Are Games Worse Than Movies?

What Is ‘Aggression'?

Both sides seem to agree on one thing: the majority of published studies do show some sort of connection between video games and aggression. Both Ferguson and Bushman's meta-analyses show an average aggression effect size around 0.15, a number obtained by taking two variables—violent video game play and aggression symptoms—and entering them into a complex mathematical equation.

Gentile: "What I care about is everyday aggression. What's that? Well, walk into a junior high school and look at how the kids treat each other. They're unkind to each other. They say mean things."

By taking that number and squaring it, you can find the percentage of increase in a certain behavior or effect. So if you square 0.15, you get 0.0225—or an aggression variation increase of roughly 2%.

But how do you quantify aggression? Even scientists disagree on the answer to that question. In one of Ferguson's studies, for example, he found an effect result of 0.06—or a percentage increase of less than half a percent.

"Let's imagine you played a violent video game and it made you one half of a percent more aggressive—would you notice that? I don't think you would," Ferguson told me. "To put it into context, if tomorrow you're one half of a percent more happy than you are today, what does that really mean? It's a very tiny effect... If my son was one-half a percent more aggressive today than he was yesterday, I'd never notice that."

But Gentile disagrees, saying Ferguson cares more about the connections to violent crime. A small aggression increase might affect kids in more mundane ways.

"What I care about is everyday aggression," Gentile told me. "What's that? Well, walk into a junior high school and look at how the kids treat each other. They're unkind to each other. They say mean things. They spread rumors about each other. They ostracize each other. They give each other the cold shoulder. They are verbally aggressive towards each other, and sometimes maybe even they'll hit. That's like the most extreme thing you're gonna find, right? Those are the levels of aggression that kids actually have in their lives.

"Not just kids—adults do too. If you think about the aggression in your life, that's what it is: you think of your friends or your girlfriend, you might get really angry and say something unkind. That is true aggression, and it does hurt, right? So what I'm talking about is serious as far as I'm concerned in terms of peoples' lives. Serious, real-world aggression. And when we look at that level, well the effect seems to be there, including in Ferguson's study."

Aggression—which can be broadly defined as any form of hostile behavior—is measured in several ways: noise tests, story stems, self-reported surveys. And then there's hot sauce.

The hot sauce test, one of the oddest things we found in violent video game research, is similar to the obnoxious noise test: a participant is told that he or she must give hot sauce to a partner (who doesn't actually exist) as a way of punishment. The participant gets to decide just how hot the hot sauce will be, and how much to give.

The hot sauce test, one of the oddest things we found in violent video game research, is similar to the obnoxious noise test.

Seems strange, right? Bushman told me it's actually a well-tested way to prove aggression, pointing to the infamous "hot sauce mom" as just one example of a person using spicy food as an act of aggression.

But what sort of conclusions can we really draw from a student choosing to dole out spicy hot sauce? Can we really link verbal or physical abuse to a test that seems so strange? It's measures like this—and really, the ambiguity of "aggression" as a psychological concept—that have made professors like Chris Ferguson skeptical of today's research, even when the evidence seems conclusive.

The X-Factor

Here's another question: have researchers successfully isolated violence as the problem here? Or is there another factor at play here?

That's what Paul Adachi has been asking. Adachi, a PhD student at Brock University, recently published a longitudinal study that he conducted with his professor, Teena Willoughby. They examined 1,492 adolescents over four years, monitoring the kids' video game habits and measuring how much time they each spent playing different types of games: sports games, racing games, shooters. The kids would then fill out confidential reports about their behavior, answering questions like "How frequently in the past six months have you kicked or hit someone?"

Adachi: "It may not be the violence, it may be the competition in games that is responsible for a link between video games and aggression."

Willoughby and Adachi tracked violent competitive games (ex: Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe), violent non-competitive games (Left 4 Dead 2), non-violent competitive games (Fuel), and non-violent non-competitive games (Marble Blast Ultra). What they found was fascinating: it wasn't violence that triggered aggression; it was competition.

"We found that playing more hours a day of the two types of competitive games did predict aggression over time," Adachi told me over the phone. "Whereas playing non-violent, non competitive games did not. So that really gets at the idea that, well, it may not be the violence, it may be the competition in games that is responsible for a link between video games and aggression."

Competition is just one factor that must be considered when studying the effects of violent video games on aggression. What about gender? Boys are more aggressive than girls. How about home life? Income level? Previous cases of bullying or being bullied?

In the studies Kotaku looked at, some of these factors were controlled. Some were not.

"From what I've seen, there's only been two studies where they really controlled well for competition in the games," Adachi said. "But there's different factors that weren't controlled for that could also be related to aggression, such as how difficult the game was or how fast-paced... It's a hotly debated topic."

Are Games Worse Than Movies?

If you ask an average parent what's worse for their kids, a violent video game or a violent movie, they'll probably pick the video game. Makes sense, right? After all, controlling a guy with a gun would theoretically affect your brain more than just watching a guy with a gun.

But believe it or not, we couldn't find a single study that compares the effects of violent games to the effects of violent movies or TV shows. And none of the researchers I spoke with knew of any.

There was one study, conducted in 2008 by a scientist named Hanneke Polman, that brought 56 kids (28 boys, 28 girls) into a room, divided them into groups of three kids each, and had each group sit in front of a video game. One child would play a non-violent game, one child would play a violent game, and one child would watch that same violent game. Later, they were all tested. Polman and his colleagues found that players of the violent game were significantly more aggressive—at least in the short-term—than people who just watched it.

"It's a beautiful study because they saw exactly the same violent images," Brad Bushman told me. "Which would be not the case if one watched a movie and another played a video game. They saw exactly the same violent images, but the players were more aggressive than the watchers. So we need more studies like that."

Where's The Money?

As in all scientific studies, it's important to look at the politics behind violent video game research. One factor worth considering: who funds all of these studies?

Ferguson: "Some scholars have taken research funding from advocacy groups, which is just as bad as taking research funding from the video game industry, as far as I'm concerned."

"Some scholars have taken research funding from advocacy groups, which is just as bad as taking research funding from the video game industry, as far as I'm concerned," said Ferguson, pointing to groups like the now-defunct National Institute on Media and the Family and the Center For Successful Parenting, a family-values group that sets out to find the negative effects in violent media.

"It's something we need to stop on both sides."

Just a couple of years ago, when a study came out claiming that violent video games have a long-term effect on brains, Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker did some legwork and found that the Center for Successful Parenting had funded the study. While that certainly doesn't make the findings any less valid, it calls into question those scientists' motives and hypotheses.

And what of the video game industry? I reached out to Dan Hewitt, a representative for the Entertainment Software Association (the group that helps regulate and represent gaming companies), to ask.

"ESA hasn't funded any research in any way," Hewitt told me in an e-mail. "Everything that's out there and that we talk about is completely free from any ESA influence or financing."

What We Should Do?

You don't need a doctorate to know that the human brain is a complex machine, and that nothing about our behavior is predictable. There's nothing exact about social science: different people get aggressive for different reasons, and there are hundreds of factors that could contribute to that.

But it's hard to argue with Obama's assertion that we need more research into the effects of violent video games. How could it be a bad thing?

Whether you believe that the link between violent video games and aggression is clear or you think the science is too faulty to mean anything—and there are strong cases on both sides—it's hard to argue that more research is unnecessary.

So maybe the data speaks for itself: maybe there is a clear link between video games and aggression.

"No researcher I know would say violence in the media is the only risk factor for aggression or violence or that it's the most important factor," said Bushman. "It's usually a cumulation of factors. But it's one factor that we can do something about."

Or maybe Chris Ferguson is right, and today's research is too inconclusive to determine any causal links. It certainly can't hurt to be more skeptical about what you see in the media.

"If what people take away from this is to be more skeptical about statements that are made by scholars on all sides of any debate, whether it's video game violence or something else, that's a wonderful thing," Ferguson said. "Because science is a human endeavor. The more someone tells me that they're absolutely objective, the less I believe they are. So people need to fact-check things. They need to understand that science is a human endeavor. Science is easily damaged by politics and personal opinion."

Republished with permission. Jason Schreier is a contributing editor at Kotaku. Holden Miller contributed reporting to this story.