Moral Panic & Video Games: Poorly Understood Connections With Violence

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably tired of hearing people on the news gripe about how video games are the fall of our society.  Any time someone commits a major crime & it’s discovered they once upon a time picked up a video game controller, everyone with a microphone or access to a printing press starts saying the video game made them do it.  It makes me want to punch someone & say, “I didn’t do that because I’m a gamer, I did it because your fat mouth was ticking me off.”  I find it laughable & downright insulting to my intelligence when organizations like the National Rifle Association argue that video games influence violent behavior far more than guns.  Obviously.  Because it wasn’t the Adam Lanza’s unmanaged mental condition or the fact that he had access to assault rifles that prompted the tragedy at Sandy Hook; it was because he played Doom.

For me, I almost feel a sense of betrayal when I hear about studies “proving” playing violent video games leads to nothing but aggression & violence.  I don’t think I’ve stated it before, but I’m currently working on my M.Ed in Counseling Psychology.  So to see “my people” attacking my favorite pastime… it hurts.  Especially when I can pick out all the problems with the studies.  If a student can see these things, shouldn’t a trained psychologist?

But there may still be hope.  In the latest volume of American Psychologist, the official Journal of the American Psychological Association (the authority for all things psychological in the US), someone finally examined the sordid history of violence in video games, society’s reaction to it, & how researchers can improve future studies so we can actually learn what the link between the two is — assuming there is one.


The article, written by Christopher J. Ferguson from Texas A&M International University, centers around the Brown v. EMA ruling.  This is the Supreme Court case where California was attempting to regulate the sale of video games to minors.  California claimed that violent video games were harmful to minors, which included violent behavior & neurological brain damage, & that the warnings from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board were not enough.  In the article, Mr. Ferguson points out how much of the evidence California was basing their claims on was flawed.  Not only was the evidence linking video games with aggression primarily from one study, it discounted other studies that showed a small or no effect.  This included research being done by other countries, such as Australia & Sweden.

Ultimately the Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ rulings:

“The State’s evidence is not compelling.  California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Anderson & a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games & harmful effects on children.  These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, & with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively… Instead, nearly all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, & most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology… Dr. Anderson admitted that the effect sizes of children’s exposure to violent video games are “about the same” as that produced by their exposure to violence on television.  And he admits that the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons staring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, or when they play video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated “E” or even when they view a picture of a gun.”

The long & short of it is California failed to convince the court that video games cause aggression.


But if the evidence behind this theory is so invalid & the studies so poorly constructed (i.e. rating it as aggression when children complete the word puzzle “explo_e” with a “d” rather than an “r” so it reads “explode” rather than “explore”), why do so many people — intelligent people — seem eager to jump on the bandwagon?

The answer, according to Mr. Ferguson, is Moral Panic Theory.  This well-researched phenomena is basically when society constructs a panic over certain issues & then exaggerate said issue’s impact on us as a way of expressing moral outrage.  It’s sort of like scapegoating.  We don’t like something, so why try to find ways to prove it’s bad.  Not only that, but we ignore any evidence that doesn’t support, or even contradicts, our outrage.  According to Mr. Ferguson, these panics come in cycles, particularly over new media — “from waltzes to dime novels, to movies, to jazz & rock & roll, to comic books, to television, to Dungeons & Dragons, to Harry Potter.”  Remember when people got in a tizzy over Harry Potter?  I do.  I can clearly remember in high school a bunch of people at my church were saying Harry Potter would make kids practice witchcraft.

Video games are just the latest topic to be morally panicked on.  And just like with rock & roll or Harry Potter, it comes at the height of its popularity.  If video games weren’t so popular, no one would care about them.  But as they’ve become more mainstream, they’ve become a target.  And an easy one at that, given the stereotypes that come with being a gamer.  That’s why we have people who’ve never played a game in their life trying to tell us how our games affect us.  You know, because they know so much better than we do.

video games

But there is hope.  According to Mr. Ferguson, moral panic goes away when people realize the problems they expected never come.  So when people start seeing that violence is not actually increasing with the rise of video game sales, they’ll start to calm down.  And fortunately, evidence shows that this is the case.  In his previous article on the subject titled “Blazing Angels or Resident Evil?  Can Violent Video Games Be a Force for Good?” (which I absolutely have to read because that’s just such an awesome title), Mr. Ferguson presented evidence that rather than increasing, serious violent crimes among youth have actually decreased as the sales of video games have increased!  This flies directly in the face of those who claim viewing violence begets violence.

But what else can help the process?  I have a few ideas that are just based on my own observations.

  1. The public needs to stop viewing video games as kids toys.  Despite the fact that the majority of gamers today are now adults, the average non-gamer still thinks of video games as things primarily aimed at juveniles.  So when they see adult games, they get upset.  They fail to realize that games like God of War or Grand Theft Auto were never intended for kids.  They’re clearly made with an adult audience in mind.  No one’s trying to corrupt your child.  It’s like taking little Jimmy to an R-rated movie & getting mad because of the content.  That’s what the ESRB was created for.
  2. Researchers need to design better studies.  Most of the time when I read these studies that link video games with aggression, I cringe at how badly designed they are.  Their measures for aggression are just horrible.  They only focus on immediately after the kids have been exposed to violent games.  They also don’t examine how aggressive kids behave after other methods of viewing violence.  Is there a difference in behavior after playing a violent game, watching a violent cartoon or watching people being violent in real life?
  3. We need more longitudinal studies.  Almost all studies focus on shortly after exposure, but no one examines the long-term effects.  What are these kids like one month from now?  One year?  Ten years?  Do they act more aggressively when they’re adults?  Is there a difference between onset of exposure?  In other words, do kids who start playing violent games earlier become more aggressive than those who start in their teens?
  4. Is there a fundamental difference between kids who start playing violent games young than other kids?  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that children who grow up with parents who let them play M-rated games may be lacking good parental care.  Is it the video game’s fault, or is it because they lacked a parental figure teaching them better?

There’s still a lot of work for researchers to do if they want to start throwing around blame for violence.  Hopefully other psychologists will read this article & take it to heart.  And if you’re interested, I recommend reading the article yourself.  It’s pretty interesting & not excessively technical.

Article cited: “Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the Scientific Community in the Wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association,” by C.J. Ferguson, American Psychologist, Vol. 68, No. 2, 57-74

– GamerDame


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