Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Problem With Media Reports On Studies About Video Game Violence

We've all read the headlines. "Video Games Lead To Violent Behaviour." "Video Games Cause Immoral Behaviour In Teens." "Video Games Lead To Aggression." The question is, are the conclusions drawn in these reports backed up by the science they are reporting on? My contention is that they absolutely are not and I will use a recent study to demonstrate where they are going wrong.

The study in question, conducted in Italy and published in the online journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, looked at how violent video games influenced post play morality in teenagers. The researchers recruited 172 high school students (aged thirteen to nineteen) and separated them into two groups. The first group was tasked with playing a violent video game. The second group was given nonviolent games to play. After both groups played the games, they were directed to complete a logic test, and every time they achieved a correct answer they were allowed to remove a raffle ticket from a bag. The teens were left alone in a room to do this, and upon completion of the study the researchers found that those who had played violent video games prior to taking the logic test were eight times more likely to remove more than the one raffle ticket from the bag when they correctly completed a section on the logic test.

The authors noted that the teens who showed signs of 'moral disengagement' were the most affected by playing violent video games. Moral disengagement is the ability to remove oneself from the normal rules of morality in certain situations because, in the view of the people who show this trait,  morality does not apply in certain situations. The teens with this trait were much more likely to steal after playing a violent game. A nonviolent game did not trigger as large a discrepancy between the two groups.

A study like this is perfect fodder for one of those media frenzies mentioned earlier. According to the study, the teens, especially those who score highly on "moral disengagement" scales were more likely to take extra raffle tickets; to steal, essentially. At the very least, to cheat. Not good, right? Obviously the violent video games are having a negative effect, one that was not seen to the same degree in the group that played non violent games. Seems like an open and shut case on the face of it. Except it's not. At all.

Here's the problem: Where did this occur? In an artificial environment. A manufactured scenario playing itself out in a research lab. What else is an artificial environment? The game world. Who was more likely to misbehave after playing violent video games? Those prone to "moral disengagement." And what was said about those with that trait? They feel that ethics do not apply in some situations. Is it all that surprising that the world of a video game and a manufactured scenario in a lab both qualify as scenarios to which, in their minds, morality does not apply?

All this study shows is that violent video games put those prone to moral disengagement into a morally disengaged state which manifests itself in immoral acts in an artificial environment. That's it. This says nothing about the real world and any people in the media who would take this and hold it up as evidence that violent video games are "ruining the youth" or whatever would be both speaking well beyond the scope of the science and doing a disservice to everyone who listens to them, as well as the video game industry itself. Would the kids from that study have stolen from a store? That's the real question and not one single study has addressed this (for the record, if I were a betting man I would bet that the answer is no, since people can discern reality from fantasy and the real world is a far cry from that of a video game or a lab).

This tendency of the media to draw conclusions that are beyond the scope of the original study being discussed is actually a problem with science reporting in general, not just the reports on studies that pertain to video game violence. Evolution and climate change are two such areas in which this kind of stuff is prevalent- and harmful. Very harmful, in the case of climate change. If the media is going to comment on science, they should do it much more responsibly and accurately- or don't do it at all. 

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