A new wave of popular culture critics have recently taken aim at video games for what they consider perpetuated misogyny and violence in both the content and surrounding the “gamer” subculture.
Though video games continuously face these criticisms, recent findings not only question causal links between them and real-world violence, but also note the industry is already one of the most well-regulated in popular entertainment.
Whitney DeCamp, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Western Michigan University, took a closer look at the relationship between violent video games and violent behavior in his study published in Computers in Human Behavior.
The problem with much of the prior research, DeCamp said, is the possibility of pre-existing factors, such as an underlying personality trait that may draw someone to both violent behavior and violent video games.
“In this case we have all of these antecedent factors in the model that would come way before someone playing the video game,” he said. “Like their background home life, whether their family is poor or wealthy, what their race is, all these other factors that couldn’t possibly come after playing a violent video game — things that would have to come before that.”
The study uses a technique known as propensity score matching.
DeCamp, who has a doctorate in criminology, said this technique has a specific way of controlling those potential factors.
“Finding a correlation between two social variables is easy and there is one between violent video games and violent behavior,” he said.
But a correlation does not imply a causal link.
He asked the question whether violent video games were contributing to deviant behavior or just another outcome of some other factor.
“Propensity score matching is a more rigorous test in that regard,” DeCamp said. “It allows you to say, ‘Is this variable having any impact above and beyond all these other ones?’ In this situation, its strengths really brought something to the table that the other techniques couldn’t.”
DeCamp’s study used a prior survey of 6,567 eighth grade students in Delaware and found matches for students based on how they answered on 154 variables.
The variables included but were not limited to: demographic information, parental, family and peer characteristics and victimization.
The primary difference with each matched pair was how they answered whether or not they played “M” or mature-rated video games within the past month.
A student who said they had played those games was matched with a similar student based on the other variables but said they did not play those games.
This process continued until all the possible matches were made.
The results were then compared on 14 indicators of specific deviant behaviors in three different categories: violent, non-violent and substance use. The substances addressed were cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana.
Any correlations between those who played mature-rated video games and those who didn’t were then compared to correlations found in the unmatched sample of the same survey.
The study showed, when those variables were controlled by using propensity score matching, the correlation between playing mature-rated games and taking part in deviant behavior dropped significantly.
Among males in the category of violent behavior, the overall correlation dropped from 21.3 percent to 1.5 percent.
For overall non-violent behavior, it dropped from 23.7 percent to 4.2 percent.
Finally, for substance use overall, it dropped from 12.4 percent to negative 1.8 percent.
The results reduced to insignificance among females as well.
This conclusion appeared to concur with that of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the decision on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws restricting the sale of mature-rated video games to children were unconstitutional, citing such video games as free speech protected under the First Amendment.
Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University, is also a researcher on aggression and violence, and said he disagrees with the supreme court’s stance.
“When it comes to evaluating scientific evidence, [Supreme Court Justices are] in no position to do so,” he said. “[Their] statement is so ignorant because it shows that [they’re] unaware of the fact that dozens of experimental studies have shown that playing violent video games cause people to behave more aggressively.”
Bushman, who has a doctorate in social psychology, said that while correlation research doesn’t control for underlying personality traits, longitudinal studies and laboratory experiments do.
Bushman remains “cautiously optimistic” about future legislation on the sale of violent video games to minors, he said.
“We don’t let children drink beer,” Bushman said. “We don’t let children smoke cigarettes. We don’t let 8-year-olds walk into R-rated movies unaccompanied. So why do we let young children buy or rent video games that are rated inappropriate for their age?”
While the video game industry ratings aren’t federally regulated, it’s actually still one of the most well-enforced, according to a survey by the Federal Trade Commission.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board issues ratings using a voluntary system, according to the board, but nearly all video games sold in stores are rated and display the result in a label on the packaging.
Similarly, most major U.S. retailers enforce these ratings with voluntary policies.
In 2011, the FTC survey found that those selling video games enforced its industry’s respective rating system better than those for both music and movies.