Tag Archives: science

“19 questions about video games, multitasking, and aging”: more videogame-study debunking

Just after I posted the last post, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to a blog post by Daniel Simons, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. He wrote about a recent study on the effects of videogames on aging brains and breaks down, in detail, what works and what doesn’t about the study and its methodology. It’s a good counterpoint to my piece, so if you’re looking for more, check it out here: 19 questions about video games, multitasking, and aging (a HI-BAR commentary on a new Nature paper).

How to read a social-science study


Photo by Flickr user Sociology at Work.

News outlets are chock-full of articles reporting some new study and what it says about health or climate change or violent video games. Reading these articles can sometimes be a little like playing that childhood game of telephone. By the time the message reaches you, it’s probably at least a little different from what the original person said. I’ve written for Poynter about how journalists can improve their coverage of research. Today I want to give everyday folks some pointers for reading and interpreting actual studies.

1. Get the actual study.
Articles usually mention the researchers involved, and the university, if there was one. Sometimes studies are locked away behind academic-journal paywalls, but if you do enough hunting you can find “author proofs” — non-final drafts — on the researchers’ web sites. Google is your friend, and you can’t assess a study if you don’t read it. I’m going to base this post off of one such proof, Christopher Ferguson and Cheryl Olson’s Video Game Violence Use Among ‘‘Vulnerable’’ Populations. Load it up and read along.

2. Consider whether the study is linked to any recent events.
Most of the studies I look at here are about kids and violent video games. Although they may not be explicit, it’s notable that these studies picked up in frequency after events like the Columbine High School massacre and attempts to blame video games like Doom. Be suspicious when the sensationalism comes first and the studies follow. Among other things, this gives researchers an agenda, whether they say so or not. One of the reasons I like Ferguson and Olson in general is that they come right out and say it:

Existing societal concerns about video games have intensified after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre (Ferguson 2013) and other well-publicized school shootings. The tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in Newtown, Connecticut resurrected these debates amid reports that the 20-year-old shooter was an avid gamer (e.g., Henderson 2012). … Given … the recurring media focus on video games, researchers need to do more to answer the questions of greatest public concern regarding video games and any potential harm to youth.

3. Look at the demographics of the sample.
The sample means the group that is included in the study; demographics refers to their characteristics. Since Ferguson and Olson have said this is meant to apply to the question of whether violent video games harm youth, especially with respect to school shootings, you’d want the sample to resemble school shooters demographically; age 13 to 17, usually male, usually white, usually suburban. Often, the sample is full of college kids who are over 18. That’s less than ideal to begin with.

In Ferguson and Olson’s study here, we have a pretty good range of kids: 377 youth with a mean age of 13 (which means they were a variety of ages in that range). 182 had ADD symptoms, while 284 had symptoms of depression (yes, that means 89 of them had symptoms of both). The sample included 140 boys and 234 girls, as well as 3 who did not declare a gender. There were urban and suburban kids, though it doesn’t say how many. The kids were mostly white, but a significant number of the kids from the urban school were black.

4. Look at the size of the sample.
This one’s pretty easy. Bigger is always better. The more subjects you have, the more you’re getting away from anecdotal information and the more you’re getting into actual data. Now, a larger sample of extremely similar kids is only useful if they resemble the outside-world kids you’re trying to represent. More ideal is a larger sample of different kinds of kids. 377, the number in this study, isn’t a ton, but it’s more than the 100-200 many such studies have.

5. Look at the methodology.
Most sociological experiments are highly synthetic constructs, which are meant to single out and test one particular aspect of everyday life. In this case, Ferguson and Olson opted to put the kids through a survey or a questionnaire, which can be tricky because the results are only as good as the honesty of the kids. I personally think kids are reasonably reliable at answering certain kinds of questions (like how often they play certain kinds of video games, which was asked here) and not necessarily others (things they might not want adults to know, like sexual or drug experimentation). Still, it’s worth taking most self-report studies with a grain of salt, unless they’re corroborated with other data from the subjects’s lives.

(I’d also like to point out a detail from their survey that is relevant to this blog: Of all the kids they surveyed, only 6.1 percent had played no video games in the prior 6 months, and only 11 percent had played no violent video games. These are kids with a mean age of 13. In other words, most kids are playing them. Where’s the giant surge of violence and aggression?)

6. Look at what they say about the results.
This is especially true if you’re comparing your own read of a study to what was reported in the news. Here are the results from this study, truncated:

With the sample of children with clinically elevated depressive symptoms and regarding delinquent criminality as an outcome only stress and trait aggression were predictive of delinquent criminality. Neither exposure to video game violence nor the interaction between trait aggression and exposure to video game violence were predictive of delinquent outcomes.

In other words, among the kids with symptoms of depression, mood issues alone didn’t correlate with delinquency. Only if they were under stress and were aggressive did they have a tendency to be delinquent. Video games didn’t seem to play a role.

They go through other trait combinations and look at bullying as well as delinquency. Here’s one interesting angle to the study, which is one a lot of news outlets focused on:

Finally, with the sample once again of children with clinically elevated attention deficit symptoms and with regards to bullying behavior only trait aggression was predictive of bullying behaviors along with the interaction between trait aggression and exposure to violent games did approach significance suggesting that highly trait aggressive children who also played violent video games were less likely to engage in bullying behaviors. Exposure to video game violence was not a significant predictor of bullying behaviors.

Note that that result, while interesting, only “approached significance” mathematically, and they immediately point out that none of the findings in this section was statistically significant. In other words, it’s inconclusive.

7. Read the “discussion” section carefully.
This is where the researchers explain their findings and discuss how they think they should be interpreted. While journalists often overemphasize certain things (which makes for a more compelling news story), researchers usually de-emphasize. Here’s what they say about the above result:

[After saying they didn’t find video games were a factor n kids’ violent behavior.] The only exception was our finding that, for children with elevated attention deficit symptoms, trait aggression and video game violence interacted in such a way as to predict reduced bullying. This could be considered some small correlational evidence for a cathartic type effect, although we note it was for only one of four outcomes and small in effect size. Thus we caution against overinterpretation of this result.

8. Read the “limitations” section even more carefully.
This is where researchers will tell you the shortcomings of the methods they used, as well as the extent to which their findings are useful. They’ll usually suggest how future research can build upon what they’ve found, should anyone care to follow up with a larger or at least related study. This study’s limitations section is accompanied by a “word of caution” section, both of which are worth reading in full.

9. Check for bias.
Look at the researchers’ websites. Look at the titles of their papers, and see if you notice a trend. If they keep finding the same things over and over, there’s a chance they’re suffering from researcher bias. There’s a lot of this in the violent-video-game research world, which is one reason you see the same names popping up again and again (and finding the same things again and again).

10. Follow the money.
If research was conducted by an academic, chances are good that the money came from the university where they work. That could include public or private dollars. Unfortunately, researchers are pretty mum about where that money comes from or how much a given study cost. But at least sniff around and see what you can learn.

If you’re tired of reading about video games, this is a great breakdown of how the myth that eating breakfast helps you lose weight became so pervasive, and why it’s wrong. It also discusses the difference between association (correlation) and causation, which is important to understand when reading any sociological study, as well as how even the “gold standard” methods for research can be wrong, especially when they aren’t backed by further research.

So there you go. Now you know how to read a social-science study. Go read some more and have fun! Commenters: can you think of anything I’ve left out that you’d like to add?

After kid kills caregiver and CNN blames a violent video game, it’s time to do a little math


An 8-year-old shoots his elderly caregiver. And the police blame video games? Photo by Flickr user Whistling in the Dark.

CNN ran an article today about an 8-year-old Louisiana boy who was living with an elderly caregiver until he shot her in the back of the head Thursday, killing her. They didn’t waste much time before blaming video games. Here’s a quote from the local police:

“Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the Play Station III ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’, a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred.”

I have so many questions, I don’t know where to begin. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Here’s my first question:

1. Why did this little boy have access to a loaded gun?

It’s a question we’re not likely to get the answer to. Admittedly, it’s entirely possible that the boy was trained to use weapons responsibly, although part of that training involves teaching people never to point a loaded gun at another person.

2. Why are we still blaming Grand Theft Auto?

It’s worth remembering that the man most responsible for trying to create connections between this video game and youth violence, Jack Thompson was disbarred in part for his conduct in cases involving the video game. There’s no science connecting this game (or any game) to real-life violence. And let’s keep in mind that CNN and the sheriffs of Louisiana are not scientists.

3. Why don’t we trust kids to separate fact from fiction?

The kids I’ve talked to in my own research, whether they’re 8 or 12 or 18, recognized a very clear line between video-game violence and real violence. The same was true of those I interviewed for Wired in 2011. Once in a while, maybe, a kid can’t tell the difference; I remember seeing one of the early Superman movies in the theater, and my brother thinking he could jump off our play structure and fly. But he was also about 2 years old, much younger than this kid. You know who can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality so well these days? “Experts.” Oh, and Pat Robertson.

Speaking of which, I’m no expert on this kid’s life, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say if he’s living in a trailer park with a 90-year-old woman who isn’t a family member, and who leaves a loaded gun around, this kid might have bigger concerns than his video-game intake. I also find it really interesting that following this event he’s now living with his parents. I will grant that there are some kids who are better off not living with their parents, but when that’s the situation, that’s a pretty heavy thing for an 8-year-old kid to deal with on a daily basis.

I’ve already seen parents calling for the end of violent video games, but what would that solve? If this were a math equation, it would go something like:

kid + GTA + gun = fatality

Now let’s take one of those things out of the equation.

kid + GTA = fatality?

Not unless you can bludgeon someone to death with a game console.

Let’s try again:

kid + gun = fatality

Maybe. There’s still a missing factor here, that unknown something that actually made this kid kill.

We need to keep looking for it.

The video game? That isn’t it.

28 percent blame games for Sandy Hook. Sort of.


A memorial to Sandy Hook. Photo by Flickr user NorthEndWaterfront.com.

With all this talk of violent video games, it’s about time someone asked the real experts — random newspaper readers — whether games cause mass shootings like Sandy Hook. Thank goodness NJ.com did.

The poll headline asks, “Do you blame video games, movies for tragedies like Newtown shooting?” But the actual poll asked something different: “Will you limit violent content for your kids?”

28.4 percent said: “Yes. I returned video games on my kids’ holiday gift list and talked to them about violence.”

A sensible 57.7 percent said: “No. There is no link between entertainment and kids behavior.”

And another 14 percent said: “I don’t think movies are to blame, but I will try anything to end violence,” which is about like saying “yes,” considering that the end result is the same: people getting rid of video games because of the shooting, even though there’s no link between the two.

People are entitled to get rid of things in their own homes they think are harmful if they want to, but it’s too bad they’re going on misguided science and gut instincts, rather than actual facts.

Don’t even get me started on the drive to destroy violent games in Connecticut. Actually, do; I’ll have more on that plan later this week.

Can video games erase our nightmares?


It’s official: healthy soldiers who play video games have fewer combat-related nightmares than those who don’t, according to a new study. Photo by 501st Sustainment Brigade.

We all know that suffering a traumatic event can trigger lasting nightmares. A soldier’s life, particularly someone who’s served in the Middle East in the past 10 years, could be considered a series of traumatic events. Apparently, video games can chase the bad dreams away.

Last March, I wrote about a talk from Grant MacEwan University researcher Jayne Gackenbach, who told an audience at the Game Developers Conference that her research showed soldiers who played video games suffered fewer combat-related nightmares. She published her findings last month in the journal of the American Psychological Association. Here’s the breakdown:

She studied 86 American and Canadian soldiers, 64 who were “hard-core gamers,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and 22 who played less often. Both groups had similar levels of combat experience, and neither reported post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental imbalance.

Both groups reported on two dreams: the most recent they could recall, and a dream about military life that stuck with them. For the latter, they filled out an extensive questionnaire, which Gackenbach’s team coded.

What they found was interesting: the military dreams of frequent gamers were much less scary than the dreams experienced by casual gamers or nongamers.

Of course, there’s the question of whether this is a bad thing or a good thing. Many medical professionals believe that nightmares are beneficial to psychological healing.

“In evolution, such dreams probably served a very important purpose, to keep us anxious about something that could happen again,” says Deidre Barrett, PhD, author of Trauma and Dreams. “If a tiger killed in the nearby village, a nightmare would keep you anxious about that happening that to you. It would be a valuable emotional message.”

However, in today’s world, recurring nightmares “just retraumatize you.”

At the same time, people who suffer nightmares regularly wind up sleeping less, which creates a host of health problems — and puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to relieving the anxiety or psychological states causing the nightmares in the first place.

So, are video games taking the place of subconscious work, allowing soldiers to heal psychological wounds through play rather than nightmares? Or are they “numbing” these gamers to violence and trauma, leaving them unresolved?

Do all video games work equally well? Or are combat-based games, as Gackenbach’s earlier talk mentions, the trick to erasing bad dreams?

Also, do these findings — performed on such a small group — apply to others who suffer violence, trauma, and anxiety? Does it work on the conflicts experienced by adolescents? Could gaming help abuse victims, or disaster survivors?

Gackenbach’s team says more research is needed.

Here’s some “interfaith” violent-video-game fearmongering for you — happy holidays!


Should the absence of good science be reason enough to keep kids from playing violent video games? Photo by Flickr user scottfidd.

Just in time for holiday gift-unwrapping, two members of the Interfaith Social Justice Committee for Temple Emanu-El and St. Martha Catholic Church — in Sarasota, Florida — have penned a scaremongering editorial urging parents to keep kids from violent video games at all costs: “Do not purchase them, return those received as gifts, destroy or give away any currently owned; and deny the right to play them wherever you live.”

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog scanning the studies that suggest both positive and negative consequences from playing violent video games. Most recently, I looked at a Swedish study that said, decisively, the jury’s still out on violent gaming and its effect (if any) on young people. So why do Frank Schaal and John McGruder say parents should keep their kids from video games at all costs?

Well, they start with throwing science and reason right out the window:

More detailed studies of video games and their psychological effects are warranted, but as responsible adults, can we afford to wait? There may be no more causal relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior than there was between a moral crisis and the hip gyrations of Elvis in the 1950s; then again, 1950s research about cigarettes was also inconclusive.

That’s … sort of a good point. But their missive goes quickly downhill from there:

We know these facts: Award-winning video games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” thrive on murder, theft and destruction. Gamers increase their chances of winning by making a virtual visit to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged.

… Actually, that isn’t true. It’s true that GTA allows you to do this, if you choose, but it isn’t required to do so in order to advance the game. In the scenario they describe, you break even at best; prostitutes in GTA, as in real life, cost money. (And let’s not even get into the idea that visiting a sex worker is somehow wrong. It’s illegal, yes, but that’s another matter.)

And high school students who committed mass murders were heavy gamers; some even customized the game “Doom” to eerily match the crimes they committed.

… That’s also not true. According to the Secret Service, “Only 1 in 8 school shooters showed any interest in violent video games; only 1 in 4 liked violent movies.” In fact, school shooters are much less interested in video games and violent video games than their peers. At least one study has suggested that juvenile criminals might be less likely to harm people if they’re busy playing video games instead, getting their aggressions out virtually rather than in reality.

Schall and McGruder cap their nonsense with this frightening line of argument:

The consequences of this pollution contribute to the degeneration of society. Bullying, fighting, gang warfare, and other aggressive crimes, including murder, are committed by young people, concomitantly spreading destruction and devaluing the gifts of life and freedom. Inevitably, many youths are incarcerated, often with long sentences and always with life-altering ramifications. In Florida alone, close to 100 men are now serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were young.

While it’s true that juveniles are going to prison for crimes they committed, there’s still no evidence that it’s video games that put them there. For those who did enjoy a game or two, there were many other factors — from upbringing and trauma to mental health and desperation — that were much more prominent in these criminals’ lives. Even teen-killer “expert” Phil Chalmers — who thinks video games do contribute to delinquency — says it’s one factor among many.

So, no, parents don’t need to worry. They don’t need to start burning video games like they’re books or records. They can let their kids play games, keep an eye on them, and relax.

Study: it’s probably not the violent video games making your kid aggressive


A new Swedish study finds no reason to blame video games for kids’ anger and aggression. Photo by Flickr user mdanys.

Those Swedes sure do things differently, what with the neutrality and the guaranteed school placement for young kids and the crappy science top-ranked science programs.

Maybe that explains how they looked at the same research that led American scientists to believe video games are harmful to kids, and come out with the completely opposite conclusion.

Here’s what happened: the Swedish Media Council looked at more than 100 studies of kids, violent video games, and aggression published between 2000 and 2011. At first blush, their findings look the same: they found a statistically significant link between violent gaming and aggressive behavior.

However, they don’t think the games have anything to do with the behavior:

Many of the studies use different methods to measure aggression, many of which lack a clear connection to violent behaviour.

In addition, a great deal of the research exploring causal links between violent computer games and aggressive behaviour “suffer from serious methodological deficiencies” and don’t provide sufficient evidence to establish a causal relationship.

The few studies that have attempted to examine other causes of aggression found that factors, such as poor physical health or family problems, can explain both violent behaviour and a propensity to play violent computer games.

(Emphasis mine.)

According to a statement from the council, “there is no evidence that violent computer games cause aggressive behaviour … If research can’t provide any simple answers about how games make children aggressive, perhaps we adults should stop judging the games children play based on whether they are violent or not.”

Those wacky Swedes. Who’s going to believe that, right?

I’d love to do a more detailed analysis of the study (PDF) and its methodology, but unfortunately, I don’t speak Swedish. And, admittedly, I am skeptical of studies-of-other-studies because I feel as though they can replicate the same biases of the original studies. In this case, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

So, who is the Swedish Media Council, then? In America, a group like that would be an independent firm, maybe something like Common Sense Media (which, by the way, has come out against violent video games for kids.) “The Swedish Media Council is a center for information on children and young people’s use of media such as the Internet, computer games, film, and TV. The Media Council is part of the Swedish Government’s Ministry of Culture and located in Stockholm.”

So they’re a government-funded agency. And they’re saying violent video games don’t hurt kids. And the folks saying this come from a country that puts some of the biggest emphasis on science, research, and innovation in the world.

I dunno. Should we believe them?