It’s a day that ends in “y” so it’s time for another important study on whether or not our youths are being negatively affected by the proliferation of the scary new technology, scrolls. Wait I mean books. Hold on, no, I meant radio. Motion pictures! Television? Ah, no: video games. Video games are ruining society. Just like all those other things ruined society, before people just sort of accepted them as an immutable part of society.
That’s not to say one or more of those things didn’t lead to the downfall of society — I mean, would Donald Trump be president if television had never been invented? Sure, we wouldn’t have The Wire but maybe we’d have something else almost as good. Tough to say. Media has an impact on us, in good ways and bad ways. It can make us care more about certain issues, it can teach us about important issues, and it can convince us to care less about things or people, to completely change our perspective on others.
And it’s also not to say that just because people always say a new technology is going to cause the downfall of society, that means that a new technology can never cause the downfall of society. Video games in particular are interesting because they are leaps and bounds ahead of TV, movies, and books in terms of how personally invested a person gets into it. For instance, you can get lost in a good book, but a video game requires you to make decisions and actually affect what is happening on the screen, so how couldn’t that have an impact on a person?
So despite the joking, I actually do think it’s worthwhile to continue studying video games and how they affect people. The most recent study I’ve seen comes out of Singapore, where psychologists looked at a big ol chunk of kids: more than 3,000 kids around the age of 11, who were followed for two years. This was an existing dataset that has been used in other studies on video game violence, but those previous studies (which did find connections between violent video games and real-life violence) suffered from potential researcher bias. It’s a lot of data, and it’s good to have a lot of data but it also makes it easier for researchers to manipulate the stats to find effects that may not really be there. I’ve talked about this before — it’s called p-hacking and when you have a huge dataset, you can go in without a specific hypothesis and just look for statistical blips and decided that those are your results.
But this study was pre-registered, which just means that before they even started their research, they submitted their hypothesis and their analytic strategy, so they can’t go back later and say “oh wait the statistical significance wasn’t there, it was there.” The other cool thing is that once the pre-registration is accepted by a journal, the journal can’t then reject the study for failing to find an interesting result. That’s an ongoing problem in published science, that can lead to a lack of replication and it prioritizes studies that are flashy over studies that are useful.
While the previous studies did find some suggestion that violence in video games led to violence in real life, this pre-registered study found absolutely no correlation at all, looking at possible outcomes like aggressive actions, aggressive fantasies, and cyberbullying.
Interestingly, they also looked at “nonsensical” outcomes, or traits that aren’t known to have any correlation to violent video games. One of those was “age the child moved to Singapore,” which WAS statistically correlated with violent video games. The researchers point out that if their study wasn’t pre-registered, they could have chosen that trait to make the focus of the study, despite the fact that it’s completely nonsensical — it’s just a statistical blip that happens when you look at a lot of different possible outcomes.
Is this the final nail in the coffin for worries over video game violence? Hell no. This is a very good study, but there’s always something else to discover. For instance, a large dataset could make it harder to see how violent video games affect very specific populations. For instance, while cannabis is a perfectly safe drug that shows absolutely no ill effects in large populations, very specific populations of people with certain mental disorders can be negatively affected. In the same way, while these authors found no link between violent video games and real life violence over all, they did find some intriguing patterns that should probably be explored in future pre-registered studies: kids were slightly less likely to be negatively affected by violent video games if they were girls or had a positive family environment, and slightly more likely to be affected if they have poor impulse control. So maybe a future study could look at boys who score poorly on impulse control, and how that specific population may be affected by violent video games.
So yep, keep playing violent video games if you want. At least, if you’re a girl with a good family. Thanks mom and dad!