Do violent video games make teens ‘eat and cheat’ more?

By Tom Stafford, University of Sheffield

The Headlines

Business Standard: Violent video games make teens eat more, cheat more

Scienceblog.com: Teens ‘Eat more, cheat more’ after playing violent video games

The Times of India: Violent video games make teens cheat more

The story

Playing the violent video game Grand Theft Auto made teenagers more aggressive, more dishonest and lowered their self control.

What they actually did

172 Italian high school students (age 13-19 years old), about half male and half female, took part in an experiment in which they first played a video game for 35 minutes. Half played a non-violent pinball or golf game, and half played one of the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto games.

During the game they had the opportunity to eat M&M’s freely from a bowl (the amount they scoffed provided a measure of self-control), and after the game they had the opportunity take a quiz to earn raffle tickets (and the opportunity to cheat on the quiz, which provided a measure of dishonesty). They also played a game during which they could deliver unpleasant noises to a fellow player as punishments (which was used to measure of aggression).

Analysis of the results showed that those who played the violent video game had lower scores when it came to the self-control measure, cheated more and were more aggressive. What’s more, these effects were most pronounced for those who had high scores on a scale of “moral disengagement” – which measures how loose your moral thinking is. In other words, if you don’t think too hard about right and wrong, you score highly.

How plausible is this?

This is a well designed study, which uses random allocation to the two groups to try to properly assess causation (does the violent video game cause immoral behaviour?).

The choice of control condition was reasonable (the other video games were tested and found to be just as enjoyed by the participants), and the measures are all reasonable proxies for the things we are interested in. Obviously you can’t tell if weakened self-control for eating chocolate will mean weakened self-control for more important behaviour, but it’s a nice specific measure which is practical in an experiment and which just might connect to the wider concept.

The number of participants is also large enough that we can give the researchers credit for putting in the effort. Getting about 85 people in each group should give a minimum of statistical power, which means any effects might be reliable.

As an experimental psychologist, there’s lots for me to like about this study. The only obvious potential problem that I can see is that of demand effects, subtle cues that can make participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how they should behave. The participants were told they were in a study which looked at the effects of video games, so it isn’t impossible that some element of their behaviour was playing up to what they reasonably guessed the researchers were looking for and it doesn’t look like the researchers checked if this might be the case.

Tom’s take

You can’t leap to conclusions from a single study, of course – even a well designed one. We should bear in mind the history of moral panics around new technology and media. Today we’re concerned with violent video games, 50 years ago it was comic books and jazz. At least jazz is no longer corrupting young people.

Is our worry about violent video games just another page in the history of adults worrying about what young people are up to? That’s certainly a factor, but unlike jazz, it does seem psychologically plausible that a game where you enjoy reckless killing and larceny might encourage players to be self-indulgent and nasty.

Reviews suggest violent media may be a risk factor for violent behaviour, just like cigarette smoke is a risk factor for cancer. Most people who play video games won’t commit violent acts, just like most people who passive smoke won’t get cancer.

The problem is other research reviews into impact of violent entertainment on our behaviour suggest the evidence for a negative effect is weak and contradictory.

Video games are a specific example of the general topic of if and how media affect our behaviour. Obviously, we are more than complete zombies, helpless to resist every suggestion or example, but we’re also less than completely independent creatures, immune to the influence of other people and all forms of entertainment. Where the balance lies between these extremes is controversial.

For now, I’m going to keep an open mind, but as a personal choice I’m probably not going to get the kids GTA for Christmas.

Read more

The original paper: Interactive Effect of Moral Disengagement and Violent Video Games on Self-Control, Cheating, and Aggression

@PeteEtchells provides a good summary of the scientific (lack of) consensus: What is the link between violent video games and aggression?

Commentary by one researcher on the problems in the field of video game research: The Challenges of Accurate Reporting on Video Game Research

And a contrary research report: A decade long study of over 11,000 children finds no negative impact of video games

Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article, or other columns in the series

6 Comments

  1. Neil
    Posted November 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a possible confound. There is independent evidence that cognitive load and resource depletion increase aggression and cheating. Might GTA simply be more demanding than the control games? If so, the participants would be more depleted, and that would play a role in the differences observed.

    • Posted November 29, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Also, more stimulating / arousing.

      • calling all toasters
        Posted December 3, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

        Agree with both of these comments. Pinball or golf? The control group should be playing Crash Bandicoot.

  2. Posted November 28, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t scarfing down the candy contribute to the behavior afterward? Anyway, I have read that any aggressive effect could be temporary, so that’s interesting.

    I’m reminded of Joshua Green’s study. Would parents buy kids a doll of a child that had been shot through the chest? Of course not. It might not make them more violent, but it’s distasteful. Do as I say, not as I do.

    I guess the video game distastefulness is just too far removed to see the other way.

  3. Sheri Rubin
    Posted November 30, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    There are many studies that have shown benefits to playing violent video games (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-video-games-change-brain) and yet no real >crediblereason< that a game like GTA: San Andreas is rated 18+ on the PEGI system (as the participants were Italian) and so that means one of two things (at least):

    1) The researchers clearly did something inappropriate by giving them a game they weren't supposed to play [or asking the parents for permission to expose the kids to those games]

    or

    2) They only had the 18/19 year old kids play GTA in which case the study is flawed as the results would only been for that small subsection of the participants.

    Even if you went off of the ESRB ratings (the system used in the US) the game is rated M for Mature, or generally suitable for ages 17 and up, which still means the 13, 14, 15, and 16 participants should not have been playing it.

    It is very disheartening to see the values, legitimacy, and honor of science continuously tarnished and diminished by flawed study after flawed study being conducted, published, and promoted. I often work with non-profit organizations and as a mentor to encourage those younger than me to consider the science and technology fields as a career option. Studies like those mentioned in the article set a poor example for proving the worth and respectability of that line of work.

    • sherirubin
      Posted November 30, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      That’s weird. The reply got messed up and I don’t see a way to edit it. Here are the first sets of paragraphs as they should be (I hope):
      There are many studies that have shown benefits to playing violent video games (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-video-games-change-brain) and yet no real >crediblereason< that a game like GTA: San Andreas is rated 18+ on the PEGI system (as the participants were Italian) and so that means one of two things (at least):

      My apologies for the second post.


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