The Very Long Trial of Computer Games

As congressional staffers lined up Jenkins’ post-Columbine trip to Washington, the phone in David Walsh’s Minnesota office was ringing almost without cease. Walsh was founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, at that time a three-year-old nonprofit group known for its measured but unstinting criticism of violence accessible to children in media ranging from television to video games. It was bad enough that Harris and Klebold’s rampage drew from action-movie imagery, but when they were discovered to be computer game fans, reporters around the world immediately turned to Walsh for an explanation.

Walsh didn’t give the media its most sensational headlines. “A lot of people try to imply that video games were the cause, which is preposterous,” he said later. “There is no one cause for a situation like that.” But he took another half-step ahead, too, arguing in words that resonated in parents’ groups and Washington, DC, corridors that society needed to consider whether interactions with violence in virtual spaces were in fact related to violence in the real world in some way. Even if the available science wasn’t clear enough to show a direct causal relationship, correlations seemed to be emerging, he said.

“The impact of violence in the media is not violent behavior; the real impact is that it creates and nourishes a culture of disrespect,” he argued. “For every kid that finds a weapon, how many are there putting each other down, calling each other names? That creates an environment where aggressive or violent behavior is more likely to occur.”

Harris and Klebold weren’t the first to be teased and harassed at school, but something in them responded to the environment with a horribly extreme reaction. The shape of that was not wholly coincidental, Walsh said. “When it came time for them to act out their anger, where did they get their ideas? Ideas come from popular culture, and media defines popular culture.”

In the spectrum of media critics, Walsh was far from an extremist. In the months that followed the shooting, the pair’s actions were also linked to bullying, depression, and heavy-metal music. But a subset of cultural critics focused particularly on what they argued was a direct link between video games and violent behavior. Retired Marine psychologist Dave Grossman, who testified at the congressional hearings after Columbine and had studied the psychology of soldiers on the front lines of military conflicts, found that training simulating the action of killing essentially gave combat-related actions the status of muscle memory rather than of conscious decision. Simulations had helped increase the share of soldiers who actually fired their weapons in war. Games that taught players how to mow down on-screen enemies—particularly those arcade games in which the motion of pointing and firing a weapon was part of the experience—were literally teaching their players to kill, and therefore needed to be banned entirely from the retail market, Grossman contended. A resident of Jonesboro, Arkansas, where a 1998 school shooting helped set the stage for the media frenzy that followed Columbine, he had toured the country calling for programs of “education, litigation, and legislation” against violent video games.

Unlike Grossman, Walsh and his group didn’t advocate for censorship or legislation that would impose new restrictions on the video game industry. His reluctance to make sweeping statements had often left him in a position like the one in which Jenkins found himself: stuck between polar opposites in the game violence debate. He had even been quietly disinvited from congressional hearings when his reluctance to support specific bills was discovered by congressional staffers. Nevertheless, his group’s campaign of research and education had made him one of the most influential voices on Capitol Hill and in the medical establishment on the issue.

Walsh started his career as a high-school teacher, bouncing for a decade between schools in Massachusetts, Washington, and Minnesota. Along the way, he made the gradual transition to the role of school counselor and then to professional psychologist. In the late 1980s, he wrote a book called Designer Kids, which dealt with the effects of consumerism and competition on children. It sold reasonably well, and several years later his publisher asked him to do a follow-up. This time, he chose to study the influence of media on children, focusing in part on the effects of violent media.

This second book wasn’t explicitly about video or computer games. At that point, games such as Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Duke Nukem were just arriving on the cultural scene. Decades of research on the effects of television, movies, and other media had been undertaken, however, and Selling Out America’s Children brought all those studies together. It struck a nerve, particularly with journalists. Bill Moyers featured Walsh on his television show, and other media outlets followed suit. The American Medical Association (AMA) even called Walsh for information when the organization was putting together a public information campaign on the impact of media violence.

Realizing the growing appetite for credible data, Walsh started to look for corporate sponsorship for a nonprofit organization focused on media issues. In mid-1995 he found funding, and the Institute was born. The group’s underlying philosophy would be that the various media kids spent an increasing amount of their growing life watching and playing weren’t intrinsically good or bad, but were powerful influences. He realized from talking to kids, educators, and parents, and even from watching his own three kids, that video and computer games were an increasingly important and influential part of that media tapestry.

“Whoever tells the stories defines the culture,” he said. “This has been true for thousands of years. We’ve been telling each other stories forever. What’s new is who the storytellers are. For the past fifty years, the dominant storytellers have become the electronic media—movies, television, video, and computer games. And their real impact is in shaping norms of behavior.”

This was true across mediums, he said. “If we believe Sesame Street teaches four-year-olds something, we better believe that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”—a game that rewarded carjacking, murder, and killing prostitutes, among other actions—“is teaching fourteen-year-olds something. The impact is gradual and subtle desensitization, and a shaping of attitudes and values.”

Before the Columbine hearings, few groups in the nonprofit world were talking about video games, violence, and media effects. The medium was still relatively new, and games were evolving so fast that people who hadn’t grown up with them still found them difficult to understand. Walsh’s group was one of the first to begin speaking about the issue. The message was heard on Capitol Hill, and when Senator Lieberman’s office began looking for a nonprofit to partner with on the issue, his staffers called Walsh. Walsh agreed to work with them to study the effects of games, and together they hatched a first project. They’d create a report card on the video game industry, studying how many of the companies were following the post-1993 rating systems, and measuring how much violence was still finding its way into games.

Walsh didn’t know what to expect when he released his first report. Because of his association with Lieberman, the unveiling was held in one of the legislative hearing rooms in the U.S. Capitol building. Walsh walked in to see representatives from virtually all the major TV networks and newspapers. He was stunned. The report was carried by the biggest news organizations in the United States, and the follow-up report cards his group released every year continued to receive considerable attention.

Seeking further data, Walsh’s group established close ties to the medical and psychological establishment that had examined the effects of media violence using traditional social psychological techniques. Games had been studied relatively infrequently compared to television and film. Indeed, the medium was in such a constant state of flux, with game styles and platforms changing so rapidly, that critics argued that the studies that were performed tended to become outdated shortly after publication.

Walsh started with research performed with other media. A long line of researchers, the same ones Jenkins had dubbed “media effects” proponents, had found links between watching considerable amounts of violent television and increased levels of aggressiveness. Other researchers hypothesized that the interactivity of modern games created a learning environment different from that of media that were experienced more passively. It was not unreasonable to conclude that participating in the violent on-screen behavior contained in video games thus had some deleterious effect on kids. “Theoretically, if television violence impacts kids, it’s reasonable to assume that video game violence has at least as great an impact or greater,” Walsh said.

This particular assertion, as Walsh conceded, was analogy rather than a scientifically supported conclusion. However, a small but growing number of studies had shown correlations between the playing of violent games and aggressive behavior, he noted. In other words, people who played violent games were more likely than non-players to demonstrate aggressive behavior.

Indeed, in recent years, the interactive nature of games had driven researchers to develop increasingly complex experimental approaches to studying potential media effects. In some, researchers had brought players into their labs, had them play various kinds of games, and measured their aggressiveness before and after playing. Other researchers had used outside reports, such as letting classmates rate one other’s aggressiveness, and then correlating these ratings with the time each child had spent playing violent video games.

One of the most influential—and ultimately controversial—of these researchers was Craig Anderson, the chairman of Iowa State University’s Department of Psychology, who had constructed a broad theory about the interaction between media and aggressive behavior, and had written a series of papers on how video and computer games fit into the model. Along with several other researchers, he had also conducted a set of studies that formed the backbone of research on the issue in the post-Columbine era. [1]

One of his studies interviewed a group of group of 227 undergraduates and drew correlations between video game playing habits and factors such as behavior, grades, and general attitudes about the world. They found a small positive correlation between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior as reported by the students—things such as “hit or threatened to hit other students” or “attacked someone with the idea of seriously hurting or killing him/her.”

In his published version of the study, Anderson and his fellow researchers were careful to note that this correlation didn’t necessarily imply causation. It may have been true, for example, that temperamentally aggressive people were more likely to be drawn to violent games, which would indicate that the games were not producing all the aggressive behavior.

Good science requires issues to be examined repeatedly, from multiple points of view; wanting more detail, Anderson designed a second study to examine the causal link further. Student test subjects were assigned to play either id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, a fast-paced, first-person shooting game, or Myst, a nonviolent, slow-paced game requiring little in the way of manual dexterity. In a first session, students played one or the other game for fifteen minutes, and then responded to survey questions measuring levels of hostility, agreeing or disagreeing with questions such as “I feel angry” or “I feel mean.”

After a second fifteen-minute game-play session, they were presented with another task aimed at measuring cognitive effects (changes in thinking patterns). To this end, the computer flashed a series of words on the screen, and the students were required to read them out loud. Some of the words were deemed aggressive, such as murder. Others were various types of control words, associated with anxiety (humiliated), the desire for flight (leave), or no particular subject (report).

At a later session, the same students were brought back to play the same games. Afterward, they were put into a situation in which they believed they were competing in a game of reflexes against another, hidden, student; the winner would “punish” the other student with a sharp burst of sound. Increasing the volume or the length of the sound, each of which was left up to the student, was deemed a measure of aggressiveness.

When the researchers looked at the first set of data, measuring the students’ hostility levels, they found no significant difference between the groups of people who had played Myst and Wolfenstein 3D. They did find a difference in the groups’ aggressive thoughts. People who had played the fast-paced shooter games tended to read the “aggressive” words faster than those who had played the mellow Myst, while there was no significant difference for the nonaggressive words.

The study’s result suggested that violent video games might prime aggressive thought patterns without making people feel hostile or angry. This didn’t mean people would necessarily act upon those feelings, but the final test showed that people who had played the fast-paced, violent video game were slightly more likely to “punish” their fictional opponent with longer bursts of sound, an effect the researchers interpreted as aggressive behavior. In none of these cases was the difference large, but it was statistically significant, the researchers said. [2] [3]

In subsequent years, Anderson’s claims were rejected by a significant body of research scientists who not only questioned the findings, but also questioned the research methodologies. Certainly, these other researchers have argued, violent games are correlated with increased and heightened sensitivities in short durations after playing; however, this does not amount to evidence that a single factor, like playing a violent video game, was causally connected to committing actual violence.

Even the Supreme Court, in its 2011 decision against the state of California’s attempt to curtail the sale of violent video games, ultimately said this conclusion had gone too far.

 California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” [4]

Somewhere between the media effects research and the post-Columbine three-ring circus of politics, the subtlety of the debate was lost. Anderson appeared with Walsh at a congressional hearing specifically on video games a year after the shootings. He defended his own research and others’ against critics there, noting that no study was perfect but that the body of the literature on the effects of violent media taken as a whole was at least as conclusive as the body of literature on smoking and lung cancer. “About thirty years ago, when questioned about the propriety of calling Fidel Castro a communist, Richard Cardinal Cushing replied, ‘When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck,’” Anderson told senators at the hearing in 2000. “The TV and movie violence research community has correctly identified their duck.” [5] Afterward, many in the research community questioned his claim of parallels with the level of certainty achieved by smoking research, but the argument resonated with politicians.

Walsh, along with Anderson, dismissed the idea that the games could actually serve as catharsis or stress relief. Much psychological research showed the opposite effect—when people practiced a kind of behavior, it intensified the behavior rather than lessening it, he said. An analogous example might be the scream therapy popular in the 1970s, in which people were encouraged to scream at the top of their lungs to release pent-up stress and anger. When researchers studied the effects of that therapy, they found that screamers tended to be angrier than non-screamers. That was a lesson that proponents of video game catharsis should take to heart, Walsh said. The science might not yet have proven a causal relationship between games and violence, Walsh argued, but if these games did prime players, they might trigger unintended responses in those predisposed to violent behaviors. “If you’ve got someone who is angry, you don’t want to make them more angry,” he said.

If Walsh’s own work wasn’t based on original scientific research, it nevertheless provided useful comparative data on an industry that was undeniably having increasing social and economic effects. In publishing his data, he found himself wading into polarizing territory: Every year, when his group released a survey or report card, he knew that angry, vitriolic gamers who discounted his media effects arguments would fill his email box. The irony wasn’t lost on him as he quoted a sample email received a day after the December 2002 report was released:

I’ve been playing video games all my life and NEVER ONCE has it affected me. Maybe you were affected cause you’ve got your head stuck up your ass. By the way, bash Vice City or any other game one more time and I’m gonna come down to your wacko office and shove that biased report card so far down your throat you’ll be crapping corrupt soccer moms until next Christmas.

  1. Craig Anderson and Karen Dill, "Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life," Journal of Personality and Social Behavior 78, no. 4 (2000): 772-790.
  2. Jennifer Hugest, "Study Links Violent Video Games to Violent Thought, Action," The Checkup, Washington Post, March 1, 2010,
  3. Benedict Carey, "Shooting in the Dark," New York Times, February 12, 2013.
  4. Governor of California Et Al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association Et Al., 564 U.S. ____ (2011), Docket No. 08-1448: 12-13.
  5. The Impact of Interactive Violence on Children: Hearing Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 106th Cong. 32-35 (March 21, 2000) (prepared statement of Dr. Craig A. Anderson, Professor, Iowa State University, Department of Psychology).

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