Mark Appelbaum doesn’t play video games, but the UC San Diego professor emeritus arguably knows more than anyone about their effects. As chair of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on Violent Media, he spent more than two years leading colleagues on a cross-examination of the best research on video games and violence. Appelbaum recently spoke with Triton to discuss his conclusions.
In poring over all the research on video games and aggression, did you find anything surprising?
The findings over many studies, ranging from surveys to laboratory, were fairly consistent by the standards of behavioral research. What was surprising was the very wide range of interpretations that were given to these studies—some researchers saw cause for alarm in the data, others dismissed them as meaningless.
We found that active participation in first-person shooter games is generally followed by an increase in aggressive behavior, feelings and/or ideations. This pattern is not found in every study, and the magnitude of the effect varies from study to study, but on average, it is there—taking the role of the shooter increases aggressive thought, feelings or behaviors. Yet there are many unanswered questions about consequence of this pattern—particularly questions about the consequences in our daily lives, including cumulative effects, any possible relation to long-term behavior and if there is a relation with criminally violent behavior.
It is also important to know that this class of media is protected speech as determined in a 2011 Supreme Court ruling—the content of these types of games cannot be controlled through legislation.
Is anything missing in the research? What should scientists investigate now?
The effect of violent video game exposure on children remains a concern. Very little research has been conducted with children, and very little research has looked at cumulative effects of exposure over time.
Nor has the research analyzed the effects for girls separately from boys, so we don’t know whether girls experience the outcomes differently.
We know a lot about risk factors for aggression, such as antisocial personality traits, delinquency, academic achievement level, parental conflict, child and parent aggression, and exposure to delinquent peers. But these factors, for the most part, have not yet been examined in the research on violent video game outcomes.
As a result of this report, the APA is urging the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to refine its video game rating system. Can you explain what you’d like to see happen?
Violence is not well defined in the video game ratings, even though violence is a factor considered in deciding the rating. So games with very similar forms and levels of violence may have different ESRB ratings. Also, ratings are derived from an assessment of a number of factors, including violence, crude humor, profanity, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, sexual content and gambling, but there is no assessment of these factors separately. A parent or game user can’t easily determine the type, amount or level of violence in a game. I would very much like to see the ESRB develop a clear labelling system so that parents and users could easily know what is in the game.
The APA is also suggesting that game developers make changes to content. In an ideal world, what should manufacturers take into account?
I would hope that developers would consider what is known about children’s cognitive, social and emotional development at different ages when designing content. Children are better able to process and make sense of content as they progress through different stages of development, and it is possible to design exciting action-based games that take these developmental differences into consideration, and then to rate and market those games appropriately.
In the wake of mass shootings in America, the media often draw links between the shooter and violent video games. Do you shake your head or is it understandable?
It is understandable, but I still shake my head. It is horribly difficult for us to try to understand the extremely violent behavior of mass shootings and we crave explanations. Blaming violent media seems to provide a logically simple explanation and a seemingly easy solution.
Will we ever know if there’s a connection between criminal acts and gaming?
If you mean a straightforward, simple experimental demonstration— probably not. That kind of experiment would be ethically impossible to conduct. Also, human behavior is very complex and it is unlikely that any one single factor (playing violent games) determines human behavior in a uniform and consistent way.
Do you have advice for gamers or their parents?
For parents, like for any other part of our children’s lives, be aware of what they are doing and be alert to their moods, thoughts and affectation. Talk with them about the games they are playing. Get them to explain the games to you. Be aware of what they think the games are about.
For parents and gamers alike, try to monitor the amount of time you (or your children) spend playing these games. They can eat up a lot of time. Developers are very good at producing extremely engaging entertainment; self-monitoring can be difficult.