The Effects of Video Game Violence
Craig Anderson, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University, is well known for his research on the effects of media violence. His research on aggression, media violence, depression, and social judgment has had a profound influence on psychological theory and modern society. Karen Dill is Associate Professor of Psychology at Lenoir-Rhyne College, and has the honor of having a car named after her in Grand Theft Auto IV. Here, they talk about the effects of video game violence on children and adolescents.
Transcript after the jump.
Lori Handleman (OUP Editor): I’d like to welcome Dr. Craig Anderson and Dr. Karen Dill to the podcast. Craig is distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and is widely regarded as the foremost expert on the effects of violent video games. He is the author of Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents, published by Oxford University Press in 2007.
Karen is associate professor of psychology at Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina. Her dissertation, co-authored with Craig, is the single most-cited research paper on the effects of video game violence. Karen is currently writing a book for Oxford University Press on the social psychology of the mass media, titled When Fantasy Becomes Reality. Craig, Karen, welcome.
ANDERSON: Thank you.
DILL: Thanks Lori. Hi Craig.
ANDERSON: Hi Karen, good to talk to you.
DILL: Good to talk to you too. I thought I would begin with just telling a little story about how we know each other.
DILL: When I was 19, if you’ll recall, way back in those days (of course it was only a couple years ago), I first met Craig. He was teaching social psychology at the University of Missouri, and I started doing some research work with you as you remember on temperature and aggression. And I recall that my good friend called me across the hall into her dorm room and showed me her social psychology book and said “Hey, that guy you’re working for, he’s famous!” So I thought, oh, really? But now I know it’s true. I know we want to have a sort of broader conversation about media psychology today, so I thought I’d start with a question about that.
ANDERSON: Sure, okay.
DILL: As a media psychologist, there are a lot of people out there, and I know I encounter them all the time, as do you, who are really resistant to believing that media violence even can cause aggression. Can you talk about why you think that might be true?
ANDERSON: Yes, I think there are a number of reasons. The media industry themselves, of course, have a huge profit motive, and that certainly plays a big role in their attempts to discredit the research. You know, gamers themselves, I think there are a number of things that enter into their resistance. First of all, people in general don’t like to believe they can be affected by anything, especially anything as trivial as TV shows, or movies, or video games. So there’s just a general resistance to belief that we’re being affected by outside forces. Then I guess there’s one other sort of overriding thing that influences parents as well as people in the media industries, the people who create violent games or violent media, people who distribute them and sell them, and it’s actually a kind of cognitive dissonance kind of thing. You know, most people think of themselves and they think, “I’m a good person, I don’t do things to harm children,” yet they’re producing these violent games, or they’re selling them or renting them to kids. So there’s this other sort of cognition floating around of gee, if it’s true that these things are harmful, then I’ve harmed children, and that’s very, very uncomfortable. The easy way out of that discomfort is to decide that the research is wrong and that there aren’t harmful effects, and I’m still a good person even though I’m selling these bloody things to children all the time.
DILL: Yeah, absolutely. And that makes our jobs, as media psychologists, difficult, and I want to talk about that more a little bit later. I’m sure you and I have both sat in audiences with teenage boys glaring at us, not enjoying our talks in any way.
DILL: People do try to deny it, but it is there for those who can see it. Do you think there’s any way to convince somebody who’s resistant to believing in the research that media violence affects are real?
ANDERSON: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ve had an email exchange, fairly recently, with a die-hard gamer. I usually don’t get into these exchanges because they’re usually pretty pointless. This one had an interesting twist to it; this young man, he’s in his late teens. After some initial sort of give and take on the email, he apparently set up either a video camera or a webcam, he didn’t say which, but basically recorded himself while he was playing one of his favorite violent games, and then went back and watched the recording. He said “I had no idea I was swearing that much at the game,” and he said “my facial expressions, I looked incredibly angry, I had no perception while I was playing the game, that this is what I was doing.”
DILL: That’s such a rare person. When people do that, I’m always impressed because it’s hard to get over all those barriers that you mentioned.
ANDERSON: Exactly. And I found that kind of interesting. But you know, for the more general kind of resistance, certainly I think there are going to be people who just can’t possibly accept that there might be harmful effects. That’s unfortunate, but you know, that’s the way it is.
DILL: I want to talk a little about some broader media issues. I know that you do a lot of work on media violence, but I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about what might be some fundamental and important ways people are just affected by exposure to the mass media in general.
ANDERSON: Well, I think most people underestimate how big an impact mass media in general have. If you look at how many hours a week most people spend watching television or movies or playing video games or, more recently, just on the internet. I mean, that’s where we get our information, is from the mass media, and when the messages tend to be very similar, that is there’s an awful lot of violence, and of course in the United States and I think in most modern countries as well, an awful lot of consumer messages out there, those tend to shape our values, our beliefs about what’s possible, our beliefs about what’s appropriate. And I think that has implications for society in general.
DILL: Sometimes I think about these reality shows, and I think that if someone taped a reality show of your average American, it would just be someone sitting on the sofa or looking at their computer screen. It wouldn’t be very interesting.
ANDERSON: That’s true, that’s true.
DILL: Do you think scientists should try to advocate for the positions suggested by their research? Should we get more involved in the policy making?
ANDERSON: That’s a good question. I know psychologists have wrestled with that periodically. I guess my feeling at this point is that we have a responsibility to provide, as clearly as possible, factual information gained from our research studies. We should provide that information to any group, any individual, who seeks it out, who wants it. In terms of actually becoming an advocate for specific policies, I personally have tried to stay away from that aspect. In part because I’m not really a public policy person, and in part because I’m afraid that if I start advocating for a particular policy, that that will somehow detract from my ability, my perceived ability, to act as a scientific expert. I think we do have a responsibility to society in general to say “Okay, here’s what the research says. Here’s what the research doesn’t say. Here’s where we need more research in order to be able to answer questions that are of importance to modern society.”
DILL: There’s a lot of myths that people do believe about media violence that are going around out there, and I think that these are used to make those kinds of arguments. Can you tell us about some of the myths and talk about why they are myths?
ANDERSON: Yes, yes. I’m sure both of us have heard many of the same ones over and over in different contexts. Some of the more common ones are, for example: only some kids are affected. That comes out in several forms: only boys are affected, or only children, young children, are affected, or only those who are already aggressive, only aggressive kids are affected by media violence. And I’ve even heard the extreme version—only those sick psychopathic few are affected. And of course, that’s just not true. As you well know, the research evidence seems to indicate that basically every group, any kind of categorization scheme you can come up with seems to suffer some harmful effects of exposure to media violence. There’s certainly considerable debate within the field about whether some groups might be more harmed than others, and there’s some reason to think that might be true, but there’s certainly no evidence that only a few are affected. I think that’s one of the real big ones. And you hear that a lot from parents too, I’m sure you do as well. “Well, my kid isn’t going to be affected.” Along those same lines is the myth that if your child or adolescent or even adult is at a cognitive stage where they can distinguish fantasy from reality, that they know it’s a game, that it won’t have a negative impact on them. We also know that that’s a myth. It’s just not true.
DILL: What are some of the most common reactions you get when you’re speaking? And I know it differs depending on who the audience is that we’re talking about here, but could you talk a little bit about that?
ANDERSON: Well, for some, basically for non-gamers, I get two kinds of shock reactions. One is they’re shocked at the content. I show them brief clips from modern games and they’re just appalled. They had no idea what is out there and what is commonly being played by children and adolescents.
DILL: Yes, I’ve seen whole rooms of people turn kind of ghostly white after seeing some of those game scenes.
ANDERSON: Yes, exactly. In fact, I’ve started warning my audience on occasion and started scanning my audiences to be sure there aren’t underage kids in there before I show some of the clips that are common from games. The other form of shock I get, especially from people who aren’t gamers, is they’re shocked at how strong the research data are. They had no idea about how many studies have been done and how consistent the results are across different kinds of studies, across different countries. It’s like they sort of expected gee, if the research is that clear, they would have seen it in the news. And they haven’t seen it in the news. That’s a fairly common reaction. And the gamers in the audience, and of course a larger and larger portion of the audiences now are gamers. So for example, I recently gave a couple talks that were largely undergraduate students in the audience, and a lot of the gamers in that audience first of all seemed panicked by this. You know, they’re very threatened by the idea that there might be some harmful affects and they immediately engage in this alternative search for explanations, and they’re usually the same alternative explanations that we’ve ruled out again and again.
DILL: That really shows just how motivated people are, that there’s a powerful psychology going on there. It’s just not the one that they think. Now, I know we have a time limit here and I’m enjoying this conversation and wish it could on longer but I have one more question for you. This is not easy to do in a short program like this, but if you had some parting words for the parents out there, because I know that there are a lot of parents who are concerned when they hear these things and they want to know well, what should good parents do in this situation. Do you have some advice?
ANDERSON: Yes, what I’ve been telling parents recently is first of all, young children, if they’re say two years or younger, shouldn’t have any screen time at all, whether it’s TV, video games, movies, whether it’s non violent. There is growing research literature suggesting that screen time for kids that young may well be associated later with attention deficit problems and school performance problems. They shouldn’t have any screen time. Another thing I’d tell people is there shouldn’t be any TV, computer, video games that kind of stuff in the child’s bedroom. The reason for that is if it’s in the bedroom, it’s very hard for parents to monitor how long a child watching TV, for example, or playing video games, as well as it’s very hard to monitor the content. So the TVs, video games, all that should be in public space, where it’s relatively easy for a parent, while they’re doing other things around the house, just to walk by. A third thing I tell people is that you really need to control your child’s media diet in the same way that you would control their food diet. We really don’t want children growing up on potato chips and soda, so why would you want them growing up on sort of junk media? You need to be actively involved in your child’s media choices and media use. You need to talk to them about what kind of behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate, so if they are watching a TV show or playing a game that has some violence in it, if a parent talks to them about how those are unrealistic portrayals, and this is not really the way we solve problems—all this has to be age appropriate of course—but those kinds of discussions seem to help. And then finally I suggest a simple thing, but one that takes time, is, you know, reading to kids is really very good for them, and as they get a little bit older, having them read to you is good for them in multiple ways. So I guess that’s my parting advice: more reading, less screen time, and what screen time they have should be carefully monitored and controlled by the parents.
DILL: That’s great advice.
Lori: Well, thank you so much, Craig and Karen, for such a fascinating discussion. I know our podcast listeners are going to enjoy this and take a great deal of information away. We look forward to reading and hearing more about your important work in the future.
DILL, ANDERSON: Thank you.