and social phenomena. Recall that we know that poverty is a much greater causal factor in real-world violence than video game play. It’s not as easy to scapegoat, however, nor as immediate a concern to many journalists and parents focusing on the much rarer school shootings by more affluent kids.

As Henry Jenkins points out in a recent essay on media violence, a more holistic view of violence in culture opens up opportunities to talk about what might be attractive about violent content in the first place, and how to address what people do with it. Focusing on one medium disproportionately, however, just makes it easier for game publishers to make waves with controversial content. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, this puts even the publishers of non-violent games at risk of a backlash like that seen against comics in the 1950s, from which creators and publishers have struggled to recover for decades.

Moral panics come and go, but the policy that results can have a lasting impact. We’re already seeing hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money spent to defend unconstitutional legislation, ads for games banned from public transit, and kids getting kicked out of school for amateur game development. It’s fair to note that literature on games and aggression suggests a causal relationship, but that’s certainly not the whole picture.

2 thoughts on “Why Video Games Really Are Linked to Moral Panic

  1. Jason, I was curious if anyone has looked at content vs. form in this debate. As you say comparing wolfeinstein to myst is something of a no brainer. I feel like much of the debate talking about categories in the same way that one could the talk about “R” movies. I feel like if violence is somehow caused by something it would be the content, not the form. After all, you could have a FPS where you are a deer killing people (Deer Hunter) or where you are a milk man trying to make chex soggy in milk (a freebie game that came in my chex cereal when I was 15?). It seems like someone could make an argument that a specific game causes violence (or a specific set of game experiences/qualities/tendencies) and I might be willing to buy into that. Or that a certain set of people are more likely to be pushed toward violence by a game (here are the qualities in a person that make them vulnerable to pulling emotions out of a game and incorporating them into their life).

    Also, I was curious if the Dungeon and Dragons murders thing (which might be a urban myth and/or a single case) has been looked at. The story in short was I think that a kid had been abusing drugs and playing D and D and then killed someone based on drug induced confusion. I don’t know if there was any study of this or if they produced anything and I figured you might know?

  2. You’re on the right track, I think: there has been some discussion of content vs. form, but I don’t think it’s clear that one is more important than the other. Something with really poor graphics and little sense of immersion in which you kill people might not cause as much “aggression” as something with high immersion and killing deer (though I don’t know of a study offhand that checks for that). These interact with many other factors, too, like whether you’re playing alone or with others, what your own personality is, whether the violence is justified in-game, and so on. I saw a lot of interesting stuff about video games and aggression at the conference I was just at, so I want to pick this train of thought up again in a new post.

    I don’t know of a specific study about D&D murders, either, but maybe Google Scholar does…

Comments are closed.