On Wednesday, President Obama outlined his proposals for gun control. Among them was a request to Congress for $10 million to study the impact of media on violence, with a nod specifically to video games. Brooke talks to Jason Schreier, a reporter for Kotaku, about 25 years' worth of studies on the effect of violent games, and what researchers have found.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fretting about journalism in the age of Twitter? Well, don’t. Instead, join me on January 29th at New York Public Radio’s Jerome L. Greene Space for a conversation with the man who tweets revolutions, NPR’s Social Media Group’s Andy Carvin. He’ll talk about his new book, Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution. For tickets, go – I suggest quickly – to onthemedia.org.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. On Wednesday, President Obama outlined his proposals for gun control, among them a request to Congress for $10 million dollars to study the impact of media on violence, with a specific reference to video games.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds. We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’d think that there would be a heap of academic studies on the effect of violent video games. And, actually, there are more than a hundred. Jason Schreier, reporter for the gaming website Kotaku, took a look at many of those studies and the meta-analyses of those studies and found that they may not study what we’re looking for, like the connection between violent video games and criminally violent behavior.
JASON SCHREIER: You can’t put a kid in front of a video game and then give him a gun or a knife and see what he does with it. You just can’t do that. So what researchers are looking for is a link between violent video games and aggression, which, in general, means hostile behavior that isn’t criminal. So it might be a kid bullying another kid in school.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what have the studies found in that area?
JASON SCHREIER: If you ask Chris Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M, who is one leading researcher on the subject, he’ll say they found nothing. There are too many variables, there are too many factors, there’s not enough good research. If you ask Brad Bushman, a professor at Ohio State University, who is also a leading researcher on the subject, he’ll say we found a conclusive link between video games and aggression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For those who find the link between aggression and video game playing inconclusive, what's their problem with the studies, with the methodology?
JASON SCHREIER: A lot of these studies are looking at college students and not young children. And these college students, they’re going to be taking classes on psychology, on media violence, hearing theories about media violence. Sometimes these college students will guess what they’re supposed to do and they’ll do it.
Another possible factor is that the methods for testing aggression are not ideal. One of them, for example, is a student will go into a room and be told that he or she has to administer a certain level of this awful, unpleasant noise that sounds like – like nails scratching against a chalkboard or something like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re talking about administering this nasty noise to a fellow student who must be, quote, unquote, “punished.”
JASON SCHREIER: Right. And these tests subjects have to choose how intense the noise is, how loud it is. And they’ve found in some of these studies that students who play violent video games will, on average, dole out more of this awful noise than students who play nonviolent video games.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These are students who are playing games right before they’re asked to dole out the punishment or just in their lives?
JASON SCHREIER: Right beforehand. That brings up another interesting question, which is short-term vs. long-term effects, which is something that Chris Ferguson also believes has not been studied. He has found that some of these studies are so flexible that researchers can wind up picking and choosing outcomes that fit whatever hypothesis they’re going for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, Ohio State University Professor Brad Bushman, while conceding that, quote, “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, it is one factor, and it's one that we can do something about.”
JASON SCHREIER: What Brad Bushman did is in 2010 he ran what's called a meta-analysis, which is an analysis that looks at a whole bunch of different studies. They concluded that, yes, there is a link between violent video games and aggression.
Chris Ferguson, the biggest critic of Bushman's results, also did a meta-analysis, where he found similar results to Bushman, that yeah, there was a link. But they both looked through that same data and disagree on what it means. And what Ferguson actually told me was that it's really a question of do violent video games have no effect or do they have a very insignificant effect?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Ferguson may be willing to concede that there is an effect, but that it's insignificant.
JASON SCHREIER: He believes that we don't know right now if there’s an effect, but if there is an effect at all, it’s very insignificant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, another researcher who threw a spanner in the works [LAUGHS] that you mentioned, is Paul Adachi –
JASON SCHREIER: [LAUGHS] Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who tried to measure not just whether violent video games make people more aggressive, but whether competitive games do. So he took his study group and he exposed them to four kinds of games, nonviolent competitive games, violent competitive games, violent noncompetitive games and nonviolent noncompetitive games.
JASON SCHREIER: What Paul Adachi found in his study is that the people who were playing competitive games, whether it was violent or nonviolent, would still get an increase in aggression. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that violence isn’t a factor, but it means that competition is also a factor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a law that would have made it a crime for stores to sell violent games to kids because, quote, “Most of the studies suffer from significant admitted flaws in methodology.” Can we come to a conclusion about any of this?
JASON SCHREIER: Chris Ferguson brought up a really interesting point that I agree with, and he said 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 easily damaged by politics and personal opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that’s helpful.
Jason, thank you very much.
JASON SCHREIER: Well, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jason Schreier is a reporter for Kotaku.