5 Reasons The Latest Violent Video Game Study Means Nothing

By: 12.08.11
Oh, for Pete’s sake, here we go again.

One of the very insistent drums anti-gaming advocates keep pounding is that violent video games cause violence. But there has never been any proof of that. In fact, around 1991 our crime rate has started to drop and has largely been on the decline ever since, even as video games have gotten more realistic and violent.

But now we have proof, at least according to Indiana University, which just released a study stating that video games reduce functioning in areas of emotional control. Surely this proves video games cause violence! They have no emotional control!

Er, yeah, not so much. Here are five rather large grains of salt you need to take with that study.

#5) That Playing Video Games Changes the Brain Is Not News…

We’ve seen evidence using MRIs, surveys, and longitudinal analysis that gaming quite possibly changes the brain. This isn’t new, and fundamentally, scientifically speaking, that’s literally the only hard fact we can take away from this study: gaming can change brain function…but only temporarily. The study claims that this proves long-term changes are possible, but we don’t know that for sure.

#4) …But Nobody Knows How…

Here’s the problem with MRIs as a diagnostic tool: they can show you what’s happening, but they can’t tell you why. Are the changes in brain function due to higher levels of hormones? New neural pathways being built? Permanent changes in the way the brain functions?

It has no idea. It can’t tell you that. All it can tell you is that the lights are going on here and not over there. That’s incredibly useful information that has advanced our understand of the brain from complete ignorance…

#3) …And Nobody Knows Why or What These Changes Actually Mean…

…to complete awareness of just how ignorant we are of how the brain functions.

To explain, if you read the study closely, all it can really prove concretely is that there was less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe and less activation in the anterior cingulate cortex during specially designed tests called Stroop tasks. Stroop tasks are designed to light up these parts of the brain: again, we have no idea why they do, we just know they do. You’ve probably played a Stroop test as a game: there are several online.

However, the conclusions the study reached are based on theories that are, at best, heavily reliant on assumptions, not facts. We’ve mapped the different parts of the brain, but most of our understanding of how it works comes when we measure how people react when different parts of the brain are damaged.

But that gives us, at best, a rough idea. For obvious reasons, we can’t really go in and damage different parts of the brain permanently in otherwise healthy people, and just those parts of the brain. So we’ve got, basically, informed scientific guesses. For example, the anterior cingulate cortex is supposedly tied to emotional awareness, namely picking up emotional cues, but that’s solely because that part lights up when you show people a tear-jerker. We don’t know its role in picking up emotional cues, or whether more or less activity is necessarily a bad or good thing.

And it also happens to be tied into detecting errors and conflicts in factual presentations (those Stroop tests we mentioned), so for all we know, what the study is really telling us is that playing video games makes you bad at spotting typos.

One thing that is telling, though, is that both centers are theorized to be heavily tied to rewards.

Which brings us to the next problem.

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#2) …Which the Methodology Might Have Failed to Take Into Account…

The claims made by the study don’t really seem to hold up when you look at the methodology, because there’s just not enough data collected to make a definitive statement, of any sort.

The study worked like this: 28 young men between 18 and 29 were selected for the study due to their minimal gaming in their past history. They were given an MRI, and then 14 were issued a laptop with “a shooting video game”, with instructions to play it for ten hours over a week, and half weren’t. Then MRIs were administered at one and two weeks, after the “gamers” had stopped playing. The MRI tests used Stroop tasks to determine functioning of these two areas.

Every single part of that frankly rings alarm bells. Why were no women involved? Why only 18 to 29 year olds? How were their “minimal gaming” pasts determined? What video game were they assigned to play? Was it a commercial product, a game designed by academics for other reasons, or one engineered for the study?

One thing that stands out: why were Stroop tests administered? At the very least, they must be aware that the theory that the ACC was shown to perhaps be tied to emotional control because of films shown to the subjects, not Stroop tests. “Emotional” Stroop tests do exist, but it seems an unusual choice.

But here’s the key thing: their behavior wasn’t tracked and no relevant medical data was taken. There wasn’t even any self-reporting, as far as we can determine from released materials.

That’s a huge problem. If you’re going to say there are possible behavioral changes, you really should, you know, demonstrate changes in behavior.

#1) …And There May Be Excellent Reason For All Of That

Here’s the most important line, in our opinion, of the entire study:

“The research is supported by the Center for Successful Parenting.”

This is the website for the Center for Successful Parenting. You might have noticed they have a bit of an agenda. In fact, they’re a lobbying organization.

Here’s what really stands out: we can’t find anybody who actually runs this place. The closest we can get is a profile of it as a charity. It seems to collect about $500,000 every year…but from who? There’s no “donation” link anywhere on the site, no treasurer identified, nothing. We couldn’t find any financial reports. Heck, the privacy policy on the site isn’t even a link.

A quick scan of the email address led us to a limited liability company run by Christopher Rohe, who may have a few neoconservative political ties, but for all we know, this guy sells Internet access from his house. It’s a dead end.

In other words, this study was funded by a group with an agenda that apparently is unwilling to actively identify anybody who could be contacted directly.

Yes, that smells funny to us too.

So, there you have it: five very large grains of salt to munch on.

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