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The Most Objective Study Yet Finds No Link Between Video Games and Violence

Go ahead and keep playing Grand Theft Auto.

Violent video games are the latest moral panic. They are blamed when tragedies happen, they are blamed for crime, and they are blamed for schoolyard dust-ups. But when a parent or news anchor links video games to violence, do they have a leg to stand on? A new study published this week in the Journal of Communication tries to approach the question objectively, and has found no positive link between violence in society and violent video games. In fact, it found the opposite. That’s where things get complicated.

It’s hard to nail down the link between violent behavior and video games because most of the research has been experimental. Researchers have participants play a violent video game and then take some test — like a questionnaire — that should be an indicator of aggressive or violent behavior. These studies have been mixed, finding positive, negative, and null links. But the problem with outcomes like these is that they are experimental, and hard to compare to everyday life. If a child plays a violent video game and then answers five questions indicating an increase in aggression, does that really translate into violence or crime outside the lab?


This latest study from Christopher J. Ferguson at Stetson University in Florida gets around this problem of artificiality. Instead of subjecting gamers to a test, Ferguson examined the data that should show some correlations if violent video games were linked with violence in society, namely ESRB ratings, game sales, and metrics of youth violence.

To determine the violent content of the video games, Ferguson looked at the top five selling games from the years 1996-2011. Then he ranked each game 1 to 5 for violent content based on the ESRB rating (EC for early childhood, E for Everyone, E10+ for ages 10 and over, T for Teen, and M for Mature). The ESRB ratings for the five games each year were then summed and multipled by units sold to give an estimate for how violent video games were making it into the market.

Youth violence was charted over the same time period using a government database of per capita youth violence ages 12-17. With these two data sets in hand, Ferguson correlated the numbers to see if any trend would emerge. It did. It was negative.


Over those 15 years, using these specific metrics, rates of youth violence dropped while consumption of violent video games increased. That’s exactly the opposite trend we would expect if the moral panic was justified and violent video games were a root of some evil. Because the data is correlational, this doesn’t mean that violent video game consumption is actually decreasing violence in society, but it is evidence against the claim that video game increase violence. Ferguson concludes, “Evidence from societal data does not support claims of dramatic videogame violence effects on violence among youth.”

Using similar metrics, Ferguson also found no link between violent movies and societal violence.

Many of us, including the media, assume that we are passive victims of powerful media influences. If we play a violent game, we become violent. But we’ve known for a while now that the real situation is much more complicated. Media consumers aren’t blank slates to be scribbled on with bad ideas — each one of us has our own thoughts and desires and intentions that media messages can and do ricochet off. To think that kids will enact everything they do in Grand Theft Auto not only is a misunderstanding of how media can affect us, it’s a misunderstanding of how we make moral decisions in the first place.

And that’s the problem. In the wake of a tragedy like the Sandy Hook shooting, organizations like the National Rifle Association are quick to blame video games for the atrocities. Given what we know, “It may be best for such professional organizations to retire their policy statements on media violence as such statements tend to be misleading and may cause more harm than good,” Ferguson writes.

“Certainly, such statements risk damaging the credibility of social science, but they may also do damage to the extent that they distract society from other pressing issues.”

You can read the whole study online here.

Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

IMAGES: Rockstar Games; Activision; Christopher J. Ferguson

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  1. Isai T. B says:

    People who do the studies are made by people who have never or will never play video games in their life. so how is that even fair

  2. Quantitatively, of course violent video games do not automatically produce violent people. The important point to glean from this is “it does not support” statement. In reality, it neither creates or represses violent urges….these violent urges come from other aspects of a child’s life – not what he sees or does on a screen.

  3. Devon says:

    This study shows nothing new. Researchers leading the argument for violent video games’ connection to real-world violence have already acknowledged that there is no causal relationship between violent video games (VVGs) and real-world violence, and claim merely that VVGs increase the risk of violent behavior in the future. Real-world violence is caused by a culmination of various factors in a person’s life, and exposure to VVGs is only one factor of many that increase the risk of violent behavior in the future. Furhtermore, both sides of the argument acknowledge that there are groups of at-risk individuals that, due to biologically determined traits, are much more likely to exhibit violent behavior as a result of playing violent video games. These individuals are those who have a combination of High neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness. Additionally, Ferguson’s argument is fallacious in and of itself. If I’m reading this right (and correct me if I’m wrong), Ferguson claims that there is no causal relationship between VVGs and real world violence by showing a graph that depicts an increase of violence in video games correlated with a decrease in levels of youth violence. While it is true that the rates of youth violence have decreased over the years, it is quite possible that youth crime in certain areas are decreasing, while others, such as those inked part to violent video games, may be increasing. This data is akin to presenting data that youth crime increased when TV sales increased and concluding that simply watching TV makes kids more violent.
    Ferguson’s data is merely a ‘Post Hoc, Ergo Proptor Hoc’ fallacy. In sum, this study is fallacious and says nothing new. VVG’s should only be a concern if a person has pre-existing dispositions.

  4. John Voorheis says:

    This should not be taken as any sort of evidence at all!  It wouldn’t even be publishable in a more quantitatively focused discipline (guys, have you met communications majors?)
    TL;DR version: basic time series analysis would suggests the correlations shown are probably spurious (the two variables share a stochastic trend)

    • Jeff says:

      Your pointless (and wildly inaccurate) dig at the communications field notwithstanding, you might find it valuable to actually read the study.

      After controlling for various other factors that may contribute to youth crime, no association was found between levels of violence and consumption of violent media. Inferring causality at the societal level is obviously impossible (yes, even in economics), and the author does not attempt to do so. His point is merely that there is no evidence for even so much as a correlational relationship between the two variables at the societal level, and as such, organizations like the APA should refrain from claiming otherwise. As the author himself states: “All data are correlational in nature and causality cannot be inferred from such data. Indeed, that is arguably one of the conclusions of this study, the degree to which correlations between media and societal violence, whether positive or negative, can be ecological fallacies”.

  5. Dawson says:

    I think what influences a young person to become violence is a young person who grew up shooting guns, like fathers that take their kids hunting or to shooting ranges. They not only have easy access to guns in their household, but It desensitizes them to guns. It’s not a big deal firing a weapon. Now mix depression, resentment, hate, anger and easy access to weapons knowing how to use them. You have a recipe for disaster.

    I never grew up with guns. I feared guns. Guns were never around. They could never be a go to type of thing for me, like getting angry and getting guns. That access was never there, let alone how to shoot a gun.

    • Dawson says:

      I know many will disagree with me because they love guns and feel the need to protect their love of guns, but you look at most cases of mass shootings. The person had easy access to guns and had fired guns before. You never ever hear about a person going nuts and shooting a place, suddenly buying a gun and shooting it for the first time.

      • Screamapillar says:

        No, I’m sorry but this part of your argument really bothers me. ” think what influences a young person to become violence is a young person who grew up shooting guns, like fathers that take their kids hunting or to shooting ranges. They not only have easy access to guns in their household, but It desensitizes them to guns. It’s not a big deal firing a weapon.” 

        Your argument is exactly the very same argument some people have with video games. Do you see the parallels?

        I have been depressed, I’ve also grown up on video games, and my father did take me out hunting every now and again. He taught me proper gun safety, and rule number 1 is never ever have your muzzle pointed at another human being. Value a person for a person. Yes anger resentment and depression can all be apart of it, but society itself has to realize as long as we don’t actually value people, like other developed countries do, there will always be issues. Be it with guns or otherwise.

    • pjargon says:

      I don’t think so.  But if you can show data that proves otherwise, then you’d have a reason to believe that beyond stereotypes and conjecture

  6. Orionsangel says:

    I used to play Minecraft all the time. It influenced me to stack boxes and make homes out of them. 😉

  7. Phil W says:

    What about older age groups? Should have included 18-22 (in college), 25-29, 30-39, 40-49. Also study only reports recorded violent crime. What about violent household behavior? 

    • T Fitz says:

      Expanding ages, that’s a fine thing to suggest and ask for.  But how can you ask, for violent household behavior.  It’s no exactly a measurable metric such as crimes, since most of it goes unreported.