As technology continues to forge ahead concerns about its effects on the populace are raised. Whether it be microwave ovens causing cancer or cell phones causing accidents, people are always interested in researching, and often condemning, these new products. Such is this case with videogames. Ever since Pong? swept the nation, scholars have been researching videogames’ effects on children. The most popular aspect of videogame research is whether or not games increase aggression. A video game is any console or PC based interactive game, aggression is any thoughts or behaviors related with the intention to cause harm. Contrary to popular belief, there is no reliable correlation between videogames and aggression.
Claims are the backbone to a study; they are both the starting point and the goal. Cooper and Mackie (1986) sought to discover if a highly violent game would affect 4th and 5th grade kids differently than a nonviolent game or a paper-and-pencil game. Tamborini et all (2000) predicted that aggressive thoughts and behaviors would be highest amongst those playing a violent virtual reality game followed by those playing a violent standard game, followed by those playing a nonviolent standard game. Derek (1995) was interested in what effect, if any, playing violent games would have on aggressiveness in different personality types. Ballard and Weist (1996) researched whether the level of violence in a game would affect peoples’ responses on a hostility questionnaire. Sherry (2000) performed a meta-analysis on 25 video game/aggression studies; he wanted to see if there was any credence to the claims. All five studies are very similar in their intent. They mostly focus on whether the level of immersion (via different hardware, violent content, and/or graphics) affects the level of aggression.
To understand a study one must understand the definitions used within that study. All five studies use the same general definition of a videogame that the general public uses; an interactive game played on a television or monitor whereby onscreen objects can be manipulated through the use of a controller. Violent video games are those that involve death and destruction to things resembling reality and/or fantasy. Definitions of “aggression,” however, differ. Cooper and Mackie (1986) used a child’s toy selection and distribution of reward/punishment as an indicator of aggression. Tamborini et all (2000) consider aggression to be hostile thoughts. Derek (1995) defines aggression as a mindset that includes seven subcategories (the Buss-Durkee Inventory): assault, irritability, indirect hostility, negativism, resentment, suspicion, and verbal hostility. Ballard and Weist (1996) use the word “hostility” instead of aggression. In this case it refers to thoughts of defensiveness, dominance, aggression, self-confidence, nurturance, and autonomy. Sherry (2000) just says, “…and some form of aggressiveness as the dependant variable.” The Cooper and Mackie study and the Sherry study are the only two that incorporate behavior in their definition of aggressiveness. All of the others deal only with thoughts, but are quite similar in their intent.
The real make-or-break portion of research is the method in which you seek and categorize the data. Cooper and Mackie (1986) took 84 4th and 5th graders from New Jersey. They had equal numbers of boys and girls separated into three groups. One group played the “violent” game Missile Commander (a cheesy game where you shoot lasers at little dots representing bombs falling on a city), another played Pac Man (which we all know and love), and the control group solved mazes with pencil and paper. After 8 minutes of game play the kids were told to select a toy to play with while the researcher did some work (the researcher was actually observing how long the child play with each toy. They could select a Shogun warrior (a violent toy), Nerf basketball (an active toy), Lincoln Logs (a quiet game), or pop-up pinball (a skill game). Which toy the child selected acted as an indicator of mindset. After the play session the children were told to hold down a button to indicate the length of a time a child should be punished for various acts of insubordination. They were then told to hold down a button for the length of time a child should be rewarded for various good deeds. Tamborini et all (2000) enlisted 92 MSU undergrads in the Communications department. The predominantly female assemblage was split into three groups. Before playing any games they filled out a self-report questionnaire concerning aggressive tendencies. The first group got to play Duke Nukem 3D on a virtual reality system (Duke Nukem is a modern first-person shooter where you run around blasting aliens; virtual reality systems incorporate a headset and gloves to more fully immerse the player), the second group played Duke Nukem 3D on a regular computer, and the third group played Cool Boarder (a realistic snowboarding game) on a regular PC. Participants got to play for ten minutes then filled out a thought list coded for types and frequency of hostile thoughts. They also filled out an evaluation of the research assistant they dealt with, this was meant to be another measure of aggressiveness. Derek (1995) enlisted 117 students from Strathclyde University (60% women). Participants were split into three groups. The non-aggressive game group played Tetris (a real-time strategy game), the moderately aggressive game group played Overkill (a typical space-blasters game which no one has heard of), the aggressive game group played Fatal Fury (a martial arts fighting game with high levels of trauma and gore). Players were given a personality test before and after game play under the guise that the study was concerned with hand-eye coordination as it relates to personality. Ballard and Weist (1996) took 30 male undergraduates from Appalachian State University. The guys were split into two groups. Group one played Corner Pocket (a billiards game with virtually no action) while group two played Mortal Kombat (an extremely popular fighting game), which was set at either high violence mode or low violence mode. The subjects played for 10 minutes before filling out a hostility questionnaire. Sherry (2000) drank hundreds of cups of coffee and alienated his wife and kids while pouring over insane amounts of research. There were 32 studies available to him, 7 of which he had to throw out for various reasons. Of the remaining 25 he carefully looked for validity problems while synthesizing them into the definitive meta-analysis on this topic.
As with all things capitalist and otherwise, it’s all about the bottom line, let’s see what they found. Cooper and Mackie (1986) found that, overall, the kids played with the skilled toy and quiet toy (118 sec. and 134 sec. respectively) more than the active toy or aggressive toy (89 sec. and 59 sec.). After exposure to the aggressive game the kids played with the aggressive toy more than the kids in the other two conditions combined (82 sec. compared to 46 sec. for the other two groups). Amount of time pressing the reward/punishment buzzers was not correlated with the game played. Tamborini et all (2000) found a significant effect for media environment on hostile thoughts, F (3,91)=7.21, p*.01, eta=.20. Contrary to expectations, a higher number of hostil thoughts was found among those who played the game on a PC, not those who played Virtual Reality. They did find that those playing violent games had higher hostility ratings than those whom played nonviolent games, but the highest hostility was found among those who observed the violent games. Derek (1995) used a one-way ANOVA test and found no significant differences between overall changes in aggressiveness and type of game played. Pearson’s correlation coefficients also failed to show a significant relationship between type of game played and change in level of aggression. Ballard and Weist (1996) used a one-way MANOVA test and found a significant relationship between levels of hostility and type of game. Hostility scores were higher after playing high-gore Mortal Kombat than they were after playing low-gore Mortal Kombat. Both were significantly high than those who played the billiards game. Sherry (2000) used the Pearson R on each of the 25 studies individually, he then subtracted out the variance due to sampling error. This resulted in a large standard deviation in the weighted effect size, suggesting extraneous variables at work. He also performed a Fisher Zr test, and was unable to reject the null hypothesis.
In the words of Austin Powers, “whoopdy-doo, what does it all mean???” There are many factors that cloud the issue, but overall it seems that the evidence is not very convincing. In the Cooper and Mackie study (1986) the higher levels of play time with the aggressive toy was accounted for almost entirely by the female participants. One theory is that playing the aggressive video game empowered the girls (whom are normally shunned from doing aggressive things) to broaden their aggressive horizons; at the least it calls into question issues of generality. The age of this study is also a factor, Sherry (2000) points out that there is a trend for older video game studies to have greater effect sizes. An issue with all of the studies was the short amount of time participants played the games. Sherry (2000) found that playing time was a negative predictor of effect size. It seems that there is an initial spike in aggression that goes away after longer exposure. Tamborini et all’s (2000) findings are odd due to the fact that the observers reported the highest hostility. This could indicate that seeing violence on screen-not necessarily controlling it- leads to higher aggression. The most convincing evidence of all is the meta-analysis (Sherry, 2000). His exhaustive study was unable to produce resounding results, indicating that the positive findings in some of the studies could be anomalous. This lack of evidence would leave one to believe that the status quo is acceptable. Game content can be found through the rating system, but any other measures would be burdensome and unnecessary. So, until more convincing data comes along we can rest assured that any rage is the result of good old American anger, not blasting on-screen boogie men.
Ballard, M. E., & Wiest, J.R. (1996). Mortal Kombat: The Effects of Violent Videogame Play on Males’ Hostility and Cardiovascular Responding. Journal of Applied Psychology, 26, 717-730.
Cooper, J., & Mackie, D. (1986). Video Games and Aggression in Children. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 16, 726-744.
Derek, S. (1995). The Effect of Video Games on Feelings of Hostility. The Journal of Psychology, 129, 121-130.
Sherry, J. L. (2000). The Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression: A Meta-Analysis. Human Communication Research*.
Tamborini, R., Eastin, M., Lachlan, K., Fediuk, T., Brady, R., Skalski, P. (2000). Virtual Violence. 86th Annual Convention of the National Communication Association.