What Would A Serious Study Of Video Games And Violence Look Like?

As the debate over gun violence has heated up in Washington after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it’s included, quite predictably, multiple calls for the study of the relationship between violent media, particularly video games, and mass shootings. But the subject of video games as an academic subject came up in another context yesterday when House Speaker John Boehner tweeted “Re: #Obamaquester, no one should be talking about tax hikes when govt is paying people to play video games.”

He appears to be referring to a grant two researchers at the North Carolina State’s Gains Through Gaming Laboratory received from the National Science Foundation in 2009 to study how playing World of Warcraft affected brain cognition in senior citizens. Their research dealt with a limited pool of seniors, and had mixed results, but found that some senior citizens who scored low on a baseline test of cognition saw gains after playing the massively multiplayer online game. And it’s not the only grant the NSF has given out to academics who study video games. Bonnie Nardi, a professor at the University of California, got a grant in 2008 to study World of Warcraft players in the United States after doing research on their Chinese counterparts. And Indiana University’s Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing got $686,000 to study the creative communities that form in the World of Warcraft and the online retailer Etsy.

I don’t doubt that Boehner would find all of these studies equally ludicrous. But they’re a reminder of the challenge that serious scholarship about video games faces. Lawmakers—and frankly, many of their constituents—tend to be interested in studying video games when there’s a chance they can be made a scapegoat for larger social issues like gun violence. It’s a predisposition that, as Daniel Greenberg pointed out in a recent piece in The Atlantic, means research that finds positive benefits from video game play gets undercovered, and that studies that point to negative effects of gaming are accepted at face value even when their results are ambiguous:

That “good reason” includes the fact that the tests that some researchers use to measure aggression have never actually been validated for aggression, just for competiveness. At best, all the anti-game researchers can show is that imaginary violence leads only to imaginary violence. At no time can they show that imaginary violence ever crosses over to cause actual violence. Or even real aggression. Just competiveness.

These biases mean, as I’ve written before, that even if the various proposals to study video games and violence are adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, it’s impossible to believe that the resulting research would resolve this debate once and for all. If the results show no relationship, they’ll be ignored, and after the next spasm of gun violence, the calls for research will begin again, with the people behind them hoping that a fresh round of studies will demonstrate a relationship they badly want to be there.

But if we’re going to talk about studying a potential relationship between video games and violence, we need to talk about what kind of study policymakers and the general public would find credible and authoritative, no matter its results. What should the sample size be? Because if it’s large, it’s going to cost a lot more than the $1.2 million it took to monitor a small pool of senior citizens. What should the experimental and control groups look like, and what should they be subjected to? It’s hard to believe that Congress would condone or the National Science Foundation would design a study that was designed to turn a group of test subjects into mass killers. Given how many mass killers end up dead, it’s impossible to interview them about their actual video game play—something that’s frequently misreported in the immediate aftermath of their rampages, and becomes part of the accepted lore about them whether or not it’s true—and to try to determine the importance of video games relative to of any number of factors that lead them to violence.

Targeting violent media has become the least serious part of our conversations about gun violence. But if we’re going to have this part of the discussion, it would be nice if we could find a way to be substantive about it, rather than making it incredible obvious that video games are what you throw into the public square whenever you want to take attention away from the real issues, be they gun violence or the budget.