supremely interesting violent issues and no respect for the data…

July 1, 2011

I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a California law that sought to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. As a parent, someone who played the first iterations of the first person shooter games (Doom and Quake were my favorites), and a psychologist, I find the issue interesting on several levels. Most of all though I guess I am interested in how the science played a role in this court case. Unfortunately, I have not had gobs of extra time to follow along with the arguments presented to the justices (a selection can be found here) or to scrutinize the final lengthy decision (accessible here – be warned, it is over 90 pages…). However, from my causal following of the case and an initial perusal of the final decision, an interesting issue arises.

On the one hand, there has been a notable consensus that interactive, violent video games do have a negative psychological impact on children:

On the other hand, the court did not feel that the science behind these claims was sufficient to support the law passed in California:

“The State’s evidence is not compelling.  California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children.  These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent videogames cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” Video Software Dealers Assn. 556 F. 3d, at 964. They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.” – quoted from p. 12-13 of Brown vs. the Entertainment Merchants Assn.

As a parent, I do think that kids have abundant and potentially detrimental exposure to images and ideas that they are simply not prepared to deal with.

As a former game player (now I am reduced to Angry Birds and WordTwist), I recognize that I had fun and no real harm came of my slaying of many beasts.

Oh yeah, I also happen to be a very big supporter of the first amendment.

But… As a psychologist, I have mixed feelings. I was very happy to see that the justices at least understood the correlation-does-not-equal-causation issue. But, I thought that there was not a full appreciation for what the pertinent research offered. The meta-analyses and survey work done was correlational – there is a connection between the time kids spend playing violent video games and real-world behaviors, e.g. school disruption, fighting, etc. They are right that this in no way proves that the video games cause those behaviors. However, a body of evidence has also accumulated from within the lab that does support a causal link. Actual experimentation has shown that when all else is held constant and the participants are randomly assigned to experimental conditions, playing a violent video game effects behaviors. Ok – the behaviors are not extreme (although the justices missed my favorite study methodology – the hot sauce paradigm), but they do show a consistent, elevated antisocial tendency among participants that play violent video games compared to those that play non-violent ones. For a whole host of (hopefully obvious) reasons, researchers can not see whether playing violent video games leads to actual violence. We have to look at a range of behaviors and see whether the interconnected patterns of behavior support the conclusion that violent video games have a negative effect. Although there are still many questions to address, and we need to remain appropriately skeptical and open to the possibility that violent video games are indeed harmless, I thought the final decision missed the importance of the empirical evidence available. The justices live in a world of legalese and case precedent. I’ll never fully understand the reasoning they employ. In this situation, I thought that they did not give science its due. They seemed to misinterpret the skepticism and caution necessary for careful scientific inquiry as a counter to the actual data. Whether putting more weight on the science would have changed the final decision – much of the discussion was appropriately focused on first amendment issues – I don’t know, but at least they could have shown more respect for data. Respect the data, man, that is what it boils down to…


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