Video Game Research And The Headlines That Kill

Video Game Research And The Headlines That Kill

A major part of the moral panic cycle — particularly with video games — are the incredulous studies. The ones that link video games with violence or moral decay. These are the studies that make the headlines, the ones sensible researchers must attempt to debunk. The cycle goes on and on.

This great piece by Brendan Keogh takes aim at one of those studies; a study that, in a press release, claimed “video games” were “turning gamers into deadly shooters”.

Well actually it’s not as simple as that, since the study itself actually came to less headline worthy conclusions. But that didn’t stop news sites all around the world jumping onboard the moral panic hype train.

At worst, the accompanying press release – unlikely to have been written by the study’s authors – was a malicious attempt to grab some easy attention by hinting at a fraudulent but popular connection between violent videogames and gun crimes. At best, the study comes across as a lazy simplification of what videogames do, with little interrogation of how they actually function.

It’s a good, lengthy piece that explores all avenues of this issue — poor research, packaged and hyperbolised into press releases which are then spread across the media in a tsunami of misinformation.

Well worth reading.

Bite the bullet: videogames don’t make deadly shooters [The Conversation]


  • After reading that article, I can only come to two conclusions.
    Either the authors of the paper in question were paid/extremely biased, or they’re not intelligent enough to be conducting research.

    • I think that is unfair cracks, did you read the paper? The researchers SCIENCE is quite good but the overall study is poorly constructed (I believe). However, there is nothing wrong with the conclusions they have made based on their data. It is the mainstream media that have corrupted first the idea behind the paper, and second, the way people interpret the paper as a result. Even subconsciously, I think this sort of thing garners a negative reaction from people who play violent video games and feel the need to defend them. That isn’t the researchers faults, that’s really the medias.

      • To be fair, I didn’t read much of the actual paper, but it seems like the whole research project was poorly thought out, and the conclusions reached are of little to no consequence other than for use in constructing inflammatory debate.
        My first comment was a bit knee-jerk, for which I apologise. I’m generally annoyed and dismayed by the manipulation of science for political and social agendas in all areas.

  • The best think about bad journalism is you don’t even have to make the point. You can just ASK if video games turn kids into violent shooters. Two kinds of people are going to read that article: people who immediately answer “yes”, and people who immediately answer “no”. People who say yes will find all the evidence they need in the selectively sourced and badly structured article. People who say “no” will be dismissed because obviously they’re just on the defensive. For people who don’t want to look at the comments on Brendan’s article, this one I saw earlier was a real corker:

    Brendan, I don’t know how long your article is but it certainly is a long and vigorous attempt to defend violent gaming. You gamers are clearly on the defensive. The trouble for violent gamers is that you aren’t trying to defend your chosen recreation from ignorance, poor reporting or misapprehension. You’re trying to defend violent gaming from nothing more complex, or unstoppable, than a growing sense of distaste at what you do for fun. I’ll illustrate my point by quoting Ian Donald Lowe above:”An interesting sidepoint to this is that in a real life situation it is considered better to aim at the chest or torso of a human target rather than the head, to maximise the chances of actually hitting and stopping a target.”Talk about creeping militarisation of consciousness. What about drones? They’re video controlled aren’t they? Do you have to drop one right on top of a family for maximum kill or is there a margin of acceptable error? Presumably you see yourselves as adults. I don’t.

    That’s right. If you write in defense of a subject, if you actually put effort into the subject matter, you’re working too hard. You must be hiding something! And shooting at the head of a target in a video game is the same as murdering innocent civilian families with an unmanned drone! (I am not sure what game he is referencing, was there a “Call of Duty: Incompetent as Hell” that I missed somewhere?

    Because some people* prefer “unbiased” journalism that lets them make up their own mind. To them, the best kind of journalism is one that provides you with no new data whatsoever, so they’re not encumbered with anything like “facts”. In fact they won’t even read the article. They’ll read the headline.

    “Do videogames turn kids into killers?” they’ll read. “Yes” they will reply.

    A week later, what they remember is “I read that video games turn kids into killers.”


    • Oh, I meant to add, I can’t remember who said this but I read a comment awhile back that said something to the effect of “If your article headline can be answered with a simple ‘no’, you’re doing it wrong.”

      Since then, I’ve considered almost any serious attempt at an article with a headline that ends in a question mark to be bad journalism. I make a concerted effort to not remember the headline, in case I accidentally colour my perceptions.

  • As a psychology researcher, I think I can say with (a little bit of) authority that “The Conversation” author is wrong. This is actually a well designed study, and the press release is accurate. The mainstream media added the links to Columbine, but thats hardly the journals fault for describing exactly what was found and happens all the time.

    I took a look at the actual research article. The authors (nor the press release) didn’t try to make the case that people who play violent games are murderous psychopaths (so any mainstream media references to real world murder sprees are completely unfounded), but it’s actually is pretty god damn concerning nonetheless.

    The results suggest that people who play violent shooters are more likely to go for a head shot, at least in the short term. This may just be a reflexive thing, it may be an aggression thing, it may be a training thing . However, the implications for police/soldiers etc.,who are meant to be taking body shots (for their own safety as well as the safety of the target), are the same. What I found especially concerning was that people with firearms training were as likely to go for headshot, suggesting games can actual undo proper firearms training.

    The author of the linked “The Conversation” article rather unconvincing refutes the case made by the original authors. For starters, the term training is much broader than Brendan Keogh seems to realize, and does not require high-fidelity simulations. Second, he says he thinks they’ve confirmed their own prejudices. However, my guess is that these researchers are gamers – rather than not getting the pure pwnage reference, they are probably making a little joke. Third, this is a good journal (solid impact factor, good reputation, high rank for journals in its subject area), meaning the article was reviewed and approved by other experts prior to publication – the first thing they would have been looking at is the method, and we can be damn sure they know more about the robustness of the design than you, me or Brendan Keogh. Bad research designs can still get through, but having read the article, I don’t think that Keogh makes a solid case against the design at all.

    This article reminds me of climate change deniers. They don’t like the results and they don’t particularly understand the methods, so they make unfounded claims about both the authors and their techniques. Disappointing.

    • By the way – if anyone is wondering whether I think violent video games make people violent, my position is basically “maybe, but I know sports do and I don’t see anyone proposing they get banned because the risk is low.”

    • Actually, Brendan did not criticise the study itself, as the study did not make the conclusion “Violent Video Games Turning Gamers into Deadly Shooters”. But that was nevertheless the title of the press release that was published with a misleading headline.

      Other news sites then took the press release headline and posted articles based upon one interpretation of the results.

      What Brendan criticised was this mishandling of the data by the media that has resulted in another misrepresentation to the general public who, by and large, don’t have time to exercise critical thinking or do their own factchecking. The mainstream media and anti-gaming have drawn a longer bow than this in past instances to show “proof” that there is a direct causitive link between games and violence.

      • Actually, the press release title is entirely accurate: Violent Video Games Turning Gamers into Deadly Shooters, unless shooting for the head, with greater accuracy is somehow less deadly. That the media, which is pretty biased, willfully misinterpreted the heading is hardly sages fault as a cursory reading of the press release makes it clear what the heading is referring to.

        And did we read the same article? Brendan does refer to the methodology and the authors repeatedly.

        “This is only marginally more deceptive and slanted than the actual paper”

        “the authors were more concerned with proving their own assumptions”

        “The second is interesting, certainly, but not the causal link to violent action implied by the study and the accompanying press release” – Brendan has misinterpreted either the study or the press release. This was a causal study design, that linked to a behavior. The authors did not describe that behavior as violent, only that the games were violent.

        “The actual-world action of the player has little if any similarities with the functional use of a firearm” – this isn’t the concern. The concern is that people who already know how to fire again may be subject to behavior changes at the cognitive level i.e. aim for the head.

        “Perhaps replicated firearm usage can train more proficient firearm users, but that is hardly proof that “violent videogames” are turning players into “deadly shooters” ” – The study design actual suggests that violent games may make people deadlier shooters because of what they choose to aim for.

        “Considering that so few violent videogames use light guns (never mind the fact that not all “violent” videogames even depict shooting), it’s quite a stretch to say Whitaker and Bushman’s study proves any connection with violent videogames in general and firearm efficiency.” True, it doesn’t teach the mechanical skills. It doesn’t say that anywhere in either the article or the press release, and is hardly the concern anyway.

        “Was a malicious attempt to grab some easy attention by hinting at a fraudulent but popular connection between violent videogames and gun crimes.” Maybe.

        “The study comes across as a lazy simplification of what videogames do, with little interrogation of how they actually function.” I’m really not sure whether he’s talking about the study or the press release here. I’m not sure the statement is founded either way.

        “As the writers themselves admit, hidden right down the bottom of their conclusion like a murmured confession, the findings of the study do not in any way show any connection between the playing of violent videogames and a likelihood of committing gun crimes or any other violent act. ” This to me is the most telling statement that Brendan actually has either no idea what he’s talking about, or is being willfully obtuse. This statement is in the limitations section, which is generally right before the conclusion. This is exactly where it should be.

        “It’s about time researchers acknowledged this instead of seeking easy, linear and lazy cause-and-effect models that insult the multitudes of people that play videogames.” This was a lab-based cause and effect design. Far from easy. It answers an interesting theoretical research question and an applied one. He seems unhappy that they didn’t demonstrate real gun crime, but how do you do that? Actually ask participants to shoot real guns at real people?

    • If you have to ‘guess’ that the researchers are gamers, I’m not sure that’s a point worth claiming. Further, these Psychology journals have published spurious study after spurious study, along with other reviewed articles that point-blank refute what those previous “games make people violent” studies claim. I can’t link very well to this material, because its all behind academic paywalls, but here’s the introduction to a special issue:

      So tell me again how you’re sure that one person is wrong, and another is right?

      • I was merely responding to the authors guess, from which he inferred a lot. Regardless, given the relative obscurity of the quote, I’d be very suprised if someone on the research team wasn’t a game. However, I do not frame my argument around it.

        I debate the claim these journals have published ‘spurious after spurious’ study. That is simply not true. There are some spurious studies and many good studies for both the pro-aggression, no-aggression sides considering the difficulties associated with research on that subject. The thing to keep in mind that researchers can’t do real violence studies because of ethical constraints so almost all studies either way are going to have acknowledge limitations. Consequently, it is a legitimately active debate. It is unfortunate that only one side is reported by the press.

        Thanks for the link, I am very much aware of the ‘special issue’. I don’t see the relevance to this debate. I assume you mean the ‘fears that may have been exaggerated in the past with regards to aggression.’ Neither I, nor the original journal article take that line (in my comment above I actual state my position as “maybe”). If you refer to the broader aim of the special issue, I agree there are many benefits to playing games. I myself have done some (unpublished due to null results) video game training research. In fact, the “Boom headshot” article could actually be described as demonstrating the effectiveness of video game based training (obviously thats not the intended research angle).

        So how do I know one person is right and the other is wrong? I don’t know who is right regarding the theory that videogames induce aggression (incidentally, I vaguely lean towards probably, but not enough to be particularly concerned about it). That’s not the case I’m making.

        As a researcher, I’m agnostic about which theory is correct. I may think one is more likely. I try not to have personal investment either way. When the facts change, I change my theory. However, this does require robust research. Therefore, what I do care about is how studies are designed, and how the results are interpreted.

        Keogh is wrong in his criticisms of “Boom headshot” for the reasons I outlined above. The study may be well flawed, but not for the reasons Keogh highlights. In fact, I believe that I’ve made a pretty strong case that Keogh doesn’t understand the article or the press release, that draw reasonable conclusions from the available results. Certainly, the editorial team at the journal agree with that, as do I.

        Doe this mean that Keogh is wrong when he questions whether games make it more likely to take a headshot? I don’t know. We’ll need a lot more research than just this article (which has already got me thinking about a few studies I’d like to do next year).

        Does he make a case that we discount the article’s results because of the design? No.

  • To be fair, in my eyes, the study does not imply whatsoever that there is a link between violent action and videogames. The conclusion clearly states “Playing the violent shooting game facilitated
    the learning of shooting behavior but does not necessarily make it more likely that the
    player would actually fire a real gun. These results instead indicate that if such a person
    were to fire a gun, he or she would fire more accurately and be more likely to aim for the
    head. These results indicate the powerful potential of video games to teach or increase
    skills, including potentially lethal weapon use.”

    Brendan says in his article that the study implies there is a causal link between the two, yet that is, as I understand, not how the research is presented. I agree that there are flaws (numerous flaws in fact, within the research) but I do not believe the SCIENCE has anything to do with the misconception of the article. That said, I do believe that the paper itself is poorly-written and is searching for a relationship in a situation where there is only little evidence of that.

    Another thing that irks me is the use of the word violent and the games that were used, but that is a whole other issue.

    Lastly, Keogh states: “I am not convinced this proves what part of the body these subjects would aim at if confronted with a situation where they had to shoot at a real human.” The research, albeit poor, does not set out to prove that college students are more likely to aim at the head in real life, rather on the variable of aim and accuracy. What Keogh states there is an entirely different study, focused on different branches of science, namely psychology. Furthermore, I disagree that the authors of the article are hiding anything – I believe their results and discussion are suitable for this type of study, particularly the discussion which is supposed to incorporate knowledge in related fields.

    The research is redundant and adds nothing to the already well established literature on how playing computer simulations with synecdochic controls. In my mind, that is bad SCIENCE and Keogh’s conclusion is spot on that researchers should endeavour to create experiments that add to the wealth of knowledge already present.

  • I wonder if people being more likely to go for head shots actually has anything to do with being more violent or whether it’s because we’ve been conditioned to it because head shots in games normally give more points or take away more enemy health. If someone played nothing but Dead Space would they be more likely to shoot at an arm or leg in real life? I’d be interested to hear the answer.

    • I think I’d only be likely to shoot at a leg in the context of slowing down or incapacitating an enemy.If I wanted to kill, and of course that’s a big if, and I’m not convinced I could pull the trigger, I would certainly aim for the upper torso/head region as that is what has been suggested to more likely result in a confirmed kill. Not just by games, but by film and TV as well.

      • Generally you want to aim for the torso. Its actually really hard to hit limbs and the head. Also, depending on the make of the gun and the situation, you’ll generally want to “fire until they drop” – the small calibre pistols used by police actually won’t stop someone on meth. There’s horror stories in the states about cops getting stabbed by meth-heads who have had entire clips unloaded in them.

        • I used to know a police officer who drilled into me that most guns don’t have stopping power – they don’t push you backwards. The bullets either don’t have enough force or pass through. Plenty of damage but if you’re feeling not pain…

          I recall one TV show, don’t recall the name of it, I think it was British. The men in this fictional program were trained to shoot at the mouth of a person so the bullets would pass through and sever the brain stem from the spinal cord, as this was the only way to actually stop electrical impulses from travelling into the body from the brain and immediately stop someone being a threat, since even shooting them in the head might give them a second to squeeze off a shot by accident or something.

  • Brendan Keogh just continues to pump out gold. I have massive respect for the work that guy does.

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