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BFG vs. Ph.D

Examining a study on video game violence

I WAS MAKING the news rounds today when I ran across this article at Wired talking about a new psychological study. The study supposedly established a link between violent video games and aggression. Well, my B.A. in Psych (a.k.a. "Just enough to get you into trouble" or, more pessimistically, "You want fries with that?") tempted me into looking at the original article itself. I found some interesting things in it, and I'm going to discuss them here.

Let it be noted that I enjoy video games, so I'm probably a little biased here. Let it also be noted that I enjoy video games I'm sure would be characterized by the authors of the article as "violent," such as Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament. Let it finally be noted that I have never struck another human being (or any other living thing, for that matter) in a violent fashion.

Additionally, I have never (in real life) shot anyone with any type of gun more harmful than a Super Soaker, including but not limited to handguns, machine guns, shotguns, rocket launchers, guns that shoot extremely long arcs of electricity, or a BFG. I will admit, however, that I find the idea of skeet shooting with a BFG somewhat entertaining.

High drama for a journal
Now that my own personal biases on the subject are out of the way, let's examine the article. The introduction begins in extremely sensationalistic fashion for an article in a psychological journal, with the first sentence bringing up the tragedy in Columbine, Colorado. By the fourth sentence, the authors have implicated video games as a possible factor, citing anecdotal evidence that the perpetrators liked the "bloody, shoot-'em-up video game Doom. . . ."

The authors then quote an investigator associated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center who said that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were "playing out their game in God mode." A dramatic quotation to be sure, and one attributed in the text to "Pooley, 1999." The publication that this quotation was drawn from? Time magazine.

As one who spent a fair amount of time in college poring over psychological studies that introduced their subject matter in dry and starkly scientific terms, I find it highly unusual and somewhat suspect that the authors quote, as an implied fact, a statement from someone who is quite probably a layman stating an opinion, with no real justification of that opinion.

As evidence that Harris and Klebold were "playing out their game," the authors point out that, for a class project, they made a videotape that was similar to the scenario they had constructed within the game, in which they "dress[ed] in trench coats, carr[ied] guns, and kill[ed] school athletes." As everyone now knows, they then acted out the events on the videotape in real life.

Apparently, the authors want the reader to believe that this behavior stemmed from a desire to act out the video game. This is certainly one possible explanation. A more plausible one, however, is that Harris and Klebold were using increasingly more realistic methods to act out their homicidal tendencies and, more specifically, their hatred of athletes. First there was the customization of the video game, then there was the video tape, and finally the massacre itself.

To posit that the video game was the genesis of the violence and not simply one step in an increasingly realistic path of expressing violent fantasies is short-sighted at best. That psychologists employed at universities would come to such a conclusion raises the question of whether it was manufactured to fit the opinions of the authors and/or to bolster what we will see are fairly thin results.

Correlation, causation, and confusion
Before we get to the studies proper, let's run through a brief primer on correlation versus causation. A correlation is established when research reveals that one characteristic or tendency is found to occur with another characteristic or tendency. Suppose you undertake a study where you poll a group of students about their study habits, then compare that data to their GPA's. You might find that students who study for longer periods of time generally have higher grades than those who study for less time. Your study reveals a correlation between study time and grades. Students who study more tend to get higher grades than those who don't.

It is important to realize, however, all you've really established here is that the two characteristics tend to be found together. You cannot make any reliable inferences as to whether the presence of one characteristic causes the other characteristic to occur. Such a connection, called causation, can only be established through clinical experimentation.

A celebrated example of these principles is the ice cream-crime connection. Studies have shown that the crime rate typically increases in the summer months. Studies have also shown that the consumption of ice cream increases in the summer months. A study comparing ice cream consumption and crime rate might very well reveal that the two are correlated; the more ice cream consumed, the higher the crime rate tends to be. Having said that, it obviously cannot be inferred that eating ice cream causes people to commit more crime; nor can it be established that doing crime causes people to crave ice cream. Such statements are an attempt at establishing causation, and the lunacy of such statements drives home the point: correlation does not equal causation.