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A Few Questions for Craig A. Anderson


Craig A. Anderson, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University, is widely regarded as the foremost expert on the effects of violent video games. Below he answers some questions about what he has learned. His book, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy was written with co-authors Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley. The book presents an overview of empirical research on the effects of violent video games and adds three new studies that fill the most important gaps in knowledge. The book is the first of its kind to unite empirical research on and public policy options for violent video games.

OUP: You have been reviewing 50 years of research on media violence and aggression: what have the main research steps been?

Craig A. Anderson: Most of the early research focused on two questions: 1. Is there a Violent_video_games
significant association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior? 2. Is this association causal? The results, overall, have been fairly consistent across types of studies: experimental, cross-sectional (often called “correlational”), and longitudinal (which are also a type of “correlational” study). There is a significant relation between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Increased exposure leads to increased aggressive behavior. A single exposure can increase aggression in the immediate situation. Repeated exposure leads to general increases in aggressiveness over time. This relation is causal.

OUP: How does exposure to media violence increase later aggressive behavior?

Anderson: Although a few of the early studies investigated underlying psychological mechanisms, more recent research focused somewhat more on the underlying psychological mechanisms, as well as on longitudinal results. We now have a pretty clear picture of how exposure to media violence can increase aggression in both the immediate situation as well as in long term contexts. Immediately after exposure to media violence, there is an increase in aggressive behavior tendencies because of several factors. 1. Aggressive thoughts increase, which in turn increase the likelihood that a mild or ambiguous provocation will be interpreted in a hostile fashion. 2. Aggressive (or hostile) affect increases. 3. General arousal (e.g., heart rate) increases, which tends to increase the dominant behavioral tendency. 4. People learn new aggressive behaviors by observing, and will reenact them almost immediately afterwards if the situational context is sufficiently similar.

Repeated exposure to media violence over time increases aggression across a range of situations and across time because of several related factors. 1. Repeated exposure creates more positive attitudes, beliefs, and expectations regarding aggressive solutions to interpersonal problems. 2. It leads to the development of aggressive scripts, which are basically ways of thinking about how the social world works. Heavy media violence consumers tend to view the world in a more hostile fashion. 3. It decreases the cognitive accessibility of nonviolent ways to handle conflict. 4. It produces an emotional desensitization to aggression and violence. Normally, people have a pretty negative emotional reaction to conflict, aggression, and violence, and this can be seen in their physiological reactions to observation of violence (real or fictional, as in entertainment media). 5. Repetition increases learning, including learning how to aggress.

OUP: Is there a difference between the effects of TV/movie violence versus Video-Games violence?

Anderson: Most of the research has focused on TV/movie violence (so-called “passive” media), mainly because they have been around so much longer than video games. However, the existing research literature on violent video games has yielded the same general types of effects as the TV and Cinema research. Of course, there currently are no large scale longitudinal studies of violent video game effects. That will require additional time and resources.

At a theoretical level, there are reasons to believe that the violent video game effects may prove larger than TV and Cinema effects. However, this is a very difficult research question, and to date it has not been adequately examined, so there currently is no definitive answer. Nonethesless, the studies reported in our book include tests of this idea, and the results support the hypothesis that violent video game effects are larger than the more passive media effects of television and films.

OUP: Are results of video game studies consistent? Are some social groups more susceptible to the negative effects of violent video games than others? Are some groups immune to these effects?

Anderson: There is some research suggesting that individuals who are already fairly aggressive may be more affected by exposure to violent video games, but it is not yet conclusive. There has not yet been enough studies using video games to yield a clear answer.

However, there is some reason to believe that the negative effects of exposure to media violence in general (including TV/movies) may be larger for some groups than others. Occasionally, they appear larger for boys than girls, but that may no longer be true (at least, in U.S. society). Some of the observed gender differences in media violence studies may have occurred because measures of aggression often focus on boy-type aggression (e.g., physical aggression) rather than girl-type aggression (e.g., relational aggression).

In general, people who already are highly aggressive sometimes appear to be more affected by media violence in the immediate situation than those who are not highly aggressive. But again, this doesn’t always occur. Those from poorer backgrounds may be more at risk, but that may be because they tend to be exposed to higher levels of media violence, or because of other aggression-enhancing factors present in their environments.

Two additional points are worth remembering. 1. No one has ever identified a group of people who consistently appear immune to the negative effects of media violence. 2. Extreme aggression, such as aggravated assault and homicide, typically occurs only when there are a number of risk factors present. Exposure to violent media is only one risk factor. In other words, none of the risk factors are “necessary and sufficient” causes of extreme aggression. Of course, cigarette smoking is not a necessary and sufficient cause of lung cancer, even though it is a major cause of it.

OUP: How important is the distinction between realistic violence versus fantasy violence?

Anderson: This is an extremely important question because it is so frequently misunderstood. Many a person, including psychiatrists and psychologists, tend to think: “Well, it is just a game, the boy (girl) is able to make the difference between it and reality. Let us not worry about it.” One of the great myths surrounding media violence is this notion that if the individual can distinguish between media violence and reality, then it can’t have an adverse effect on that individual. Of course, the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise. And in fact, most of the studies that have demonstrated a causal link between exposure to media violence and subsequent aggressive behavior have been done with individuals who were fully aware that the observed media violence was not reality. For instance, many studies have used young adult participants who knew that the TV show, the movie clip, or the video game to which they were exposed was not “real.” These studies still yielded the typical media violence effect on subsequent aggressive behavior.

OUP: The claim has been made that in terms of the general public’s beliefs about media violence effects, we are currently in a situation that is very similar to where the public was some 30 years ago in the tobacco/lung cancer issue. In what ways are these two cases similar? Dissimilar?

Anderson:The medical research community knew that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer long before the general public came to hold such beliefs. In fact, there are still sizable numbers of smokers who don’t really believe this to be true. The tobacco industry was quite effective at keeping the
public confused regarding the true causal effect of tobacco on lung cancer. Among other tactics, they promoted “experts” who claimed that the research was badly done, or was inconsistent, was largely irrelevant to lung cancer in humans. The media industries have been doing much the same thing, seeking out, promoting, and supporting “experts” willing to bash media violence research.

The tobacco industry successfully defended itself against lawsuits for many years. There have been several lawsuits filed in the U.S. against various video game companies in recent years. As far as I know, none have been successful yet.

One big difference between the tobacco industry case and the violent media case is that the main sources of information to the public (e.g., TV news shows, newspapers, magazines) are now largely owned by conglomerates that have a vested interest in denying the validity of any research suggesting that there might be harmful effects of repeated exposure to media violence. The tobacco industry certainly had some influence on the media, because of their advertising revenues, but the violent media industries are essentially a part of the same companies that own and control the news media. Thus, it is likely to be much more difficult for the general public to get an accurate portrayal of the scientific state of knowledge about media violence effects than it was to get an accurate portrayal of the tobacco/lung cancer state of scientific knowledge. Given that it took 30-some years for the public to learn and accept the tobacco/lung cancer findings, it seems unlikely that we’ll see a major shift in the public’s understanding of media violence effects. Indeed, a recent study that my colleague Brad Bushman and I published (American Psychologist,volume 56, 2001) suggests that the media violence/aggression link was firmly established scientifically by 1975, and that news reports on this research have gotten less
accurate over time.

OUP: What is your advice concerning pubic policy towards violent entertainment media,
particularly violent video games violence managing?

Anderson: I try very hard to restrict my role in this debate to that of an expert media violence researcher. After all, that’s what my training is in, and what I have devoted much of my life and career to doing. So, when the U.S. Senate (or anyone else) asks what the current scientific research literature shows, I tell them as plainly and clearly as possible. There is a “correct” answer to such a question, and I do my best to convey that answer. When asked what society should do about it, well, that’s a political question that should (in my view) be publicly debated. There is no single “correct” answer to this public policy question because a host of personal values are relevant to the debate, in addition to the relevant scientific facts.

Nonetheless, I am willing to give a vague answer to the public policy question. Given the scientific evidence that exposure to media violence increases aggression in both the short-term and the long-term, and given my belief that the level of aggression in modern society could and should be reduced, I believe that we need to reduce the exposure of youth to media violence. My preference for action is to somehow convince parents to do a better job of screening inappropriate materials from their children. It is not an easy task for parents, and perhaps there are appropriate steps that legislative bodies as well as the media industries could take to make it easier for parents to control their children’s media diet. But of course, as long as the media industries persist in denying the scientific facts and persist in keeping the general public confused about those facts, many parents won’t see a need to screen some violent materials from their children. Ironically, the industry’s success in keeping parents confused and in making parental control difficult is precisely what makes many citizens and legislators willing to consider
legislation designed to reign in what they perceive to be an industry totally lacking in ethical values.

OUP: Does violence sell?

Anderson: Clearly, violence does sell, at least in the video game market. But it is not clear whether the dominance of violent video games is due to an inherent desire for such games, or whether this is merely the result of the fact that most marketing dollars are spent on promoting violent games
instead of nonviolent ones. One great irony in all of this is the industry belief that violence is necessary in their product in order to make a profit. One result of that belief is that most of marketing efforts go into marketing violence. In fact, the media has seemingly convinced many people in the U.S. that they like only violent media products. But nonviolent and low violent products can be exciting, fun, and sell well. Myst is a good example of an early nonviolent video game that sold extremely well for quite some time. A more recent example is The Sims. Interestingly, in some of our studies college students have to play nonviolent video games. Some of the these students report that they have never played nonviolent games, and are surprised to learn that they like some of the nonviolent ones as much as their violent games.

Recent Comments

  1. University Update

    A Few Questions for Craig A. Anderson

  2. LaToyia Tolbert

    I am currently in a research class for grad school in which we have to write a research proposal. My topic is “Television and Behavioral Problems”. Is there any way I could contact you otherwise about writing this proposal?

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