Do violent video games have a harmful impact on our youth?
Ferguson thinks not. Although advertising and fictional media effects may
differ, Dr. Ferguson has written numerous articles that largely indicate video
game effects on aggression are almost nonexistent. He also combines his belief
about video games with the sociology of media research to explain how political
and social pressures distort the scientific process to create such strong video
game accusations in the first place. In the aftermath of the Aurora, Oakland,
and Newtown shootings,
Dr. Ferguson explains his defense of
How did you become
in the study of psychology?
I think I
was always interested. I took a high school psychology class, and the teacher
was really good. Psychology just seemed more fascinating to think about than
physics, math, or English. Also, sometimes you hear that people get involved in
psychology because they have a problem about themselves that they want to
understand, but that’s never been the case with me—not to say that I don’t have
problems, I guess, depending on who you ask. However, I got into psychology out
of curiosity to study the more extreme behaviors like serial and mass murder,
and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Why do journals tend to
certain material, such as defensive videogame articles?
we know that when new media comes out that older adults, who tend to include
psychologists, criticize it very readily. When exaggerated claims of harm are made
about a media, we call this a moral panic.
Also, I believe that most of us in our field, myself included, are
liberals. We lean to the left, and a lot of psychological research tends to
support a liberal agenda. Thus, either liberals are 100 percent right about
everything—and I suppose I’d like to think that—or there’s some sort of bias
that’s creeping into our field given the nonplurality of political backgrounds
that we see in psychologists. This comes to the issue of citation bias, where
studies may get inconsistent results, but scholars only pay attention to the
results that support their hypothesis and ignore the ones that don’t.
We also have a problem with methodological flexibility, meaning that our
methods in psychological science are fluid enough that researchers can run
their results, rerun their results, or re-rerun their results four or five
times until they get the outcomes they expected all along. However, this isn’t
saying that they purposely fudge their results, but that a combination of human
nature and a pre-existing belief of what they should get can corrupt the
scientific process. Ultimately, we have an inconsistent field at best. Often
its methodology has been repackaged as if it were consistent and able to be
generalized very readily to societal violence when it shouldn’t have been.
Catharsis theory suggests
that playing violent video games actually relieves stress, thus alleviating
anger. Do you support this?
it is somewhat debatable to say whether the catharsis hypothesis is true or false.
There is data that supports it, but there is also data that doesn’t. Basically,
in the 50s and 60s scholars were interested in catharsis and actually found
some evidence for it. Seymour Feshbach is one of the scholars known for doing
that, but the paradigm changed in the 60s to a large degree due to Dr. Albert
Bandura and social leaning. The paradigm shifted to social modeling and social
cognitive theories of aggression, which catharsis theory is inconveniently the
exact opposite of, so all of the scholars who were highly invested in social
cognitive theories of aggression conducted studies where they basically
reported to rule out catharsis as any kind of an effective approach. These were
scholars invested in a particular theory shooting down an alternate theory.
Not that they were in bad faith, but their investment in one side of that
debate was always very clear.
By no means am I endorsing catharsis theory, but I have seen other
articles come out, even recently, to support it. I was the action editor of one
article that is now in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, which
basically demonstrated that catharsis can work on some level. Because of that,
I would say that the statement "catharsis is definitely false” is probably an
ideological statement and not any more definite than when the communists
claimed that Capitalism is the evil of the world. That being said, in my own
research, I don’t see much effect for exposure toward violent video games one
way or another in terms
of affecting aggressive behavior. Most of
with media violence has been essentially null. There has been zero effect. No
positive. No negative. And now we’ve done some studies where we’ve stressed participants
with horrible tasks to make them upset, and then we gave them video games to
play. What we’ve found in general is that all video games, violent or not, tend
to relax people, and that regular violent video game players handle stress
better than those who don’t ordinarily play. Thus, whether violent video games
affect aggression to support social cognitive learning or not, we do tend to
see some sort of relaxation effect.
As new media platforms
appear in the future, do you think that video game criticism will shift to
1950s, psychiatrists testified before Congress that comic books caused delinquency
and homosexuality because Batman and Robin were secretly gay. We can look back
and laugh at that, but they took it seriously at the time. Much more recently,
psychologists claimed that the effects of media violence are as bad as smoking
towards lung cancer. This too, is something people should have been able to
debunk, and yet we still sometimes hear it talked about.
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to learn very well because we simply move
on to the next panic. To some degree, social media may be the next in line. The
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made a claim about two years ago that the
more a person uses Facebook the more depressed he or she becomes, which they
coined as "Facebook Depression”. I think that this case is quite illustrative,
because scholar Larry Magid investigated the AAP claims and found
didn’t cite any real link between social media and depression, which again
represents the citation bias issue. On top
of this, when Magid contacted
sources that were cited, the authors basically disavowed the claim of a
Facebook Depression because even their studies couldn’t support it.
The Sandy Hook shooting has obviously shaken everything in terms of a
moral panic. However, it takes a while for a new media to become accepted by
the majority of the population, at which point people usually figure out it
didn’t cause the massive upheaval that they worried about. In a couple
generations, I think people will have forgotten about video games too.
A tiny percentage of
people who already have pre-existing dispositions, such as high neuroticism,
seem to be the most vulnerable to violence? Just how small is this group?
know if I could put a clear percentage on it, because it depends upon how you
define high neuroticism. The good news is that there isn’t a huge wave of
individuals on the cusps of engaging in serious acts of violence. That having
been said, there certainly are at-risk individuals, and in the absence of an
effective mental health system, I think we always run the risk of someone doing
Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about how these individuals react to
the media, so I think the hypothesis gets thrown around quite a bit. We still
ask the question whether video games are a small but essential part of these
violent events, but there really hasn’t been much research. We have published
initial data looking at kids with pre-existing antisocial traits, but in that
case we could not find a link between those kids and violent video playing.
It’s still a new area of research, and I think it’s going to take a little
longer before we have a clear answer.
Do children perceive video
games differently when they are 5 than when they are 13?
have one study that is again in progress where we look at advertising. With
this, we find that mainly younger kids—3- to 5-year-olds—are most easily
convinced to eat junk food, whereas older kids are much less persuadable.
However, there doesn’t seem to be much research on video games effects
in different age groups. Obviously, younger people
tend to perceive video games
to not be a
big deal, but we haven’t found any evidence that younger children
are more vulnerable to media effects. In fact, in some of the older
meta-analyses, such as John Sherry’s, we actually find an inverse relationship,
although the effects are very small. In these analyses, college students show
more effects than kids do, but that’s probably because college students can
figure out what they are supposed to do and go along with the program, whereas
kids give their honest responses, which basically show no effects whatsoever.
Thus we have really not been able to document the idea that younger kids are
particularly vulnerable, at least in terms of fictional media and aggression.
In Brown vs. Entertainment
Merchants Association (EMA), what is your opinion of the Supreme Court’s ruling
against video game restrictions?
the Supreme Court got the research exactly right, and that their critiques of
the psychology field were on target. I think they almost ridiculed the field
for being very poor quality. And perhaps, with a little less of a tone, recent
reviews by the Australian and Swedish governments have basically agreed that
this field has inconsistent results and is limited by very significant flaws. I
think the Brown vs. EMA case shows that, as a field, we really run the risk of
damaging our credibility. The more extreme we make our statements, the more
ridiculous we will look. For example, a professor may say to his/her class:
"There is clear evidence that video games are harmful,” but when anyone can
Google this and see disagreeing research, what does that do to the professor’s
I think this is where the American Psychological Association—and to some
extent the psychological community as
a whole—has had many problems. Right now,
we need to improve our standards and change our culture, because we have
allowed scholars to have political agendas and to say many extreme things in
order to grab headlines. We need to insist on a much more conservative
language, especially in social science where we know that there are some limits
to what we can do.
In fact, I would encourage students to spend time fact-checking things
their professors says, things that they read in academic journals, and even
things that I am saying right now. Don’t take my word for it. Fact-check it,
because there is a lot of ideology in our field. Our methods are not physics.
What can we expect to see
you in the future?
psychologists, I follow what society is interested in, so I think I’ll be
looking for kids with mental health symptoms to watch for interaction effects
with video game violence. There is also an argument that video games are more
interactive than other media, so we’ve just started work on kids’ exposure to
regularly challenged books, such as Huckleberry Fin, The Hunger Games,
and Harry Potter. In these studies, we’ll look to see if kids’ exposures
to these banned books have any similar or different impacts on them than
television and video games.