It is that time again, time for yet another study supposedly proving that video games are causing the downfall of society where the message they want you to take is distinctly different from the actual outcomes they hope you will never read. There are so many studies about video games out now, you’d think another one would just fall on the pile forgotten. Of course, if it seems to be supporting a preconceived conclusion that fits with what people want to hear, then it might get some attention right? Even as we see an increase in honest studies finding that maybe academics have been wrong about video games, and maybe they aren’t all bad, there are still those who will do anything to prove the terrors of video games. Even if it means putting their academic integrity on hold.
“Acting Like a Tough Guy” is the actual name of the latest study (based in Italy) out to prove that violent games are corrupting the youth, and as is the cliche, they’re going after Grand Theft Auto. This study’s unique twist is that they did bother to differentiate between types of violent games, namely GTA and Half-Life. Everything else is a familiar tactic found in most studies of this nature: procedures that are not complete, statistics that measure subjective variables, and the narrative written around the conclusion that the authors wanted rather than the one they actually received, all while blatantly misunderstanding the medium. This one in particular though is gaining some traction, likely because it is fairly well-written and presented. Under the surface things are not so simple.
The conclusion this study makes is that “violent-sexist” video games, such as Grand Theft Auto (because it has strippers and prostitutes in it seems to be the bulk of this argument), lead to an increase in masculine beliefs and a lack of empathy for female victims of physical abuse. How terrible, right? Perhaps, but there is an issue here: what are “masculine beliefs”? Because it is listed next to “lack of empathy for female victims” your mind (unless you’re used to this nonsense by now) will likely assume a negative connotation. This is not on accident, and as we’ll later find out, is pretty much the only way this study works. In fact, “masculine beliefs” are very poorly defined in this study. They don’t completely gloss over this, but rather than a full list of how they measured it (which was based on a Kinsey survey), they give a broad and editorialized definition in the introduction. This requires a very distinct definition though, because what this study demonstrates is not that “violent-sexist” video games are correlated with a lack of empathy. In fact, there was actually no direct correlation found between that at all. What it finds is that “violent-sexist” video games are correlated with “masculine beliefs.” And that “masculine beliefs” were correlated with a lack of empathy for female victims of assault. So, obviously, “violent-sexist” video games are correlated with a lack of empathy. Clearly, of course, what’s the problem?
The third ANOVA found no significant effect for type of video game played on empathy for female violence victims (p = .31)
Well, since they demonstrated absolutely no direct connection between the games and empathy, it leads to the question: how does this indirect connection work? Even in the comments of this piece, another gentlemen (who is far kinder in his analysis than I) points out that taking a broad generalization from this indirect correlation may not be the right step. Even with direct correlations, researchers are cautioned to take care with the conclusions they make. If there is an indirect correlation though, and the direct correlation is non-existent, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the connection exists and the direct correlation should be ignored. It should be taken as a sign that there are other factors at play.
There is a lot missing from this study that could’ve been easily incorporated. In measuring empathy, why did they not include controls for situations where there is no attacker (the subject was in a faultless accident) and situations for where the oppressor is female? Why did they not measure those “masculine beliefs” and empathy prior to exposing participants to the games, to see if there was an actual correlation and not just a coincidental one? The only important direct correlation found in the entire study were between those “masculine beliefs” and empathy after all—why is there no consideration for the other conclusions that could be brought in? Why did they not use games with female or player-created protagonists—they could have accomplished this by using Saints Row III as their “violent-sexist” game, as it has similar themes and settings, but you can play as male or female because of the character creation.
Even the section of Grand Theft Auto they use is questionable. They state that players were directed specifically to complete a mission against a rival gang, which happens to take place around a club. However, especially because you are involved in a mission, you’re likely not interacting with the ladies in the club. You have other priorities. They’re not your targets or enemies—in the midst of a mission, pretty much all bystanders become background noise (as most people who play through GTA would tell you). So how would this even impact empathy in regards to female victims? Would the impact on empathy in regards to male victims be greater? We don’t know—the researchers didn’t think about this.
Perhaps consider this as a possible alternative explanation. Even in players who have masculine beliefs, video games actually make them more empathetic. Meaning those “masculine beliefs” you claim are toxic, even though players seem to keep them through gameplay, are altered by the gameplay, making those players more empathetic. This conclusion makes just as much sense, in fact moreso possibly. Since there is no negative correlation between empathy and the game, even though there is a small correlation between “masculine beliefs” and the game, that means that the game may very well be impacting that, but in a positive way. Otherwise, why wouldn’t those “masculine beliefs” carry over to a direct correlation?
Or alternatively these factors are all random and have no true connection at all, because people play games to have fun, especially ones as bombastically insane as Grand Theft Auto. This would make more sense as well, since those “masculine beliefs” connected to the games were only found between the “violent-sexist” type and the “neutral” type (the neutral type being Q.U.B.E). But there was no difference in those beliefs between the “violent-sexist” and the regular “violent.” How can we be certain those beliefs are just a result of the participants preconceived ideas and upbringing, and that the games, in fact, made those participants more empathetic, at least towards female victims?
Had the researchers considered this angle, we may know. However since the study was tailored towards getting a specific conclusion, rather than asking a question, there isn’t enough data here to even find out for ourselves. As always, the study would have to be repeated. Unfortunately, it likely won’t be, as the researchers seem to pat themselves on the back and say “See we found a significant correlation! If you played the games more, you’d be even more sexist!” This is the biggest hint that the authors went into this already assuming they were correct—there is not an ounce of humility or admission of fault or wrongness, even though there was no direct correlation found at all between the games and empathy.
Although it is impressive that we were able to obtain significant effects after such a brief exposure, we do not know what the consequences would be for longer exposures. If the effects occur after only 25 minutes of play in a laboratory experiment, they are probably magnified after longer periods of play outside the lab.
It is so tiresome to watch academia continue this crusade against video games, even while never taking the time to actually understand the medium. They are so caught up in this decades old idea of video games causing violence that it seems like they can’t possibly view it from any other lens. It is my hope that one day researchers can band together to do a study on video games for what they truly are—one that is nuanced and interesting and seeks only to ask questions, not solely to find the answer you want to support your views.