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The Lede, What’s the Research Say on Violent Video Games? And Lies Spread Faster and Farther Than Truth

The Lede, Friday, March 9, 2018
By David Royse


Soldiers of Fortune

Yesterday, President Trump met with some of the most vocal critics of the video game industry  – and brought in some executives from companies that make some violent video games, presumably to talk about what role the games might play in real-life violence in our society.

I wish I could say either this is a good thing to explore or that it’s pointless, but the bottom line is we don’t really know for sure – though the needle seems to point slightly away from video game violence as a major factor in violent acts like the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Those in the meeting said Trump appeared open to points from both sides, according to the Washington Post. “‘It was “respectful but contentious,’ said Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council,” the Post wrote.

I went through some of the research on violent video games and violence and aggression in real life and, unfortunately, like many subjects, it one where the results aren’t completely conclusive.

Ultimately, there’s pretty broad consensus that we don’t have any “good” recent research showing a definitive link between violent video games and violence. Does that mean it doesn’t play a role? Nope. It just means we can’t see a strong causal link based on what solid research we do have.

There were some studies in the 1990s that seemed to show a link. But then when researchers went back and tried to duplicate those studies, they found there were all kinds of shortcomings. The biggest was that studies that did tend to show a link between video games and violence were poorly designed – they didn’t control for other factors like backgrounds of family violence, for example.

So if you let a bunch of abused kids play violent video games and then they show a propensity for acts of violence, you really don’t know which of those things is the cause, if either.  And there haven’t been a lot of studies that I could find in one morning of looking around about WHO PLAYS violent video games to begin with – that is, could it be that kids who are angry and predisposed to violence are the ones who seek out those games?

Don’t know.

One of the things that I do find compelling: Between 1994 and 2014 sales of video games went up more than 200 percent, while all kinds of measures of juvenile violence fell, fairly dramatically, even while accounting for changes in population. Kids are playing more video games – and by all accounts, some of those games are pretty violent and realistic. But kids, overall, have been getting less violent. That doesn’t support a straightforward causal link.

Another thing from the research on violence that interested me came from a study of mass shootings by the U.S. Secret Service. It’s old now – released 14 years ago, so it’s completely possible that the data is rendered less useful by video games changing, or some other factor. But its report. titled “Findings of the Safe School Initiative, Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks,” found that attackers in mass shootings showed far more interest in violent movies, and their own violent writings than they did in video games.

But, you can find honest, committed researchers who believe one way, and honest, committed researchers who believe another.

One researcher who says he can find no link between video games and real-world violent acts admits that there are others in his field who believe there is such a link. And he says this particular field has more uncertainty than many others.

The researcher, David Zendle, writes in U.S. News and World Report in an article titled “Don’t Blame the Games”:

This is a research community that is at war with itself. One group of academics stands firm on the position that violent video games are currently a legitimate source of danger to modern society. Another group of academics provides compelling arguments about why there is little convincing evidence that this is the case.

This group challenges the very validity of the research methods that their opponents rely on. They claim that the theory of video game violence is built on rotten foundations. There is currently no clear winner in sight in this contest for the future of video games. Both perspectives are well-represented in the academic literature. If you pick up a copy of a relevant journal (such as Computers in Human Behavior) and flick through the last few issues, you will almost certainly find researchers supporting both, radically opposed, perspectives. This degree of uncertainty and lack of consensus is extraordinary. It is not the norm in most fields of scientific research.

Zendle’s conclusion:

It is currently unclear whether violent video games play any role at all in causing gun violence. There is currently no evidence in the literature which anyone can confidently use to causally link violent video game play and school shootings. Anyone who does so is almost certainly overstating their case. Policymakers should bear this in mind when making decisions.”

There have been several articles in the last few days pointing out that it’s hard to see a link – but it again is worth noting that there are some indications that these games aren’t all good. Three years ago, the American Psychological Association reviewed many of the studies on the issue and concluded that violent video games DO seem to have some impact on aggressive behavior. But that review concluded that studies overall didn’t show any link to real world criminal violence. 

Again to the point of the lack of research on the mindsets of people who play these games in the first place – a sort of chicken and egg question that could make both sides of this debate right, in part. Again – this is not a research-based assumption, I couldn’t find any research on this. But I do get the sense that it may be the case that people whose brains work normally can play violent video games – and see it as a form of escape and not become violent. People who are already mentally ill who play these games, might react differently.

A bit more on the “immersive fallacy” – the idea that normal players don’t confuse video games for reality – here from Queens University Professor Stephanie Lind.

Further reading:

“Video games are good for children, no matter what Trump says”: Scott Steinberg, author of Parenting High-Tech Kids,.in USA Today

The look at both sides of the debate from ProCon.org

The notion that games might do more good than harm, from Freakonomics (though back in 2013)

If you watch past the president in the video below, you’ll hear one of the MSD shooting survivors say, “It’s a video game, something happens, you restart. We know that’s not how life is.”

The Follow

Well, this is depressing.

In other research-related news, researchers at MIT say theirs has shown that “fake news” travels faster on Twitter than accurate news. Their study was the cover story yesterday in Science.

From the study:

“About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.”

By the way, for you non-math people, the tilde in that sentence above means “approximately equal to” 3 million.

“We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information,” the researchers wrote. “Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”


Announced today its driverless trucks will soon begin delivering freight for Google data centers in Atlanta. The Verge

Is raising $100 million; wants to be the Uber of electric scooters. TechCrunch

Rent the Runway
The women’s clothing rental business is getting $20 million from Alibaba founders. Recode

Has an exclusive deal to stream 25 MLB games. Bloomberg

Other Business and Economic News out today:

The U.S. economy added 313,000 jobs in February, according to Friday’s employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment remains at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

That’s it for the week. Have a great weekend. If you’re at SXSW and you see or hear something really cool – let me know.

If you know someone else who likes reading about efforts to solve problems by looking at things in new ways, forward this email to them so they can subscribe too. Also, follow us on Twitter and on Facebook for LedeTree news throughout the day. Want to read past editions of The Lede? Find them all here

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About David Royse

David Royse
David Royse is the Editor-in-Chief of Ledetree.com. He has been a professional journalist for more than 20 years, including stints with The Associated Press and The News Service of Florida. He enjoys writing about health and medical science, and hopeful stories about scientific breakthroughs and new technology.

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