Magazine article Reason

Kill Pixels, Not People: Exploding the Fake Scientific Consensus on Violent Video Games

Magazine article Reason

Kill Pixels, Not People: Exploding the Fake Scientific Consensus on Violent Video Games

Article excerpt

FOR DECADES it has been a shibboleth among some social psychologists that increasingly violent media--television, movies, and video games--increase the risk of violence in society. In a 2001 review article for American Psychologist, the Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson and the Ohio State psychologist Brad Bushman claimed that media violence is nearly as significant a risk factor for social violence as smoking tobacco is for lung cancer. "Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," Anderson and some colleagues asserted in 2003. And in 2007, University of New Mexico pediatrician Victor Strasburger estimated that 10 percent to 30 percent of the violence in society was attributable to media content.

As recently as October, Bushman and two colleagues reported the results of a poll of media psychologists and mass communication scientists in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture that there is a "broad consensus" among media psychologists and mass communication scientists that violent media increase aggression in children. Earlier this year, Bushman and a colleague denied being in the thrall of a "moral panic" over violent media, instead accusing dissenting researchers who "use violent media themselves" of being "biased by the force of cognitive consistency and experience a 'reactance' of 'regulatory panic.'"

What is the evidence linking media violence to aggression? A lot of it comes from experiments in which undergraduates view violent scenes or play shoot-'em-up video games for 15 minutes and then are tested for aggression in various ways. Other undergraduates view mild content or play nonviolent games. Typical tests for post-play aggression include how loud a noise blast a player administers to an unseen (fictitious) subject; how much hot sauce he or she adds to food that an unseen subject will eat; and questionnaires designed to find out if the viewers or players are having aggressive feelings or thoughts. Many of the studies do find that viewers of violent content and players of violent games will blast noise a bit louder, dollop a bit more hot sauce, and cop to having slightly more aggressive feelings and thoughts than those who view mild content or play nonviolent games. Interestingly, the researchers rarely pause to wonder if providing the opportunity for aggression actually licenses its commission in their experiments. According to proponents of this theory of media violence, these lab results are relevant to the real world.

Their basic theory linking media violence to real violence can (somewhat unfairly) be summarized as "monkey see/monkey do." They believe that media consumers have difficulty distinguishing between real and fictional mayhem. Violence on movie or video screens supposedly supplies behavioral scripts that viewers and players later act out. Reel violence leads to real violence.

But now the old guard is being challenged by a new generation of researchers who are calling their theories, methods, data, and sweeping assertions into question. Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson is one of the chief antagonists. In their drolly titled 2013 commentary, "Does Doing Media Violence Research Make One Aggressive?," Ferguson and his colleague, German researcher Malte Elson, invite readers to contemplate a thought experiment as a way to think about the plausibility of the "monkey see/monkey do" theory. "Take 200 children and randomize 100 to watch their parents viciously attack one another for an hour a day, the other 100 to watch a violent television program an hour a day," they suggest, "then assess their mental health after one month is over." Surely they are right when they assert that "to suggest the mental health outcomes for these children would be even remotely identical is absurd. …

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