Violence in Games: A Conversation with Christopher Ferguson, Part Two

This is part two of my interview with Texas A&M International University psychology professor Christopher Ferguson, who has challenged a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics claiming a link between video game violence and increased aggression in children and adolescents.

The primary author of the article claims "We now have conclusive evidence that playing video games has harmful effects on children and adolescents." Ferguson says that claim is erroneous, because the research is based on "weak results" and draws "misleading conclusions."

(Part one of my interview with Christopher Ferguson is here.)

Game On: Maybe you can help me with a question I keep asking aggression researchers. What about professional sports? What about football? Basketball? Why are we so focused on video games? Why aren't we talking about things like hockey and boxing, where people routinely and aggressively knock each other around for real?

Christopher Ferguson: There's a couple of issues here. The first one is this issue of the graphicness of a game. There's kind of a no-win situation there in that people's concerns about graphicness have switched across time. The view that aggression isn't just graphical in nature, but could be something as seemingly innocuous as hitting someone bloodlessly with a stick in a cartoon, reflects kind of the view that was certainly very common, and still common in some fields, in the 1970s and 1980s, when people would argue that...shows like The A-Team are a good example. There was lots and lots of violence and shooting, but nobody ever really got hurt. There was no blood, there was no graphicness to it, and people used to argue, and really some still do argue, that you're not showing the consequences of violence. So that's supposed to encourage people to be more violent because you're not showing the consequences. Nobody ever gets hurt, of if they do get hurt, they die peacefully. So there's that argument, that you're presenting violence unrealistically.

Fast forward 20 or 30 years, and now we have CSI, now we have, you know, all these very graphic shows where they're, like Bones, where they actually show the viscera and the guts, and now people are like "Oh my god, it's too graphic!" So you can't win. And either way, if you're going to have non-graphic violence, people are going to complain you're not being realistic, and scholars did complain about that. And now if you have graphic violence, people are going to complain it's too graphic and it's going to have even more of an effect. So it's sort of a no-win situation, which I think really highlights the theoretical fuzziness of some of this.

As for sports, I agree with what you're saying, that it's technically cutting a somewhat arbitrary line, but technically the way violence is defined by most scholars at least is this idea of it being nonconsensual. The other person is trying to avoid it. You're doing it without the other person's knowledge or consent. So you get into this thing where with sports, the other person's involved, the other person's having fun, you know, in theory at least. The other person's consenting to the activity. So by that definition, technically, sports doesn't really meet the definition of violence.

Now of course in a hockey game, if they start fighting with each other, that's different. But tackling, blocking in a football game, checking even perhaps in a hockey game, technically you go in there knowing it's going to happen to you and you're kind of consenting to having it happen to you, so technically, again in quotes, it's not violent. But again, I agree with what you're saying, it's cutting a bit of a fine line in there somewhere.

GO: I always thought that by definition the thing that makes it, if not analogous to sports in terms of the consensual thing, is that there's sort of a tacit consent that exists between the player of a video game and the non-reality of the game itself. That the relationship between a person playing a game and the thing in the game they're "harming" is radically unlike the relationship between someone willfully inflicting harm and the target of their aggression.

CF: That's always been the unspoken assumption, well sometimes it's also bluntly spoken...the assumption is that people, and particularly children, can't distinguish reality from fiction. So the assumption that we're sort of unable to filter, and particularly kids are unable to filter this idea that they're just doing something fictional and that they shouldn't learn from that. It's kind of like watching Saturday Night Live, the "Weekend Update," I don't know if you watch that at all, but that sort of fiction. It's sort of like you're watching that and you think what they're saying is real, that you can't distinguish that that's a comedy skit as opposed to real news.

GO: The Daily Show, Colbert...

CF: Yeah, those. But the research is pretty clear that kids as young as three or four can distinguish fiction from reality. But that is the underlying assumption, that we are not able to filter where the message comes from. But the evidence for that assumption is really nonexistent. If anything the evidence suggests that kids from a very young age can distinguish reality from fiction.

Back to video games, that's where the moral panic has gone at this point, and if you look historically, throughout even just the twentieth-century, the panic people have about media switched from one thing to another one. You know, going all the way back to movies, of course, and the early part of the twentieth-century, to jazz music of all things, to eventually rock and roll, comic books...

GO: The comics code, and David Bowie himself at one point saying, I think entirely self-consciously and mischievously, that rock and roll has always been the devil's music.

CF: Yeah, rock and roll, rap music of course, television for awhile, pornography of course, even though at this point rape rates are going down. But you don't really hear a lot about that. Nobody cares about comics book anymore. Nobody cares about rock music frankly. There's still a little bit of concern about gangster rap, but even television, you're not hearing as much about television anymore. I mean there's still some concern of course, there's still the Parent's Television Council and such. And pornography you're not hearing a lot about anymore. I mean at this point I think we can say that obviously porn didn't cause rape.

But now it's video games, sort of the newest one at the moment, the one that the kids are using a lot, the one that most adults don't know anything about. And that's usually the key, that you have a bunch of young people, 30 and below, who are engaged in the activity, and you have a bunch of people, 40 and above, who don't engage in the activity, and so the 40-and-above-year-olds get concerned about the 30-and-below-year-olds. Whenever there's a mismatch in media use between the sort of elders of society and the younger members of society, that's when the media's going to be picked on essentially as being this hideous, horrible thing that's going to corrupt our children and whatever else. And of course in 20 or 30 years, people will sort of relax about video games, and I don't know what comes next, but whatever it is, they'll worry about that one instead.

GO: Why is it that you have this general decline in violent crimes in the U.S. across the board, I can't remember if it's been 11 years or 13 years...

CF: Since 1993.

GO: 1993, so even longer.

CF: About 15 years.

GO: And yet, I don't want to draw a false correlation between one or the other, because it could be something else. But what is it? What would it be? If video games are influencing people to be more aggressive, why are crimes of aggression dropping even as video games have become more pervasive during this period? And how does this Pediatrics study jibe with what seems to be the social reality?

CF: It doesn't. And in fact it's not just the U.S. in terms of the decline in violent crime, it's most Western countries. Many of them didn't have much violent crime to begin with, but even England, most of Western Europe, Japan, even though Japan didn't have much violent crime to start with, they've all seen declines in violent criminal acts in both youth and adults. And across all acts. It's not just homicides, it's all aggravated assault, it's rape, it's everything that you're seeing a decline in.

So yeah, that's a point that I've raised, I think Cheryl Olson has raised it at times. There is a big mismatch between the concern about video games and youth violence, and occasionally people like [Craig] Anderson [the primary author of the Pediatrics report linking video game violence with increased aggression] will say that violent crime data doesn't matter, but he raises it in his own study. I mean, he raises youth violence in his own study, but he fails to mention that youth violence is down, I think about 66 percent from its peak in 1993. We're actually...I mean American society, and people don't seem to realize this, is the least violent it's been since the last 1960s. We're at a 40 year low in terms of violent criminal acts among both youth and adults.

So there is no match between the hysteria regarding video games and other kinds of violent media, and actual data on violent crimes in society. What happened historically of course is television was introduced in the 1940, the late 1940s, and then about 20 years later, violent crime started to raise up, and people said "Well see, television did this," and of course there were other things going on in society at the time. This was the late 1960s of course, there was the Vietnam War, and racial strain, and there were a lot of civil problems in American society, poverty was increasing, the economy was down. Most criminologists look back at that crime spike that lasted from the late sixties to the early nineties and says it was probably poverty, and bad policing, and a bunch of other kinds of issues.

Similar thing going now to this decrease, as you mentioned. It's probably not due to video games as the actual cause of the decrease. It's unlikely that everybody playing video games is causing people to become less violent. But it was probably, up until recently, an improving economy, better policing, and other kinds of activity that, you know, probably better prevention efforts in school and things like that.

GO: You mention the economy that's been increasingly improved by the sales of video games.

CF: Yeah, agreed. It's one of the ironies in all of this.

GO: Thanks Christopher.

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