When videogame violence has no effect, should we worry?

Research suggests violent videogames such as Hitman don’t make people antisocial, so is it time to change the debate? Michael Heilemann

Earlier this week on The Conversation, Morgan Tear wrote a terrific article calling into question the supposed negative effect of videogame violence on players’ behaviour. And I would argue we could use Tear’s argument as a launch pad to broaden the debate on why we should care about media violence in general.

Tear’s call to pay more attention to studies that find no negative behavioural effects from playing violent videogames – the so-called null effect – was based on research he published in the journal PLoS One with a co-author, Mark Nielson, presenting three experiments that failed to find evidence that violent games make violent gamers.

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Tear and Nielson findings that, among other things, experimental subjects who played the game Grand Theft Auto were just as likely to help others (prosocial behaviour) when experimenters deliberately dropped pens on the floor as were those who played cutesy titles involving animal care, has already caused international ripples, including being picked up by Time Magazine earlier this month.

Tear lucidly outlines why the behavioural effects of playing violent video games are hard to pin down. In that respect, it’s important to add to the conversation by noting that media influence isn’t just about behaviours. In fact, some researchers have argued the main effect of long-term, extensive exposure to media violence is that it makes people do nothing at all.

It’s worth pursuing this line, since not everyone in the gaming community will find solace in Tear’s results. Behavioural responses aren’t what concern people who love games but worry about the content that they occasionally encounter.

Rebooting the debate

After the Newtown massacre last year – in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut – games journalist Nathan Grayson called for a reboot of the whole violence debate.

Justin Lane/EPA

Whatever the problems with the effects case, the position that gaming violence is nothing but harmless fun didn’t make sense to Grayson:

… it would be impossible for frequent immersion in violent scenarios – fictional or not – to not have some kind of effect on us […] Western (and especially American) culture treats violence like it’s perfectly normal. It’s just … there.

The idea that the sheer prevalence of media violence is unsettling to those who love gaming chimes with Tear and Nielson’s PLos One study, for which they struggled to find a suitably benign game to test with.

Nothing doing

The first step here is to consider the possibility that media violence is a political narrative about what the world is like: who has power, who does not; who we can trust, who we cannot; who counts, and who is disposable.

Hungarian/American media scholar George Gerbner spent six decades arguing this, putting an intriguing spin on the null hypothesis. He thought the main effect of media violence was that it made audiences politically subservient.

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Yes. Media violence matters precisely because it makes people do nothing. There’s a certain echo of this idea in contemporary games criticism.

One of the “effects” of videogame violence is that it creates communities of people who can agitate for change in public culture. And the most interesting thing to note is that these communities do seem to be motivated by a concern they should be more active in demanding greater accountability from the gaming industry.

Let’s think a bit more about Nathan Grayson’s response to the Newtown massacre, outlined above, and what effects studies say about the link between gaming and rampage killings.

In seeking positive effects, Tear and Nielsen could at least measure the exact thing they were looking for: the link between violent gameplay and being helpful.

Researchers who test for aggression as a result of videogames are confined to dubious proxies for the real thing, such as blasting people with white noise after playing the fighting game Mortal Kombat.

When it comes to the link between gaming and school shootings, we face a litany of problems.

As US researchers Christopher Ferguson and James Ivory have pointed out, this problem is compounded by:

  • publication bias towards studies of dangers over benefits
  • weak correlations in studies that claim to have found significant effects of violence
  • the insidious politics of a paradigm that usually gets motoring when real violence shocks because it happens in affluent places.

But wrangling over the finer technical details of effects methods can be a distraction. Media violence might matter for other reasons.

Some view media violence as a cultural phenomenon. When violence is seen to mean something rather than do things to people, understandings of its significance change.

A search for meaning

As with videogames, television wrestling has also been blamed for real-life tragedies. But in an academic study of of “backyard wrestling” in 2007, Lawrence McBride and Elizabeth Bird found young amateur wrestlers were more interested in putting on a good show than in hurting others.

Dean Lewis/AAP

To them, wrestling was closer to ballet than fighting. Backyard wrestling circuits were communities in which people looked after one another.

But if media violence is about meaning and community, qualms about its influence remain. In a public debate at Monash University last month, games researcher Brendan Keogh expressed his outrage at the latest version of videogame Hitman. The new title lets players murder bondage-clad nuns, if they want to.

Keogh didn’t fear such scenes would inspire misogyny – but observed that they wouldn’t do anything to confront the normalisation of violence toward women in media either. Keogh’s point was that such content is offensive and irresponsible, because gaming can make gamers think about the morality of violence that is de rigeur elsewhere.

Does this line of reasoning sound odd given Keogh is the author of the 2013 book Killing is Harmless? Not really, as the book explains how well-crafted game violence encourages gamers to think about about a world where many are needlessly slaughtered.

Look at beliefs, not behaviours

Gerbner’s most well-known argument was that people who watched a lot of television also consumed a lot of violence. This violence taught the lesson that the world was a dangerous place, and heavy viewers tended to be more fearful, cynical and less empathetic than light viewers. He named this the Mean World Syndrome.

Wikimedia Commons

Many gamers would, of course, reject the idea that gaming makes them fearful, distrustful and antisocial; indeed the popularity of multi-player online gaming shows the reverse is often true. But there are a couple of convergences between Gerbner’s ideas and today’s gaming activists.

First among these is the fear that immersion in media violence affects how people engage with society, in ways they do not fully understand.

Also, Gerbner’s ambition was to make audiences demand change from media industries. He would have run a million miles from a title like Killing is Harmless, but he’d endorse its sentiment: that people should take their fun seriously, and confront media content that does not respect social equality.

If one of the effects of gaming is to get audiences to reflect on why media violence prospers, who profits most from its presence, and to demand accountability from media industries, then perhaps the time has come to dwell on those “effects”, rather than perceived shortcomings of aggression studies, and the question of behaviours, good or bad.


Further reading:
See more Conversation coverage on videogame research.