Tag Archives: Brock University

Do video games make teens aggressive, or do aggressive teens like aggressive games?


A new study finds that teens who play violent video games are more aggressive than those who don’t. Or does it? Photo by Flickr User soleface23.

A new longitudinal study of 1,492 teens at eight high schools in Canada looks at those who play violent video games regularly, and those who don’t, and asks them questions about their behavior. Here’s what Brock University researchers Teena Willoughby, Paul Adachi, and Marie Good say they found:

Sustained violent video game play was significantly related to steeper increases in adolescents’ trajectory of aggressive behavior over time. Moreover, greater violent video game play predicted higher levels of aggression over time, after controlling for previous levels of aggression, supporting the socialization hypothesis. In contrast, no support was found for the selection hypothesis. Nonviolent video game play also did not predict higher levels of aggressive behavior over time.

Right now, there’s no way to access the full study without paying for it, and the writeups in the Telegraph and Kotaku don’t shed a lot of light on the study’s details. Importantly, though, Kotaku did ask:

However, the study leaves open the distinction between correlation and causation. Publicly available materials leave unclear in which direction the link might actually go: do the games cause teenagers to act aggressively, or are teenagers with aggressive dispositions more likely also to play violent games?

(In that light, it’s important to note that the Telegraph’s headline, “Violent video games make teenagers more aggressive, study finds/Teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people as a result, a new study has found” is misleading.)

At any rate, I do wonder how this study went down, and that’s partly because I’m familiar with the work of Jonathan Freeman. In his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, he points out that when study subjects are given permission to be more aggressive, they are more likely to be. (If you click through to that link, you can see some examples of what he’s talking about.)

Now, not all the kids in the Brock study were aggressive. The researchers found that only the teens playing violent video games became more aggressive; the ones playing nonviolent games weren’t aggressive. But here’s the thing: did the kids know what was being studied? Do they know, by now, that many people think violent video games make you violent? If so, wouldn’t that seem like a kind of permission, at least to a teenager? At the very least, maybe they are unconsciously living up to some kind of expectation.

It’s also a concern that kids are self-reporting their actions, without any objective measure to back up what they’re saying. Maybe those who play violent games are more comfortable with aggressive behavior, and with reporting it. Or maybe they think it’s cool, so they brag about little incidents, or exaggerate and say they were aggressive when they weren’t. Teens are trustworthy plenty of the time, but there could be enough in a study like this, who may not take it seriously, to skew the results.

Or, as Kotaku points out, it may simply be that kids who are more aggressive in general are also drawn to video games where aggression is okay. Which brings us to another question: How much more aggressive are aggressive kids who don’t play violent video games? That’s worth studying, too.

By the way, Backward Messages may be taking a little vacation over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post if I can, but things may not be back to normal until early November.

Science gets spicy: is it violence, or competitiveness, that makes gamers act up?


Do video games make people more likely to serve spice-haters hotter hot sauce? Some do, apparently. Picture by Flickr user jennecy.

I’ve talked to a lot of parents about whether they think violent video games make their kids more aggressive. Although some have noted a relationship between gaming and surly behavior, most don’t think it’s violent games per se that are the culprit. At most, they theorize that something else about the act of playing a video game — any video game — might make teens have a hard time coming back to reality, where the reward system is murkier.

Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, researchers at Brock University in Canada, thought it was high time that a study on video games and aggression looked beyond violent video games. In a new paper, published by the American Psychological Association, the duo describe how they looked at whether it’s gaming’s competitiveness, rather than its violence, that makes players act up after walking away from the game controller.

So far, studies have failed to prove that such behavior is due to in-game violence because, as Adachi and Willoughby put it, “it is unclear whether participants view their behavior as competitive instead of aggressive, in that participants’ motivation to give intense punishments may be to slow their opponents’ response time on subsequent trials, thus allowing participants to win the competition (Lieberman et al., 1999). Furthermore, because violent games generally involve more competition than nonviolent games, violent video games may prime competitive schemas more than nonviolent video games.”

To tease out the competitive angle, Adachi ran two trials: in the first, he had had 42 college students (25 men, 17 women) play Conan (a violent first-person-sworder) or Fuel (a nonviolent racing game) for 12 minutes. Apparently, the games are equally matched for competitiveness, although Conan is more violent. Then, gamers had to make up a cup of hot sauce for a “taster” who supposedly didn’t like spicy food. The “Conan” players didn’t make up spicier brews than the “Fuel” players, suggesting that violent content alone was not a factor in aggressive action (or, in this case, passive-aggressive action).

In the second round, Adachi had 60 college students (32 men, 28 women) play one of four games: Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe, a violent, competitive fighting game; Left 4 Dead 2, a violent, moderately competitive zombie shooter; Marble Blast Ultra, a nonviolent, noncompetitive game; and Fuel, the highly competitive, nonviolent racing game. They then did the hot-sauce experiment again (I wonder who came up with that idea) and found that the Mortal Kombat and Fuel picked hotter sauces for their “tasters” than the Marble Blast and Left 4 Dead folks. They also had significantly higher heart rates, according to electrocardiogram readings.

“These findings suggest that the level of competitiveness in video games is an important factor in the relation between video games and aggressive behavior, with highly competitive games leading to greater elevations in aggression than less competitive games,” wrote Adachi.

Interesting, though these kinds of trials have the same problem that other studies: namely, that they only show the short-term effects of playing pre-selected video games in a lab setting, which is not likely to resemble how gamers actually play or behave in a real-life situation. (Hot sauce? Really?) The gamers were tested immediately after playing, but nobody followed them home to see whether they put hot sauce on their loved ones’ food that night out of lingering aggression. Or, you know, actually harmed anyone as the result of the gaming session.

Note Adachi’s careful language in that statement above. “Important factor,” “relation between video games and aggressive behavior.” He’s not saying anything causes anything. Just that there are factors and relations. In his closing remarks, he admits that the findings might be limited to the college-age subjects he studied. And, he added:

Although this study addressed the short-term effect of video game competition on aggressive behavior, we did not examine long-term effects. Thus, longitudinal research examining the relation between video game competition and aggression is needed. Finally, findings may not generalize to other geographic regions, including those with differing ethnic and/or demographic mixes.

Right. I’ve met more than one person from a culture that favored spicy food who would serve you extra hot sauce, thinking they were doing you a favor.