In light of the furor surrounding Australia's R18+ games rating debate, Distinguished Professor Anderson, Director of Centre of the Study of Violence at Iowa State University had some words of wisdom to impart: "a discussion is certainly worthwhile".
Speaking at a guest lecture on Tuesday night at Macquarie University, Prof. Anderson presented findings from studies that linked violent videogames to aggressive behaviour, and 'pro-social' games (games with no violence) to 'pro-social' behaviour.
Initially, he made it seem very black and white: children who played games that simulated positive activities like Chibi Robot and Mario Sunshine became more helpful, whereas violent videogames lead to immediate signs of increased aggression in gamers. The comparisons in the risk factor of violent gaming was alarming. According to Anderson, violent games were more likely to increase levels of aggression in people who played them, more than substance abuse, low IQ, poor socio-economic background, and poor relations with parents. Furthermore, the likelihood of violent games causing aggressive behaviour was higher than asbestos exposure causing cancer, and nicotine patches assisting smokers in quitting.
However, Anderson conceded that there are grey areas where there simply aren't enough studies about videogaming to make any conclusive statements.
"My guess is that games that have a mix of helpful and hurtful behaviour [like co-op shooters]probably have more of a mix of effects ... some are likely to be positive, and others, harmful," he said.
"We'd like to move in that direction but it's very difficult to do that kind of research. I think it's interesting that you can learn some teamwork and co-operative types of things, in many contexts those are positive skills."
As certain as Anderson is of violent games leading to aggression, he doesn't think it is fair to blame them for anti-social behaviour.
"When I see media reports that say 'oh this German school shooter played Counter Strike and therefore that shows that playing Counter Strike causes school shootings' - that's not what that shows. In any specific incidence, you can't know what proportion of this event is attributable to depression, to stopping taking medication, to poor family or parent child relationships, to the easy availability of guns, and what proportion of the blame belongs to violent media," he said.
Anderson says that violent games are only one risk factor out of many, and that extreme acts of violence always require multiple risk factors being present.
Despite his beliefs that violent videogames can have detrimental effects on gamers, he states that his role as a social psychologist is to provide the scientific facts - not to decide on public policies on anyone's behalf.
"Just because something is harmful doesn't mean you have to pass a law restricting it. It depends on what other values come into play."
"On personal values, let me give you an example about handguns... Let's pretend that you are convinced that restricting handguns would dramatically lower violent crime rates in the United States. Does that mean you, personally, will also be in favour of strict handgun laws? Well, the answer to that is no. What if you so strongly value the ability to get a gun whenever you want that you're willing to live with higher violent crime rates in order to serve this other value? That's perfectly reasonable."
According to Anderson, the same idea can apply to videogames.
"A discussion is certainly worthwhile, but what is the correct or optimal public policy is for Australia to decide. It's not a scientific question as much as it's a political and social question, and it's one that Australians need to think about carefully, weigh the pluses and minuses, and try to come to some sort of consensus."