A New Book Argues That the Concerns Over Violent Video Games Are a Moral Panic

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There’s been an interesting shift in the psychological profession when it comes to video games. For a while, the only time you’d ever see a psychologist comment publicly about video games was in the context of blaming violent ones for all manner of societal ills — most famously, for school shootings. This has helped build the argument, in the public eye and among government regulators all around the world, that there is an intimate link between the consumption of these games and young gamers’ propensity for committing all manner of terrible acts.

This view still abounds, but in recent years a more nuanced understanding has gradually taken hold. Many researchers have begun to doubt some of the more overheated claims about the effects of video games on behavior, and to push back against the idea that gaming has unleashed some sort of mass pathology on the nation’s youth.

In their new book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, the psychologists Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson, who teach at Villanova University and Stetson University, respectively, offer one of the most assertive yet expert takes on why society should relax, at least a little, with regard to violent video games. Markey and Ferguson describe the concern over violent video games as just another youth-oriented moral panic in a long line of them — think comic books and naughty music and Dungeons & Dragons and so forth — and argue that it’s time to take a more reasoned, evidence-based approach in light of what they see as a paucity of evidence for links between playing violent video games (or consuming other forms of violent media, for that manner) and engaging in violent real-world behavior.

An article Markey published with some other researchers in Human Communication Research in 2015 makes this point nicely. The authors offer numerous rather convincing examples of psychologists making claims about the link between video games and violence that appear to be overbroad and sensationalistic — in both their published research and media interviews alike. One prominent researcher, for example, has repeatedly compared the potency of this link to that of the link between smoking and lung cancer. In a book chapter, two other researchers falsely claimed that video games allow players to practice “to decide whom to kill, get a weapon, get ammunition, load the weapon, stalk the victim, aim the weapon, and pull the trigger” — anyone who has played a first-person shooter knows this is false. After the Sandy Hook massacre, yet another wrote an editorial arguing that “[t]here is no division in the scientific community” about the link between violent video games and aggression.

There is division, though. And in a sense, Markey and Ferguson are still at odds with the “official” position of their own profession. The American Psychological Association, after all, has long maintained that there is such a link — as recently as 2015, the APA released a task-force report which stated that there is a “consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.” Markey, Ferguson, and other researchers complained that the task force, first announced in 2013, was stacked with anti-video-game researchers — Ferguson himself was one of the few exceptions — and therefore weren’t surprised that it came to the conclusions it did. “When I pointed out the lack of balance to the APA,” Ferguson explained in an email, “the only real thing they did was, in subsequent emails, they used blind carbon copy, so we couldn’t see who else got the emails at all. So much for transparency!” So from he and Markey’s point of view, Moral Combat can help set the record straight.

In an email interview with Science of Us, Ferguson talked more about Moral Combat’s argument, explained why video games are such an endless fixation on the part of parents and authorities, and offered some advice to parents who want to better understand their children’s video-game hobbies without giving in to fearmongering. An edited transcript is below.

One phrase that jumps out from the book is the “Grand Theft Fallacy.” Could you explain what it is and why people are so endlessly susceptible to it?

The Grand Theft Fallacy comes when people try to spuriously connect high-profile violent crimes, particularly by young males, to video games. It’s a good example of confirmation bias, where people are looking for information that fits with their preconceived biases, and not engaging in critical thinking. On the most basic level, people may hear about a young male committing a crime and think, “I bet he played violent video games!” When it comes out that, sure enough, at least once, like ever, he played a violent video game, people treat it as a divine revelation. People forget that almost all young males play violent video games at least occasionally, and the fact that young offenders do isn’t really very discriminatory.

Probably the most blatant example of this in recent memory was the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. The official investigation was sealed until nearly a year later, but that didn’t stop multiple news outlets from speculating that Adam Lanza might have been “obsessed” with violent video games. There seemed to be all kinds of anonymous sources, supposedly close to the investigation, claiming he racked up thousands of hours on shooter games, and learned to swap out half-full magazines for his rifle before entering rooms, as gamers often do in shooter games. Of course, even if he had been an avid shooter-game player, that wouldn’t have distinguished him from millions of other young males. But, ultimately, the official investigation report revealed that, although he had a few long-outdated action games in his house, he spent most of his time playing Dance Dance Revolution and other nonviolent video games. The Sandy Hook shooter wasn’t much of a shooter gamer at all. I’ve always been curious who those “anonymous sources” were, as they clearly didn’t know much about the actual investigation. But Sandy Hook was a great example of a moral panic in process … people rushing to blame games and even call for anti-game legislation before we even knew if the shooter played violent games much at all.

What other sorts of cognitive biases affect the national discourse about video games?

Well, there have been a number of studies now, with the general public, with clinicians and with scholars that all show the same thing — old people don’t like video games! But it’s really not age, it’s more experience with games. Curiously, we also find consistently that people who don’t like teens very much are also the people most likely to believe that games are harmful. So there seems to be a certain “kids today with their music and their hair” effect going on, even among scholars.

The problem is that in a period of moral panic, society creates incentives for scholars, news media, and politicians to support the panic. For us scholars, it’s easier to get grant money, newspaper headlines, and professional prestige for “saving the children” against some perceived social harm. I think that explains why groups like the APA and American Academy of Pediatrics have put together such blatantly flawed and biased policy statements on these issues that get most of us scholars shaking our heads in disbelief.

Of course, over time the old folks die and these moral panics go away … nobody worries about Twisted Sister, or Prince, or Cyndi Lauper anymore, despite the fact that in the 1980s, Congress highlighted each of these artists on their “Filthy Fifteen” list of despicable rock/pop performers ruining childhood. What groups like the APA and AAP don’t realize is that their panicky claims of mass harm ultimately look silly and do damage to the reputation of our fields.

One interesting, counterintuitive argument you guys make is that the time someone spends on an activity doesn’t correlate with how much “addictive behavior” they are demonstrating. Could you explain that?

Addiction, particularly as it has come to be applied to behaviors such as gaming, food, sex, work, exercise, etc., is a concept that’s really been watered down. That’s not to say there probably aren’t some people with real problems managing their behavior, but claims that, say, gaming addiction is similar to heroin addiction are not supported by good data — these claims that video-game addiction is similar because the same area of the brain are involved, for example, ignores the fact that that “same area of the brain” is involved in anything that’s fun! It could be having a good meal or having sex or doing cocaine or playing video games. But what those headlines don’t tell you is the amount of activation is vastly different, and there’s much more of it for something like methamphetamine addiction.

As far as the behavioral addictions go, the main issue is really the degree to which overindulgence in a particular behavior results in serious problems in other areas of a person’s life. If you have sex with 100 people in a given year and that causes you to get a divorce, or multiple STDs, then that’s a problem. But if you have sex with 100 people and you practice safe sex, and are honest with your partners about not wanting a commitment, etc., well, then, other people may not morally approve of your behavior, but it’s not really interfering with anything and it’s not a mental illness. So it’s not the frequency of an activity that’s a problem, but more whether it causes problems in other realms. So if a kid games five hours a day, but is able to exercise, get adequate sleep, and get her homework done, that’s not an addiction. Her parents may think she ought to spend time doing other things but, tough. On the other hand, another kid might struggle to get his homework done even though he just plays 2 hours a night. In that case even though he’s playing less than the first teen, his gaming could be considered interfering. Usually, though, problematic gaming behaviors are indicative of other, underlying mental health issues for example, oftentimes people who are depressed may withdraw from other activities in society. They don’t have a lot of energy, they don’t want to see their friends, and they’ll want to do something fairly passive — so they’ll stay home and play video games for hours and hours. That doesn’t mean they’re addicted to video games, it means they’re depressed and can play video games from bed.

So overall, is the idea to make our conversation about video-game addiction more focused on the actual negative consequences, rather than on “Timmy is playing video games too much and I don’t understand why he doesn’t have other, more interesting hobbies”?

Absolutely. I think too often older adults just don’t “get” gaming or see the appeal … then when their kids or grandkids seem glued to the screens they wonder, “Why don’t they go outside and look at trees?” I don’t know when kids ever actually did this, but whatever. Older adults mistake their own lack of value in a newer form of media or art with that new media sucking out their kids’ souls.

Your last chapter provides some tips for concerned parents. If you could distill your generic advice to parents into just a few sentences, what would they be?

I think the main thing is to relax. Video games have not ruined society anymore than Harry Potter did in the 2000s, or rock music in the 1980s, or comic books in the 1950s. The important thing really is to talk to your kids about video games. And above all else, make a real effort to understand what kids see in them, why they play, what they like about the games. Parents should play the games themselves! Often games are less scary when you actually see them rather than relying on brief clips on the news. That doesn’t mean parents can’t set limits — they can and should. But often what’s reasonable can be worked out in a dialogue with kids, rather than handed down heavy-handed style through an ignorant fear of far-reaching pernicious effects.

Any other questions I should have asked, or anything else you’d like to add?

I think we have to remember that the popularity of video games, even violent ones, has exploded in the past few decades. Despite this, on most behavioral indices, including things like violent crime, teen pregnancy, drug use, etc., kids look a lot better than they did 25 years ago (except pot — kids today like their pot!). Violence in our society is at the lowest levels since the 1960s.

For some reason, the second half of the 20th century was a period in which people seemed to want to exaggerate the impact of media on youth behavior across a number of areas … violence, sex, occult beliefs, whatever. At this point, based on the data, we see that those fears — those theories — really were fundamentally wrong. I certainly won’t say media has no impact at all on us, but it seems that our brains distinguish reality from fiction and what we want to get out of media seems more important than content itself. It’s probably time to move past the idea that media can create major public health-concerns and turn to more sophisticated, but perhaps less newsworthy, theories about how people select, process, and shape media.

Are Concerns Over Violent Video Games Just a Moral Panic?