The end of 2012 seemed saturated in tragic and seemingly random acts of violence, from the cinema shooting in Colorado to the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut. Although such large-scale events garnered the most publicity, they overshadowed a string of similar contemporaneous incidents such as an Ohio man setting fire to a mosque and a shooting outside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

With publicity around such tragic events at an all-time high thanks to the Internet and social media, it is easy for many to feel that levels of violence in society have increased in recent years, and the blame for this perceived increase often falls on violence in media such as television, films, and video games. The idea behind the accusations is that increased exposure to violence, even if it is not real-world violence, can lead to long-term increases in aggression in otherwise passive people.

The theory that media can influence aggression is certainly not new, with organisations such as the Payne Fund linking trips to the cinema and juvenile delinquency as early as the 1930s. Problematically, a good deal of the research carried out on media-induced violence is funded by similar groups - those that are actively against the distribution of violent media - which should induce the same skepticism as when research funded by the tobacco lobby concludes that smoking does not cause lung cancer. In fact, until recently there has been a dearth of objective research in the field.

The brainchild of anti-violence research groups is the General Aggression Model (GAM), which essentially argues that children are prone to imitate behaviour and thus will tend to become more aggressive and violent when exposed to violent media. The first assumption of the GAM when applied to fictional violence, such as video games, is therefore that children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, since the model makes no distinction between real-world and fictitious violence. This claim, however, has been consistently falsified in child psychology research, which has shown that children as young as three have at least a working grasp of fiction and fantasy.

Moreover, GAM research has had very little to do with studies of long-term real-world aggression, instead conducting studies that show that people who view or interact with violent media are more likely to have aggressive or violent thoughts immediately after exposure. This is no more informative than saying that someone shown a cooking show will be more likely to think about food. In addition, GAM researchers have defined “aggression” so broadly that almost any action could be seen to be within the scope of “minor aggression.”

There is no solid evidence, however, that exposure to violent content causes long-term changes in aggression. In fact, any correlations to the contrary are likely confounded by the fact that trait aggression - a scientific measure of someone’s natural predisposition to aggressive behaviour - seems to be related to preferences for violent content in the first place. For example, researchers have found that violent content in video games can be replaced with non-violent content (e.g. the player shooting an enemy vs. being supplied with a device that can simply teleport the enemy to a different place) with no impact on player satisfaction or motivation. Only players with high trait aggression claimed to prefer the violent versions of the games, although their enjoyment of the games did not change with levels of violence.

The truth is that someone’s level of exposure to violent media remains a poor predictor for how violent they will eventually act. Trait aggression coupled with environmental stress still explains available data far better than models that look at how many hours someone has logged on Grand Theft Auto. In addition, overall levels of violence in the developed world have tended to decrease even as the availability of violent media increases, a trend that should surprise advocates of theories such as the GAM.

Although it may appear as though levels of violence are increasing because of the instantaneous availability of news from all over the world, there is nonetheless no measurable impact of the proliferation of violent media on actual, real-world violence. Society would be far better served by figuring out how to harness the potential benefits and positive side-effects of video game play than wasting more time on misplaced panic. 

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