On Violent Video Games (Again)
A new study came out on video games and their effects on humans. In this case the focus was on the effect of video games on pain resistance. In this study, 40 volunteers played either a “non-violent game” or “a violent first person game”, then undergo exposure to certain conditions. It “discovered” that ” playing a violent video game can give people a better tolerance for pain.” The researcher, Dr. Richard Stephens, said that this was because by playing violent first person games, individuals raise their aggression level, which in turn triggers the body’s natural response to stress in the form of pain tolerance.
You can read the press release here: http://www.keele.ac.uk/pressreleases/2012/violentvideogamescaneasepain.php
Not surprisingly, I have a problem with this study. Dr. Stephens comes into this study following the long tradition of psychologists playing at video game research that was popularized by Anderson and Bushman in 2001, when they discovered that after playing violent video games, participants would throw a noise blast at their opponents for .5 – 1 second more than people who didn’t play the violent video game. It’s a wonderfully detailed study with incredibly misleading conclusions: people who play violent video games make longer noise blasts, therefore, video games make people have aggressive behavior. Dr. Stephen’s study follows this tradition of flawed conclusions, but takes an extra step into the questionable methodology area of the research spectrum.
The first problem with Dr. Stephen’s report is that he does not report the titles of the video games he used for his study. How does he define “violent first person game”? Was the game he used Halo? Was it Modern Warfare? Was it Slenderman? Each of these games provide a unique experience that affects the individual in different ways. More importantly, were these games played online or in single player mode? Playing multiplayer modes adds an extra layer of stress and competitiveness unto the player that is not present when games are played on single player story modes.
The study showed that the group of people who played first person games had a higher resistance to ice water (whether that can really be qualified as pain or not is debatable, but let’s assume that it is). However, and this is my second problem with the study, it seems that there was no pre-test. There was no way of measuring the mental and physiological state of the individuals who volunteered for the test before they played the test. This is a common mistake done in studies of this kind, and one that needs to stop being overlooked. Whatever the study, there should be a sufficient amount of relevant data collected regarding the patient’s state in regards to the question being problematized. In my own studies regarding language acquisition, I considered students’ background, socio-economic status, education, previous exposure to language, and previous attitudes towards language before having them play games and measuring results. Many papers I have read, including an interesting one regarding adrenaline which I will mention later, do this. Dr. Stephens does not do this.
My third problem with this study is that it makes an assumption that has yet to be proven: “violent video games lead to aggressive behavior”. This is a pre-existing bias that Dr. Stephens had when coming into this study. He assumed that violent video games lead to aggressive behavior, and – therefore – it is that aggressiveness factor that leads participants to submerge their hands under water for a longer time than the control group. Allow me to reiterate: shooting noise blasts for .5 seconds longer does not equate to “aggressive behavior”, and neither does “submerging hands under ice water”. Aggressive behavior is defined as physically or psychologically violent or predatory, and none of the participants in the study showed any of these tendencies. Heightened sense of competitiveness? Sure. Gee, Johnson, and others argue that this is actually a positive trait. Video games causing a temporary adrenaline rush? Sure. Johnson reports this to be true. It lasts for up to ten minutes after the game session, and it’s not that impressive of a spike. Playing physical sports will cause a higher rush of adrenaline than playing video games. But violent behavior? Only if there are bad parents around or already existing sociopathic tendencies.
So, in the end, do violent video games lead to an increase in pain resistance? Only indirectly. Violent video games lead to a small increase in adrenaline for up to ten minutes following a play session, and this adrenaline rush can lead to pain resistance. Do video games lead to aggressive behavior? Well, to be honest it depends. If you define “aggressive behavior” as “actions done under the influence of an adrenaline rush”, then sure. But then again, so does playing basketball or football, or even hide-and-go-seek. For that matter, so do many books. So before we start talking about how violent video games make people “be violent” because they can submerge their hands in ice water for longer than the control group, let’s try doing the same with people who read the first tablet of Giglamesh and let’s see how that works out.
Akert, R.M., Aronson, E., & Wilson, T.D. (2010). Social Psychology (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Gee, James P. What video ames Have to teach Us About learning and Literacy (2003)
Johnson, Stephen. Everything Bad is Good for You (2003).
Anderson’s study: http://web.clark.edu/mjackson/anderson.and.dill.html