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Two studies conducted at the University of York have rejected the assertion from politicians and media outlets that playing violent video games ‘primes’ players to behave more violently. One study, entitled ‘Behavioural realism and the activation of aggressive concepts in violent video games’, was published last year in Entertainment Computing and found that even games with increased realism and better movement did not increase aggression from people who played them. Another, entitled ‘No priming in video games’ and published in Computers in Human Behaviour, rejects the popular theory that playing violent video games primes players to be more likely to respond to situations with violence.
The studies reject some previous academic research on the subject. “We went digging for an effect that the literature from the 90s told us should be there, and we got absolutely nothing,” said Dr David Zendle, the lead researcher of both studies, in an interview with Nouse.
The first study assessed players’ reactions to two combat games: one that had realistic character behaviour, and one that did not. In both, the virtual world was designed to look realistic. Priming was measured using word fragment completion tasks, where players were asked to complete ambiguous word fragments such as “K I _ _”. Both in this experiment, and in another that simply varied the realism of the world itself, researchers noted no difference in priming users towards violent thoughts.
“I think we need a new and better theory of why videogames might lead to violence,” says Zendle. “I think there might be something about toxic behaviour in there, but nobody’s looked at it because everyone’s been so concerned about the content in games, as if they’re films. I think it’s worthwhile looking at games as social media, and saying hey, what might a social medium do to people?”
This did not stop many politicians in the US asserting that a link between violent video games and violent behaviour was probable, even proven. Perhaps most surprisingly, that included former Vice-President Joe Biden. In an interview with CNN, he said that he had “talked about it” previously. “It is not healthy to have these games teaching the kids the dispassionate notion that you can shoot somebody and kind of blow their brains out.” This slightly flies in the face of his statement from 2013, which noted that a US Supreme Court case had disproven the relationship.
The mixed results of research on the subject continues to provide fuel for this debate. “You’ve got a bunch of people who are looking really hard and finding nothing,” says Zendle. “You’ve got a bunch of people who are also looking, and finding stuff. [...] The only way to work out who’s right is by actually looking at each experiment yourself.”
It is hoped that continued scientific study will continue to educate both legislators and judges on the lack of link between video games and violence. The Supreme Court case in 2011 represented an attempt by California to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors. Justice Scalia, in a statement, wrote that studies “do not prove that [exposure to violent video games] causes minors to act aggressively.” At the time, Scalia also raised doubts about “whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.”
Dr Zendle was keen to emphasize that his work has focused primarily on adults, and the effects of violent video games on children should be investigated further in order to critique the narrative that children are being made more violent by the games they choose to play. He also stressed that the focus on a single theory of video game violence might be distracting attention from larger issues. “We need to look at other topics that have been obscured by the violence debate, like what how they’re monetised is doing to people, which is what we’re seeing with loot boxes. [...] I think the idea that video games aren’t doing stuff to people seems unlikely, because people spend so much time using them, but we need better theories of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And we kind of need to drop this priming-based idea that all these old studies are based around.”