Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Written by Shania Kuo
Since the time of arcade games like Pac Man, video games have never had a very favorable light shed on them. It wasn’t uncommon to find articles of parents criticizing the dangers of video games. One such person in 1982 was Ronnie Lamm, a Long Island PTA president who bemoaned the “antisocial behavior” arcades were cultivating in children (Gossett, 2020). Of course, it’s been almost forty years since that review came out. Now, the antisocial behavior has evolved into the stereotypical sweaty white male who’s also obese, antisocial, and has a bad temper. At least, that’s the surface layer. The perception of gaming has evolved significantly in some areas in the eyes of gamers, video game players, and non-video game players with the topic even warranting a vast amount of research.
Now, before getting into anything else, it’s important to first understand what people think about video games. Surprisingly, the results aren’t as negative as the media may paint perception to be. In 2015, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank providing information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends, conducted a survey on gamers and gaming. They asked if gaming has predominantly men, if games portray women and minorities poorly, if violent games promote aggressive behavior, and if games encourage positive traits such as problem-solving skills, communication and teamwork (Duggan, 2015, p. 1). What Pew Research found was that half of American adults have played video games (50% men and 48% female). Already, we can see that some presumptions have been proven wrong. Even though the survey shows that a significant amount of women play video games, a majority of American adults believe that most people who play video games are men (a view 57% of women share) (Duggan, 2015, p. 1). On the other hand, men are twice as likely to call themselves “gamers” as opposed to women (this percentage is actually men being three times more likely in the 18-29 age group) (Duggan, 2015, p. 1).
Gender differences aren’t the only big topic of debate when it comes to gaming. One topic that has become over sensationalized by public figures and the media is about video games and violence. This has led to some overall mixed sentiments towards this topic. 40% of Americans agree with the statement that “people who play violent video games are more likely to be violent themselves” (Duggan, 2015, p. 3). A slight majority of 53% disagree with that statement (Duggan, 2015, p. 3). On this topic, men and women have highly divergent opinions on the impact of violence and video games. Women are more likely to agree that people who play violent video games are more likely to be violent while men are more likely to disagree (Duggan, 2015, p. 3). Most people who play video games are more likely to be violent themselves, but, interestingly enough, about a third of game players (26% who self-identify as gamers) agree that people who play video games are more likely to be violent themselves (Duggan, 2015, p. 3).
While there is more consensus on issues of violence, views on how games portray minorities and women are far less uncertain. 47% of adults say they are not sure whether video games portray minority groups poorly and 40% of adults say they are not sure whether video games portray women poorly (Duggan, 2015, p. 4). When it comes to portrayal of minorities, minority game players are more likely to agree that most video games portray minority groups poorly than white players (Duggan, 2015, p. 4). For portrayal of women, one-quarter of video game players disagree that most video games portray women poorly. Interestingly, there is not as large of a gender difference (27% of women vs. 21% of men) (Duggan, 2015, p. 4). However, these results should be taken with consideration. This data was collected by the Pew Research Center in 2015, five years since the publication of this research article. Since then, there have been some major shifts in attitude towards video games and portrayal of topics in video games. One example is the #MeToo movement in 2017 (Me Too first started in 2006, but the Harvey Weinstein case in 2017 sent the hashtag and movement viral) which discussed female sexual harassment (although it came to be interpreted in many different ways). The most recent and visceral example of social shifts, however, comes in 2020 with the BLM movement following the death of George Floyd. While the full implications of the BLM movement in 2020 have yet to (and in reality, can’t yet) be analyzed, there have clearly been shifts in how people are addressing race in the United States. As a result, how this transfers to video game portrayals and how people react to these portrayals will need to be evaluated in the future.
So those are the most recent and general perceptions we have towards a few major topics. The topics of diversity and inclusion have been touched on a previous article that can be found here. Before moving on, it is important to address the perception of a “link” between violence and video games which pops up constantly in any articles discussing video game perception. At this is a field with a long and complicated history, it will be dominating most of this article. The long and complicated history includes a great deal of heated debate, misinformation, and political agendas. In particular, there is a disturbing trend for video games to face scrutiny when there is a mass shooting and the perpetrator is a young white man. The issue is that everyone looks to trying to establish causal relationships between violent behavior and video games. According to a statement put out by members of Division 46 (Society for Media Psychology and Technology) of the American Psychological Association, “violence refers to a narrow class of behaviors intended to cause serious physical harm” (Ferguson et al., 2017). Furthermore, the “links” that public officials and media outlets say they encounter following violent crimes have been debunked by multiple sources including the U.S. Secret Service. Their analyses of mass homicide perpetrators “suggested that school shooters tended to consume relatively low amounts of violent media compared to normative levels for same-age peers.” (Ferguson et al., 2017).
In spite of these analyses, as seen with the data from the Pew Research Center, there is still a considerable amount of people who believe that there is a link between violent video games and violent behavior. These beliefs persist largely because of confirmation bias (the human tendency to only pay attention to information that support their viewpoints). One study in 2020 demonstrates an example of this confirmation bias. Lisa A. Kort-Butler published a study comparing self-identified gamers to people who play video games and people who do not play video games. She found that certain attitudes about media aligned with whether a person identified as a gamer, a video game player, or someone who didn’t play video games. She found that in general, “gamers and, to a lesser extent non‐gamers, expressed more positive attitudes about video games than did non‐players.” (Kort-Butler, 2020). In other words, both exposure to games (non-gamers) and identification with gaming (gamers) gave people a softer expression of video games while people who did not play video games relied on stereotypes or misperceptions. In this way, both ends relied on information they had to justify their positions.
In real life applications, when school shooters are a young male, the media and policy makers place their media consumption under scrutiny which doesn’t occur when perpetrators are older males (Ferguson et al., 2017). However, the fact that a young white male watches violent media is in no way remarkable given that video games are widely played by both males and females. In fact, Ferguson et al. (2017) note that “trying to predict something rate, such as a violent crime, by looking at something common, such as playing violent video games” is a classic error.
Professional organizations have also played a role in perpetuating this “link” between violent video games and violent behavior. One example of professional organizations attempting to scapegoat violent media is the NRA. Following the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, Chris Cox, the executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action released a statement stating that “gun control is a failed policy” and that it was time to discuss the underlying issue of Hollywood fetishizing firearms (D’Angelo, 2017). While Cox was not referring to video games in his statement, the fact remains that he was pointing out violent media as a reason behind the horrific Las Vegas shooting. However, as stated earlier, violent media doesn’t correlate to violent behavior. There have been multiple correlational and longitudinal (taken place over many years) studies that suggest that violent video game exposure does not meaningfully predict violent crime (DeCamp, 2015; Przybylski & Mishkin, 2016; Surette & Maze, 2015; Ybarra et al., 2008). However, it should be noted that scientific research has, in fact, perpetuated misinformation themselves at times.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has a rocky history when it comes to violent media and violent behavior. In 2005, the APA released a policy statement linking violent video games to aggression (that statement has since archived but I have linked a PDF in the references). Christopher J. Ferguson’s work has appeared multiple times throughout this article and for good reason. Currently, Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University, studying media violence, particularly in video games. He has been extremely vocal about the lack of correlation between video game violence and violent behavior, publishing many articles discussing his findings. In 2018, Ferguson partnered with Allen Copenhaver researched into internal communications within the APA following its policy statement on violent video games. Through their analyses, they made several conclusions. The first is that individuals working on task forces can have certain ideological stances on controversial issues that lead to biased judgements if there is not a wide variety of viewpoints (Copenhaver and Ferguson, 2018). Another issue is that people placed on these task forces might not even have the experience that correlates with the goal of the task force. In the case of video games, this is a huge problem. Many policy makers and older adults are people who don’t have much experience or interaction with video games and have to rely on stereotypes and preconceived notions. In a 2019 study, Madrigal-Pana et al. found in a survey on 750 adults 45 years and older, there were less positive attitudes towards technology but also less technology usage (12% in those 65 and older, 13% in those 55-64 years old, and 28% in those 45-54 years old) (p. 233). These findings are consistent with previous literature where adults fear the abstract concept of violent video games but have much less negative perceptions after playing games with mature content (Ferguson et al., 2017, p. 924).
For research specifically, there has been a track record of flawed and suspect methodology when it comes to violent video games. Especially when it comes to the APA. When the APA released their 2005 statement, research existed stating that there was no significant relationship between violent video games and violent behavior (examples include Baldaro et al., 2004; Colwell & Kato, 2003; Durkin & Barber, 2002). None of that literature was cited, and the media and members of the APA essentially ignored the findings of that research (Ferguson, 2013, p. 60). Interestingly enough, it was the SCOTUS 2011 case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association that brought attention to the fact that research “linking” violent behavior and violent video games are unconvincing. The Court stated that “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).” (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 2010, p. 800). It isn’t hard to understand where the Justices were coming from. One piece of evidence presented to the court stated that children who were presented with violent games filled in the phrase “explo_e” with a “d” for “explode” instead of “r” for “explore.” This is an extremely rigid design and expectation (researchers were essentially looking for only two possible options with neither choice having the standing to lead to a conclusive decision) which makes the finding unconvincing (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 2010, p. 800, footnote 7). The Supreme Court Justices are far from experts in this field, but they were the first to bring attention to the flawed designs presented. It is also notable that they were probably able to point these issues out because they were detached from the science presented. The 2005 APA statement authors were researchers who had ideologies against video games and had conducted research that supported their views which led to the further perpetuation of violent video gamers (American Psychological Association, 2005).
It seems like a bleak outcome when objective science turns out to not be as objective as originally believed. However, science isn’t the only driving fact behind perceptions. Yes, violence has been a debate among older generations. For people in the U.S., children’s exposure to violence has always been a concern of adults. However, eventually the younger generation will be in positions of power, and it’s important to understand that video games are evolving which leaves many concerns and misconceptions with video games outdated. As stated in the intro of this article, there has always been a prevailing antisocial image of what a gamer is. However, in 2016, Pokemon Go was an augmented reality (AR) game released to play on mobile devices. This game challenged the sedentary stereotype of gamers, promoting healthy activity such as walking and has even had a significant impact on mental health and depression (Kamboj and Krishna, 2017, p. 398). Games such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) are also challenging the idea of antisocial behavior as communities form that encourage interaction between players.
It would be a disservice to state that all problems with games are gone. In the game industry, there are issues with diversity and mental health. However, knowing the issues within the game industry are not enough to help solve issues in the game industry. Professionals need to know the public perception of video games and actively seek to challenge those perceptions. By challenging these perceptions and helping the public understand video games and its potential better, the video game industry becomes less stigmatized. The video game industry is young and has gone through many rocky times. However, if COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that video games do have the power to make a change.
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