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Mayo Clin Proc. Aug 2011; 86(8): 820–821.
PMCID: PMC3146383
A Further Plea for Caution Against Medical Professionals Overstating Video Game Violence Effects
Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD
Texas A&M International University Laredo
To the Editor: On the day I write this, the US Supreme Court has struck down California's attempt to ban violent video games to minors. The State of California, while acknowledging that existing research could not determine that video games cause harm to minors, nonetheless relied on a biased and misleading representation of the research in this field to support their contention that video games “harm” minors. Writing for the US Supreme Court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that the research is in fact “not compelling” and “most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” The only “harm” by video games in this case is not to minors but to the scientific community itself because it has insisted on an ideological position that increasingly has come at odds with the data.
In generations past, medical scholars warned society about the purported harms of various media ranging from dime novels through jazz music, comic books, rock and roll music, and Dungeons and Dragons (a role-playing game).1 None of these fears materialized, and the scientific community expended significant capital in pursuing these beliefs long past the time in which data could support them. In their article, Hall et all2 caution us that medical science may be repeating the errors of the past, ratcheting up claims of harmful video game violence effects even as data increasingly contradict such claims. As one of the leading video game researchers in the United States, I read this well-researched and timely article with great interest. To the warning by Hall et al, I add my own: Previous claims of “harm” due to video games were a mistake, and the medical community will only expend further political and scientific capital by insisting on the existence of harmful effects despite increasing evidence to the contrary,
Careful review of the scientific evidence reveals that not only are data increasingly pointing away from harmful effects but also that such data were never consistent even when some scholars attempted to claim they were.3 Methodological problems abound in this field, including lack of valid aggression measures, failure to adequately control for other important variables, and a tendency to interpret weak and inconsistent results as if supportive of causal theories. However, although small in number, a few studies have corrected these issues. When aggression is measured using valid tools and other variables are carefully controlled, little evidence emerges for harmful video game violence effects.4-6 Interestingly, these results are achieved regardless of the position in the debates the authors have taken in the past, although some scholars attempt to deemphasize their own results.5 Prospective analyses have found little evidence for long-term harm,6 and some suggest violent game exposure may be associated with reduced aggression.7 Of 3 groups to have conducted meta-analyses on the topic, 2 replicated each other in concluding that no evidence exists for harmful effects.8,9 Both these groups have been critical of the third group10 for, among other issues, exaggerating the importance of the weak effects obvserved in their own research and failing to include studies that conflicted with their views. Add to these societal data in which the introduction of violent games into our society has been met with a precipitous decline in youth violence to 40-year lows, and we see that the data from various sources converge to oppose the belief that violent games are harmful.
These conclusions are not merely my own but are also based on a review of the literature by the Australian government,11 to date the only independent review on the topic. (Policy statements by professional groups were compromised by committees of antigame scholars reviewing their own work and declaring it beyond further debate. Such statements should not be considered independent reviews.) The US Supreme Court now appears to concur in this assessment as well. Thus, comments by Hall et al and other scholars increasingly warn us of the damage done by the insistence on a rigid scientific ideology in the face of contrasting evidence. I have little doubt that the reasonable cautionary statements by Hall et al will be met by angry calls from some scholars for an insistence on doctrinal purity. In past media moral panics, medical scholars expended significant prestige and capital insisting media effects must be true even as evidence rolled in to contradict those claims. We have reached this point once again. I call on medical science to begin the process of self-correction and cease making spurious claims for harmful effects that increasingly conflict with the available data. The time for scientific correction has arrived.
1. Ferguson CJ. Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video games be a force for good? Rev Gen Psychol. 2010;14(2):68-81 .
2. Hall RCW, Day T, Hall RCW. A plea for caution: violent video games, the Supreme Court, and the role of science. Mayo Clin Proc. 2011;86(4):315-321. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
3. Olson C. Children's motivations for video game play in the context of normal development. Rev Gen Psychol. 2010;14(2):180-187 .
4. Desai RA, Krishnan-Sarin S, Cavallo D, Potenza MN. Video-gaming among high school students: health correlates, gender differences, and problematic gaming. Pediatrics. 2010;126(6):e1414-e1424. [PubMed]
5. Ybarra ML, Diener-West M, Markow D, Leaf PJ, Hamburger M, Boxer P. Linkages between internet and other media violence with seriously violent behavior by youth. Pediatrics. 2008;122(5):929-937. [PubMed]
6. Ferguson CJ. Video games and youth violence: a prospective analysis in adolescents. J Youth Adolesc. 2011;40(4):377-391. [PubMed]
7. Shibuya A, Sakamoto A, Ihori N, Yukawa S. The effects of the presence and contexts of video game violence on children: a longitudinal study in Japan. Simul Gaming. 2008;39(4):528-539 .
8. Sherry J. Violent video games and aggression: why can't we find effects? In: Preiss RW, Gayle BM, Burrell N, Allen M, Bruant J, editors. , eds. Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2007:245-262 .
9. Ferguson CJ, Kilburn J. The public health risks of media violence: a meta-analytic review. J Pediatr. 2009;154(5):759-763. [PubMed]
10. Anderson CA, Shibuya A, Ihori N, et al. Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull. 2010;136(2):151-173. [PubMed]
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