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Response and Rebuttal Part 1: What We Missed in Videogame Violence Studies
posted by: Chris Martin
date posted: 07:01 PM Mon Sep 11th, 2006
last revision: 09:06 PM Sat Sep 16th, 2006

Click to read.Violence in video games is a touchy subject, on both sides of the media. We recently posted "Video Game Violence Causes Subdued Reactions" a few days ago and we recieved a very interesting response. But it was the debate that followed that became one of the most insightful email conversations our writer Chris Martin had had in a long while. One of our readers, Garrett G, had a fairly negative reaction to Chris's article, but for justified reasons.

Here's what he said:

Mr. Martin,

"Any kind of violence over prolonged durations will cause the viewer
to be desensitised in the end. Well, studies are showing that it's
much quicker than expected. You might be shocked from the results."

Yes, I was shocked, SHOCKED. Shocked that nowhere did you mention
professor Dimitri Williams' March 29, 2006, testimony before the
Senate Judiciary Committee, where he not only quoted research more
than 10 years ago that said the exact same thing, but uses those
results to support his own claim ? that playing violent video games
incite, at worst, only short-term tendencies to commit violent acts,
and only rarely and when supported by variables in ... wait for it ...
parental involvement and interaction.


So you got indignant against a piece of research _that supports
gamers' assertions that violent video games do not beget violent acts
or violent tendencies_. Every time a piece of research brings up
desensitization, gamers immediately jump on the high horse because
they view it as an accusation that games are bad.

Get this straight. It's the _media_ - here, the Daily Mail, but almost
always some news agency - who report on these studies who make this
claim. _Not the research._ Scientists hate it as much as you should,
seeing trial studies and quantative analyses being misconstrued as
frightening "truths" to scare up ratings.

Dig deeper into videogame research like Williams did, and you find
nuggets like this:

"Unbeknownst to most effects researchers, there actually are a handful
of long-term game effects papers out there. Indeed, there have been
three very in-depth studies of arcades and youth habits, and all of
them concluded that games were not having negative impacts on
children's aggression (Garner, 1991; Meadows, 1985; Ofstein, 1991).
Actually, the studies all concluded that the social milieu of the
arcade provided strong peer-based sanctions against physical violence
and aggressive behaviors. Why? One of the basic appeals of video games
for youth is that they are meritocratic: they are a safe play space
independent of social status, physical strength, etc. (Herz, 1997).
Indeed, many were havens from physical violence. This is an example of
why social context, typically missing in lab experiments, is so
important. Additionally, there are two now-dated studies of games,
families and homes (Mitchell, 1985; Murphy, 1984), and these also
concluded that games did not lead to aggression. In all five studies,
the researchers took pains to note that the likelihood of aggressive
behavior was inevitably related to parenting variables rather than the
amount of game play. Murphy and Mitchell also noted that game play
typically lead to more active family time because it tended to cut
into television viewing, a finding I have also found in my own
statistically-based work (Williams, 2004)." (Page 6 of

Shocking indeed. If you spent less time looking for researchers' heads to hunt
and more time getting to understand what the results of that research mean,
you might find that science is more on the side of us gamers than you believe.


Garrett G

Chris wrote back to Garrett and here's what he had to say:


Thanks for the response. I am a little surprised that you didn't quote anything inside the article but, instead, quoted the front-page description area of the article. There we often try to represent a voice separate from the writer (traditionally, this allows reader titillation to find out "the results" and isn't criticism of the study to any degree, and often, as in this case, it's written by someone else entirely). I claim no indignations against this study, but merely wish to point out the absurdities these studies present to the public - when we hear about them ad nauseam and nothing new is discovered. Nothing really new was discovered except for the duration of play required to make a violent videogame player desensitized. Is it not for the public's benefit to have results that lead to...something new perhaps?

But I admit and apologize that I didn't mention Williams' research. I will correct that with this response. Thank you for referring me to Williams' testimony. Also, thank you for the important criticism, I do not want our readers to think there haven't been any studies and conclusions on videogame violence at all. Though I appreciate this, you're not off Scott-free yet. The sentiment "Every time a piece of research brings up desensitization, gamers immediately jump on the high horse because they view it as an accusation that games are bad" is not founded as a criticism of my curt, three paragraph response. Perhaps you are jaundiced by my conclusion "the findings really leave me with a neutral taste in my mouth, not a good taste, not a bad taste - just neutral. Is it just me or do the findings by Prof Carnagey [...] feel oddly unsatisfying; maybe because of all the findings today targeting video games aren't working me up into a sweat as they once used to." Not once in the article is the study given even a modest tearing into. This article, sans interpretation, had been printed in numerous web periodicals including Joystiq, WebMD, and, I'm sure, others I haven't even looked at. Mainly, I'm just sick of defamation of an industry - video, film, book, whathaveyou - and I'm sure many gamers out there are too as nothing, except time and energy lost, has come of it.

I believe that "parental involvement and interaction" is the most important factor regarding a child's upbringing. And studies, as you point out, have shown that this is foremost in the development of a child. I suggest that, if you haven't already, you take a look at Dr. Kimberly Thompson's presentation to the House of Representatives, whose studies are very level-headed in the whole violence-in-games study arena. I feel that her study is actually helping to understand video game violence, likewise is Williams'. And I'd like to post something about her study, but it's already been posted on at nintendo.about.com - you can check out Aaron Staton's article here and her rebuttal here. Though I have my own reservations regarding this debate, I agree with both Mr. Stanton and Dr. Thompson in different ways and see validity in his concern that the Representatives in the House will use the research incorrectly (which he argues overall) and I agree to her rebuttal that game journalists construe research in irresponsible ways. Make no mistake, my comments at the end of my article were not irresponsible in their tone or disappointment in Professor Carnagey's study. I firmly believe that the study was fairly useless and you're response only validates it more. Shame on me for not reading Professor Williams' testimony beforehand, but shame on you for this: "If you spent less time looking for researchers' heads to hunt and more time getting to understand what the results of that research mean, you might find that science is more on the side of us gamers than you believe." What had started as a routine "news update" on GamesFirst has now become me hunting for "researchers' heads" which I did not, in the least, intend to do. You can blame various forums for researcher hunting. As we know, news presents itself at the time; it's posted, read, misread - and we know where that's brought us.

I do not wish to find ourselves at odds here because I believe we share the same sentiment. Studies in any form (but for our sake, videogame violence studies) should be represented in their true form and not misrepresented. I encourage readers to jump to Mr. Williams' testimony and see why true representation, reading for oneself, can not be replaced by writer interpretation. Mr. Williams does, indeed bring up the idea of duration of a video game's effect when he states: "This idea of duration is an important one. It is where I find myself most confused by the frequently-made strong claims about long-term casual effects of video games. Since there are no truly long-term studies of game-based aggression, how can we take the short-term findings and make claims about what will happen in X weeks, months or years? What data are these claims based on?" He goes on to say that long term effects are difficult to show and says he is "suspicious of long term claims of more than 30 minutes, let alone many years" (Page 5 of Williams' study).

You see, Williams answers my questions that Carnagey's study doesn't deal with. The "cool down" from violent images is short and long term effects of video games (including results regarding the effect on a persons violent behavior) are unknown. In conclusion, there are too many game journalists putting "spin" on research findings nowadays; I did not intend to be one of these. But that doesn't disregard my disappointment that research has become a series of similar tests with similar results. I am not saying research in game violence need stop - by all means it must persist! - but perhaps it needs more common sense on both sides of the research. For every right-on-the-nose study of videogames conducted, there are ten that cast interactive entertainment in a dark - or at least irresponsible - shadow. It's not so much study as spin - state legislation, especially recently, has shown aggression toward the videogame industry. Even though legislation led by these spinsters has been overruled, eventually. And I ask you, are you surprised that gamers, over the years, have become skeptical of anything targeting their beloved hobby?



Garrett's rebuttal:


Thank you for your response, as well. I didn't quote the article because it was the tone of the whole presentation that struck me as indignant more than the story, such as the introduction I quoted and your commentary after the story, as you mentioned:

"Is it just me or do the findings by Prof Carnagey (cool: carnage is
in his name!) feel oddly unsatisfying; maybe because of all the
findings today targetting video games aren't working me up into a
sweat as they once used to.

What really did surprise this gamer is that the study just stopped
with what is mainly common sense - the tidbits of info aren't brought
into into anything new and tangible, but just float around in the
electromagnetic typhoon of "neat, so what?""

Perhaps indignation was the wrong thing to accuse you of - it was more
like a sense that scientific studies had angered you so often that you
were desensitized to them. You _wanted_ to feel angry over yet another
study on the effects of video games on behavior, but the study didn't
present anything to you to feel anger over. Instead, you presented
what I felt was unjust dismissal of the findings, and of such studies
in general, because they didn't seem to mean anything to you - that,
since it didn't say something new, that it was worthless.

I'm glad that you took the time to read Williams' testimony - I think
it should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to fire up a
negative post on the study of video games and child behavior. But I'm
not sure how familiar you are with the nature of scientific research.

What each of these individual studies do, like Carnagey's and
Williams' and all of the studies that Williams referenced in his
testimony, is provide raw data for other scientists to work with. That
may not be the researcher's purpose - typically, that's to support a
hypothesis through experimentation. But in the scientific community,
each study is more valuable as a building block to be used by other
studies to eventually form a greater hypothesis that is supported by
experiements, the results of which typically become the results of a
published study, and so on. Yes, Carnagey's study says nothing on its
own. So do the studies by Dr. Kim Thompson on defining and quantifying
video game violence that recently tore up through Joystiq and
About.com. Even when these studies set out to support a hypothesis (as
in Thompson's study on violence in E-rated games, where she
hypothesizes that the ESRB rating system's definition of violence is
inconsistent), the data from those studies - if properly and
scientifically collected - can be detached from that hypothesis and
used by future studies to support a different hypothesis.

That's the way science works, and has worked for centuries. The
problem today - really, for the last 20 years, but especially now - is
that every study with any sort of salacious result gets an immediate,
unscientific interpretation from the media. Blogs create that infamous
echo-chamber effect, amplifying that unscientific interpretation of
scientific data into a tempest.

If your response, as a representative of the media, is "neat, so
what?" - or, "research has become a series of similar tests with
similar results" - then you ignore the nature of the scientific
process, of how research is performed, the reasons for performing
research and the body of research that Carnagey's study was built on.

Carnagey asked for the study, and asks in much of his research: what
are the effects of violent video games on physiological
desensitization, defined as showing less physiological arousal to
violence in the real world after exposure to video game violence in
the virtual world?


(Notably, in the abstract of Carnagey's research, he says "no research
has experimentally examined violent video game effects on
physiological desensitization," something that Williams' testimony -
which was made two weeks after Carnagey revised his study, but quotes
studies from before Carnagey's - would apparently contradict. Also of
note, here, is Carnagey's definition of desensitization, and the
confusion over exactly what that means.)

Carnagey's purpose is to explore - not explain or interpret - the
effects of video games, and collect data. He may have his own views on
it; he may suggest a negative effect in his study. But a study, or a
suggestion, does not make a drop in the bucket of scientific proof
towards what he suggests. The data, however, can be useful to other
researchers looking for a place to start research that _does_ advance
the field.

Which leads to another important point about both scientific research
and mainstream media reports on scientific studies - they too
frequently do not consider the full scientific context of their work.
They simply take the word of their own research or of the study of the
moment at face value - to do otherwise would require more research,
which would require time, which PhD candidates and mainstream media
reporters alike frequently complain that they don't have.

In Carnagey's case, for instance, he relies heavily on Dr. Chris
Anderson's research, citing him six times in his study. The value of
Anderson's research - and especially the conclusions he makes in his
research - has been repeatedly questioned, by Williams and by others.
(A lot of gamers throw the "disproved" label onto Anderson's work, but
as his own work admittedly doesn't prove anything, it's not a valid
descriptor. It's contested, as most all research is, but Carnagey
doesn't present much of that opposition.)

Carnagey, a PhD candidate, also has his own motives for his research.
Whatever they may be, he can't have gone into that field of research
without knowing that his studies would attract press attention - which
inevitably leads to sponsorship, or money. Take that as you will.
My point of points, I suppose, is this: You're right to be skeptical,
and I'm glad that you don't want scientific research to stop. But you
ask scientists to use more common sense in their study topics -
scientific study, by its definition, ignores prevailing common sense.
Research is performed to prove or disprove what people consider to be
"common sense," as it once was common sense to believe the Earth was
flat and that the Sun and stars revolved around it. Studies like
Carnagey's - which, being performed by humans with their biases, will
naturally be flawed - can still provide valuable data that other
researchers, like Williams, can use to support arguments that the
original researchers may not even agree with. Just because a topic
appears to have been scientifically beaten to death does not mean that
the data derived from it is not valuable, and that it necessarily
casts video games in a dark light - even the researcher has an inner
bias against video games, even if the media plays up the negatives
because they sound good.

Soundly performed research always generates valuable data, even if
it's not groundbreaking, even if the ground has in fact been dug to
the bedrock. The mainstream media just tends to place too great a
value on something that makes for a good headline, and games
journalists - intentionally or not - have a knack of turning what is
not newsworthy into hotly-debated news by mentioning it. While you
didn't intend it, you made Carnagey a marked man just by dropping his
name, when - more likely - if his research truly didn't mean anything,
perhaps he shouldn't have been brought up in the context of the Daily
Mail article. I can't believe that you don't think most gamers
wouldn't pick up your quoting of that article and think Carnagey was
another Jack Thompson follower - just look at the many of the
responses to Kim Thompson on the two Joystiq posts. Even after her
response, she's being personally attacked and her research - and
rational, reasoned, supported suggestions for helping the ESRB police
itself - are being called useless for all the wrong reasons.

I understand your point, but posting it as another games study story,
as you did, is the Internet equivalent of posting Carnagey's name and
research to that same blacklist. That's the head-hunting, and as you
didn't intend it, I apologize for accusing you of it - but that
doesn't mean that gamers who won't look any deeper than what you
posted won't have yet another name to drop when they say the
scientific community is out to get them. No, you didn't tear into him
- you don't have to. You delivered him and the unnewsworthy report of
his study as a routine news update, and put his research on a silver
platter to others, regardless of your commentary. I wouldn't have a
problem if you sunk your teeth into the Daily Mail for making it news
in the first place - that would seem to fit your response more than
your dismissal of Carnagey - but excuse me for saying that a study can
have value within the scientific community and still not be worth a
news post on a games site. In the current climate of the debate,
posting the Daily Mail's words as you did can just whip up the frenzy

But on top of that, if we're to the point where gamers are greater
than the scientific process, as you don't explicitly say but do
suggest both in your commentary in e-mail, and studies on video games
are to be dismissed simply because they don't provide anything
obviously new to the debate, then perhaps "high horse" was an
understatement. If gamers consider games to be above the scientific
process and its flaws, then I should lose hope of gamers ever winning
credibility outside of their own community. If we take our lumps from
scientific studies by overreacting to or dismissing them, then we
aren't really participating in the debate. Rather, we need more people
who follow Williams' example - taking this raw data and applying new
experiments to try to create a scientific explanation of the effects
of videogame violence. You and I are definately on the same page there
- but if we dismiss or discourage studies like Carnagey's, researchers
like Williams will have less to work with.

What I'd like to see, really, is anger at the way the media reports
these studies - weakly, without context, and with too much
interpretation - not just for games but in all fields. That's where
anger is deserved, and perhaps that seeped into my response to your
post. Again, I apologize, but it doesn't let you off my hook, either.

As for politicians, they do what they can to stay in office. They are
living, walking conflicts of interest. That, unfortunately, is how a
republic works, and if they can bend one paraphrased paragraph from
one study out of hundreds to stay in office, you can bet they'll do it
a thousand times. It's the voters' responsibility to face down those
problems, not the of the scientists performing research.


"And I ask you, are you surprised that gamers, over the years, have
become skeptical of anything targeting their beloved hobby?"

No, nor am I surprised of any fan of any hobby they love being
skeptical of anything targeting their beloved hobby. But anger and
dismissal need to get out of our toolbox for coping with those things,
and we need more understanding of the scientific process that goes
into making these studies if we're to continue constructively and
convincingly criticising them.


In addition to Williams, you may also be interested in Cheryl Olsen's
article on the discrepancies between the conclusions of media violence
studies and statistical trends of actual violence
(http://ap.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/28/2/144) - not a
study, but a fine collection and educated interpretation of data from
studies similar to Carnagey's. A good read nonetheless.

Again, thanks for your excellent response, and I apologize for my own
aggressive tone - I think I was still hot-headed from reading the
first Joystiq post and subsequent comments. I enjoy your site and your
posts, but I still think you've got the wrong target for your


We'll be posting Chris' response to Garrett's rebuttal - and the final words in this heated debate - tomorrow. It is in the hopes that this debate will - at least - allow readers to reflect on the violence issues the scientific community has presented to the video game industry. Just remember that not all research is human error; not all research is meant to denounce an industry. Even negative research findings can allow for improvement, or at respect for the results these findings bring.

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