Dartmouth study finds link between violent video games and aggressive behavior

by Savannah Eller | 10/15/18 2:30am

Parents may need to better monitor children who enjoy playing violent video games. A recently published meta study by Dartmouth researchers found a statistically significant link between playing violent video games and adolescent aggression. The study analyzed previous research on the subject in the hopes of offering definitive evidence that violent video game play can increase aggressive tendencies in teens.

The study analyzes a group of 24 experimental studies from around the world with over 17,000 participants. By comparing the results of the studies, the researchers found an increase in overt physical aggression with violent video game play, according to lead researcher and psychological and brain sciences professor Jay Hull.

“Essentially, we supported conclusions that people have drawn for quite a while — that violent video game play seems to be associated with increases in aggression,” Hull said.

The meta-analysis differs from previous studies on violent video games. According to Hull, the study was compiled to refute specific criticisms of recent research on the topic.

The analysis addresses three criticisms of the conclusion that violent video games can increase adolescent aggression.

First, the researchers addressed concerns about studies that only record small, lab-generated measures of aggression without proof of real-world behavioral changes. To refute this criticism, the Dartmouth study limited the scope of its analysis to studies that evaluate overt, physical manifestations of aggression in the real word. Examples included the frequency of hitting non-family members and getting sent to the principal’s office.

The researchers also only looked at experimental studies that examined the effects of co-variants like gender on the aggression documented. This addressed recent critiques that have noted that violent video game studies often ignore such factors. By comparing results with and without the consideration of co-variants, the study found that the change in documented aggression is negligible.

“What we found is they don’t lead to much, and the effect that’s still there is statistically significant,” Hull said.

Lastly, the study countered faultfinding that reasoned that studies on the topic with positive results were more likely to be published in scientific journals than those that came out with null effects. To test this theory, the researchers compared a theoretical model created for the study to actual published results. The comparison convinced them that no such bias existed.

“We found a nice, normal distribution of effects,” Hull said.

Hull coauthored the study with two other researchers, Anna Prescott A&S’16, a graduate student at the time, and psychological and brain sciences professor Jim Sargent.

Sargent said he was intrigued by the research and its possible implications for childhood wellbeing, noting that even a small effect on a child’s level of aggression could be the tipping point for delinquent or dangerous aggressive behavior.

“This is the kind of effect that can bring you over the edge,” Sargent said.

Hull said he hopes the results of the study will convince others that violent video games do have a measurable negative affect on behavior. He added that the questions researchers should now be facing are ones of causation.

“It’s time to move beyond the question of, ‘Does an association exist?’” he said. “Clearly, an association exists. It’s time to basically seriously address the mechanisms responsible for these effects.”

Hull has been working on research that examines the causes of increased aggression, including analyzing different video games to discover what themes and game features contribute most to behavioral changes. A 2014 study coauthored by Hull examined the relationship between negative behavioral changes and three popular video games: “Grand Theft Auto III,” “Manhunt” and “Spiderman 2.”

However, many who accept the connection between virtual violence and real-world aggression do not consider violent games the cause of aggression, but rather a manifestation of inherent tendencies and preferences among developing children. Hull refers to this as the “bad seed” hypothesis.

Ivan Duong ’19, Dartmouth Super Smash Bros Club event organizer, said he subscribes to the “bad seed” theory. According to Duong, he started playing what he considers violent games around the age of 9.

“I think it does depend on the person,” he said. “Their baseline level of aggression does matter a lot.”

To counter the “bad seed” theory, Hull pointed to a recent experimental study that compared children who minimized their interaction with violent media to those who continued consumption at the same rate. The study found that decreased exposure to violent media can produce a decrease in aggressive tendencies.

Hull also noted the ethical difficulty of conducting experiments with adolescents. He said that this makes it difficult for a study to be purely experimental.

Ultimately, Sargent said he hopes the study will provoke more research.

“We’re exposing kids to these games before we really understand the risks and benefits,” he said.