A review of the research on violent computer games published this week claims a link with aggressive behaviour in children. This is convenient for the American Psychological Association (APA) which has been campaigning for some time to regulate the sales of video games in the US. Still, many psychologists are far from convinced that this research is sound.
One of the main criticisms is that most of the studies reviewed use a statistical test called correlation. This test examines whether there is a relationship between one thing and another by analysing whether two factors vary with each other. In this case, a positive correlation would be found if playing more computer games was associated with increased violent tendencies in children.
Correlational research is always open to the criticism that, while two factors are correlated, it does not mean that one factor causes the other. For example it is quite possible that children who already have more violent tendencies, prefer playing violent computer games. This is something the authors admit is a problem with their own research and which the currently available evidence has no way of addressing.
Dr Craig Anderson, the author of the review paper, attempts to counter this criticism, amongst others, on the APA website:
“…correlational studies are routinely used in modern science to test theories that are inherently causal. Whole scientific fields are based on correlational data (e.g., astronomy).”
These arguments boil down to: “This is the way we’ve always done it,” and “Other people do it this way so it must be alright,” which are not inherently powerful rebuttals – especially when comparing psychology to astronomy.
Other reviews of the evidence, such as that reported in The Guardian, find that playing computer games has a number of benefits for children including increased hand-eye co-ordination and spatial thinking as well as refuting the link to aggressive behaviour.
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The outcry against violent games is, to a certain degree, counter-productive. Games producers now rely on the controversy of their title to do part of their marketing for them. Rockstar Games are a case in point, their titles including Grand Theft Auto the content of which would have a Viking blushing, and, most recently Bully, in which play centres around bullying.