A new study published this week in Nature journal Molecular Psychology provides a well-timed rebuttal to the weary trope - occasionally alluded to by President Trump and others in the wake of mass shootings - that violent video games are causing real-life mayhem.
Grand Theft Auto 5 doesn't make people more aggressive, a new study finds. Image: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
German researchers recruited three groups of typically non-gaming, healthy volunteers, 77 in total, for their study. Each group was given a battery of questionnaires and personality assessments right at the start. Then, for the next two months, one group was told to play a daily 30 minutes of Grand Theft Auto 5 - the latest instalment of the series that features more than 30 different weapons to wreak havoc with - while another was instructed to instead play the non-violent Sims 3. The last group, serving as the control, was simply told to come back two months later for a second round of identical tests, which the other two groups did as well. Each group was finally given a third round of tests two months after that.
Within the groups, the researchers found no significant difference in the volunteers' level of aggression before and after they started gaming. The same was true of their empathy, impulse control, level of anxiety, and depression, among other things. And there were no noticeable differences between the groups themselves.
"It's small in terms of sample size, but it's otherwise well-done and pretty unique in that it looks at long-term exposure," Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida who studies how video games affect society, told Gizmodo via email. Ferguson is unaffiliated with the new research.
"We've seen some folks argue that effects ought to accumulate over time, but this study contradicts this claim," Ferguson added. "I think that this is an important piece of evidence that should guide us to rethink our beliefs about whether violent video games do or do not influence aggression."
The current study is only the latest to throw cold water on the idea that video games can meaningfully make people more violent, says Patrick Markey, head of the Interpersonal Research Laboratory at Villanova University, who was also not involved in the German study.
"In the past five years we have seen an explosion of such studies suggesting video games are not to blame for violence and severe acts of aggression," Markey told Gizmodo via email. "Such studies are why the vast majority of scientists in this area no longer endorse the myth that video games are a danger to society."
Some of the past studies that have found a dangerous effect, the study authors said, actually demonstrated a theorised phenomenon known as priming. Priming theory says our thoughts or actions can be unknowingly influenced by the surrounding environment. So in this specific case, seeing or playing a violent video game might momentarily make you more irritable or snappy. But priming effects haven't been shown to last more than a few minutes. And more damning as of late, the science behind priming has come under serious scrutiny as replication studies have failed to turn any concrete evidence behind the theory.
All that said, there's still some people who endorse the idea of violent video games being toxic. In 2015, the American Psychological Association concluded that there was a clear link between violent games and increased aggression in players, though it stopped short of saying that the link extended to criminal violence or delinquent behaviour.
President Trump, meanwhile, held a private meeting last week with video game developers as well as advocates such as Melissa Hansen of the Parents Television Council, a conservative, Catholic watchdog that has called for the censorship of everything from The Walking Dead to just about the whole CW lineup. They met to discuss the role, if any, of video games in causing mass shootings. The White House made its position clear right after by releasing a YouTube compilation of some sick video game kills. Before Trump became president, he blamed video games for the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.
Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 17, 2012
Lead author of the new study, Simone Kühn, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, said in a statement that her team's findings directly contradict the APA's conclusions, suggesting that it's time to take a new look at the evidence. However, Kühn also called for more research involving young children, since some studies have suggested video games may have a stronger effect on them.
"I wholeheartedly support the authors' point here," said Ferguson, who, along with Markey, was one of the 200 researchers at the time to sign a letter to the APA asking them to not make their policy statement. "There's little question that the APA's 2015 policy statement on video games grossly misrepresents the evidence linking violent games to aggression. As an APA member, I frankly find this policy statement to be an embarrassment to the organisation that damages its credibility."
He added, "This new study provides further data that it's time for the APA to recall their 2015 policy statement on video games, as this does more damage (particularly in providing cover to groups like the NRA to shift conversations from real guns to imaginary ones) than good and is not an accurate portrayal of our field."
One could also point out, anecdotally, that violent video games are played all over the world, but certain countries such as the US have a much higher rate of mass shootings and gun violence compared to places such as Japan. Research, including several studies performed at Harvard's Injury Control Research Center, has found that a country's gun laws and number of firearms have a much higher impact on gun violence.