The Short Answer
For four main reasons. First, we wanted to thoroughly review all of the nooks and crannies of media violence research in a way that’s simple and accessible for all audiences. In contrast, many books on the subject tend to be targeted toward academics (read: boring and complex), can be overly simplistic (e.g., only focus on video games, only scratch the surface of the research), or inaccurately represent the state of scientific research on the subject.
Second, we want to counteract the misinformation about media violence that always seems be circulating. As science reporting in both reputable news outlets and online have become increasingly inaccurate (imagine that, people on the internet are often wrong!), there is greater need for scientists to speak up and set the record straight.
Third, we’d like our research to reach beyond the “Ivory Tower” of academia. Researchers frequently discuss their findings with other researchers, but rarely make their findings accessible to the average person. We believe that we have a moral obligation to make this research publicly available, since much of it is publicly-funded (we’re surprised taxpayers don’t demand this of scientists more often!)
Lastly, we’re frequently contacted by people – students, parents, reporters, and gamers – who want answers to the very questions we hope to address in this blog. It’d be nice (and time-saving!) to provide them with a link to the answer, including the option to dive deeper into the research upon which that answer is based.
The Long Answer
We’ve got a confession to make: We’re not the first researchers to write about media violence (gasp!) Heck, we’re even guilty of writing books on the subject ourselves!
So why go to the effort of writing a blog at all if others have already written about this stuff?
We did it because we believe that there’s a gap needing to be filled when it comes to mainstream books on media violence. To be sure, books such as Steven Kirsh’s Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research1 offer an incredibly thorough review of the research on media violence and my own book Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research and Public Policy2 do a terrific job of walking the reader through the nitty-gritty details of video game violence research from start to finish.
But these books tend to be fairly detail-heavy and theory-oriented – certainly not the sort of thing you read before bed or on a bus in ten-minute bursts. This is mostly because their target audience is people who already know a thing or two about media violence research (e.g., college students, media scholars, and public policy wonks.) Most people simply don’t have the experience to make heads or tails of books filled with academic gobbledygook.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t excellent books intended to be read by concerned parents and lay audiences. But even these books require considerable time and effort to find the answers people are looking for. What’s worse, there are other books out there which, while trying to be easy to read, end up painting an overly simplistic or outright inaccurate picture of the research. Some of these take an overly alarmist stance (e.g., violent video games will turn your children into murderers!) while others outright deny what decades of research says (e.g., violent media have no effects, except when it comes to good ones!). As researchers, we refuse to sacrifice accuracy for readability. But we also don’t believe that you have to give up one to have the other!
That’s where we see this blog, which is a condensed, serialized version of our recently self-published book Game On! Sensible Answers about Video Games and Media Violence, fitting in. It’s an up-to-date, middle-ground approach between the thoroughness of a textbook and accessibility of a book targeted toward people who don’t have time to slog through hundreds of pages of media research jargon. On top of that, we’re presenting topics as short, easily-digestible question-and-answer segments. We know they’re the questions that people want to know about, because they’re the ones we get asked by reporters, concerned parents, students, and gamers. This blog will be a regular look through the questions in the book (though, if you don’t want to wait, you can get a copy of the book for yourself here: http://www.craiganderson.org/wp-content/uploads/caa/GameOn%21book.html ).
Okay, so this blog fills a void left by other media violence books. But why do books about media violence exist at all? Don’t researchers argue about this stuff with themselves, figure out the answers, and then the findings trickle their way into public knowledge?
In theory, yes. In practice, not so much. There has been a growing gap between what researchers learn about media violence and what the public (especially the American public) knows about this research. Illustrating this point: You may believe that media violence research is a new and hotly debated topic for researchers. In reality, the subject is hardly new: Media violence research has been going on for more than half a century. Nor are the basic findings still “up in the air”: The U.S. Surgeon General came to a conclusion on the subject back in 1972, a conclusion which has since been agreed upon by every major scientific body that has ever examined the topic.
But how can this be, since video games are still fairly new, and video game technology is coming out with new advances all the time?
Well, it’s because modern discussions about media violence tend to focus on video game effects as if the subject is completely new, but psychologists have been studying different types of media violence – including television, comic books, and music – since at least the 1950s3. In fact, by the time researchers started looking at violence in video games in the late 1970s and early 1980s4, the basic question of whether media violence increases the risk of aggression had been answered pretty conclusively: Violent media effects, regardless of the medium itself, were well-studied and accepted as fact by the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior and the National Institute of Mental Health5,6.
Despite this consensus among major scientific and public health organizations, and the fact that three decades of additional research since then has provided additional supporting evidence, the general public is increasingly being told something very different7. This is somewhat like the mistaken belief that climate scientists are still debating the existence of climate change (they aren’t8), or that scientists cannot show a clear link between cigarettes and lung cancer (tobacco companies themselves have known about this link since the 1950s9).
To be fair, there are some researchers who question the size of, or outright deny the existence of media violence effects, but this position is the minority one, and goes against mountains of psychological research and theory (we’ll discuss this in greater detail in a later post). Unfortunately, as is often the case in news outlets and online, vocal minority opinions become amplified and gain credibility when media outlets describe the field as “contentious”10 or even worse, describe media effects as a “myth”11.
The result is a population confused about the research on media violence, just as they were for decades about the effects of cigarettes and continue to be about climate change. This blog aims to counteract this misleading narrative about media violence by going straight to the research itself, bypassing the filter of commercial media entirely.
This blog also addresses a related problem: Researchers often find themselves in an academic bubble, completely isolated from the general public. In the course of their day, researchers discuss their work with other researchers, collaborate with one another on future studies, critique existing studies by other researchers, and publish their work in scientific journals so other researchers can read about it. Nowhere in this routine do they find time or get an opportunity to speak to the public about their work, nor are they even encouraged to.
What makes this even worse is the fact that researchers have a moral obligation (in our view) to inform the public about their findings, since much of this research is funded by taxpayer dollars. To clarify, publicly-funded research is incredibly important – that’s not the problem. The problem is that, very often, this research gets funded, conducted, and then published in academic journals outside the reach of the public. To be fair, some researchers do try to share their findings with the general public through “Ted Talks,” YouTube videos, and public radio, and other outlets. Even so, researchers are so used to speaking in the jargon-filled language of academia that their attempts to convey their findings to the general public leave most people totally confused.
The authors of this blog take our moral responsibility to inform the public about research seriously. That’s why we believe that it’s important to not only talk about the research with anyone who wants to know about it, but to do so in plain, practical language that everyone understands. We’ve been encouraged to see how motivated people are to look things up themselves and to try to read through scientific journal articles to get knowledge straight from the source!
But even with a degree in psychology it’s easy to get lost in a sea of jargon and statistics. For this reason, we’ve tried to make this blog as approachable, pain-free, and interesting as possible without watering down the research or treating the average person in an insultingly simplistic way.
Another reason we’re writing this blog is because it allows us to speak about all of the media violence research in one fell swoop. Often, people learn about research in bits and pieces, hearing about a single study here or there in brief news reports or stories. Parents, journalists, and politicians don’t have hundreds of hours to read thousands of papers on the subject, and so they often take the results of a single study and base their opinions on it (e.g., a scientist ran a study and found no effects – I guess that answers the question for me!)
Researchers, on the other hand, are taught not to draw conclusions from a single study or a single paper. Instead, they’re trained to think about how new studies combine with dozens or even hundreds of other studies to form a nuanced answer to a question. In short: Scientists rarely rely on a single study to answer a question.
In this same spirit, we provide the reader with as broad a picture of the research as possible, not just the results based on a single study. Of course, we occasionally use a single study as an example to help illustrate a more general point, but our emphasis is always be on what has been found again and again across many studies. This, we hope, will help you better understand that the field’s conclusions are based on a huge body of research, rather than on what the latest study suggests.
Up to this point, we’ve painted ourselves in a pretty positive light, writing this blog to improve academic outreach, to improve societal understanding, and even for moral reasons! But, if we’re being completely honest, we need to admit that there’s also a practical, somewhat selfish reason we’re writing this book too. Over the years, we’ve been contacted, through e-mail and in-person, by concerned parents, journalists, colleagues, friends, fellow gamers, and countless others who all want simple, straightforward answers to their questions about violent media. We’re always happy to answer these questions. After all, we’re scientists: We love the things we study and we’re excited whenever someone else takes an interest in it! Plus, it gives us hope when people turn to scientific evidence to support their opinions rather than relying solely on intuition, rumors, or anecdotes.
But after repeatedly responding to questions on this subject for years, three issues have become apparent:
1. It almost always takes us longer than we expect to write a response because there’s just so much research out there to condense. We want to be as thorough and accurate as possible in our responses, but it can take up to an hour to respond to a single email question!
2. People are thirsty for knowledge, but often don’t know where to get it! When they turn to us, it’s often because they don’t know where else to find the answers, leaving them to rely on their intuition, misinformation in the media, well-intentioned but misinformed parenting books, or the internet.[a]
3. We get questions from a wide array of parents, politicians, gamers, and journalists, but all of them seem to be interested in the same set of questions about violent media.
To put it simply, we’re writing this blog to tackle all three of these issues at once. We truly hope that it will function as the e-mail we want to send to every person who has a question about media violence. In the end, we believe that we can contribute positively to the world by providing clear, scientifically-based answers to parents, care-givers, politicians, policy-makers, students, and gamers which enables them to make healthy, informed decisions about their media diet.
[a] Yes, even (or especially) Wikipedia, which can be edited by pretty much anyone, often includes serious mistakes (look no further than the long line of celebrities who Wikipedia has erroneously declared dead despite their being very much alive at the time, including Ted Kennedy and Miley Cyrus!)
Game On! front cover
Source: Plante et al., 2020.
Game On! back cover
Source: Plante et al., 2020