A 2018 meta-analysis found that there is a small increase in real-world physical aggression among adolescents and pre-teens who play violent video games. Led by Jay Hull, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College, the study team pooled data from 24 previous studies in an attempt to avoid some of the problems that have made the question of a connection between gaming and aggression controversial.
Many previous studies, according to a story in Scientific American, have been criticized by “a small but vocal cadre of researchers [who] have argued much of the work implicating video games has serious flaws in that, among other things, it measures the frequency of aggressive thoughts or language rather than physically aggressive behaviors like hitting or pushing, which have more real-world relevance.”
Hull and team limited their analysis to studies that “measured the relationship between violent video game use and overt physical aggression,” according to the Scientific American article.
The Dartmouth analysis drew on 24 studies involving more than 17,000 participants and found that “playing violent video games is associated with increases in physical aggression over time in children and teens,” according to a Dartmouth press release describing the study, which was published Oct. 1, 2018, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The studies the Dartmouth team analyzed “tracked physical aggression among users of violent video games for periods ranging from three months to four years. Examples of physical aggression included incidents such as hitting someone or being sent to the school principal’s office for fighting, and were based on reports from children, parents, teachers, and peers,” according to the press release.
The study was almost immediately called in to question. In an editorial in Psychology Today, a pair of professors claim the results of the meta-analysis are not statistically significant. Hull and team wrote in the PNAS paper that, while small, the results are indeed significant. The Psychology Today editorial makes an appeal to a 2017 statement by the American Psychological Association’s media psychology and technology division “cautioning policy makers and news media to stop linking violent games to serious real-world aggression as the data is just not there to support such beliefs.”
It should be noted, however, that the 2017 statement questions the connection between “serious” aggression while the APA Resolution of 2015, based on a review of its 2005 resolution by its own experts, found that “the link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior is one of the most studied and best established. Since the earlier meta-analyses, this link continues to be a reliable finding and shows good multi-method consistency across various representations of both violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior.”
While the effect sizes are small, they’ve been similar across many studies, according to the APA resolution. The problem has been the interpretation of aggression, with some writers claiming an unfounded connection between homicides, mass shootings, and other extremes of violence. The violence the APA resolution documents is more mundane and involves the kind of bullying that, while often having dire long-term consequences, is less immediately dangerous: “insults, threats, hitting, pushing, hair pulling, biting and other forms of verbal and physical aggression.”
Minor and micro-aggressions, though, do have significant health risks, especially for mental health. People of color, LGBTQ people, and women everywhere experience higher levels of depression and anger, as well as stress-related disorders, including heart disease, asthma, obesity, accelerated aging, and premature death. The costs of even minor aggression are laid at the feet of the individuals who suffer, their friends and families, and society at large as the cost of healthcare skyrockets.
Finally, it should be noted that studies looking for a connection between game violence and physical aggression are not looking at the wider context of the way we enculturate children, especially boys. As WSU’s Stacey Hust and Kathleen Rodgers have shown, you don’t have to prove a causative effect to know that immersing kids in games filled with violence and sexist tropes leads to undesirable consequences, particularly the perpetuation of interpersonal violence in intimate relationships.
No wonder, then, that when feminist media critic Anita Saarkesian launched her YouTube series, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” she was the target of vitriol and violence. Years later she’d joke about “her first bomb threat,” but that was only after her life had been upended by the boys club that didn’t like “this woman” showing them the “grim evidence of industry-wide sexism.”
Read more about WSU research and study on video games in “What’s missing in video games.”