Don't Get Excited About the New Study Saying Video Games Don't Make You Violent

The new study comes from a journal with a history of embarrassing retractions.
March 11, 2017, 3:00pm

On Wednesday, the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology released a study claiming that long-term playing of violent video games doesn't effect the empathy of players, which is great because I love killing people in video games. But there's plenty of cause to be skeptical. Motherboard has covered some embarrassing retractions from the Frontiers publisher and its family of journals in the past, which previously published research in support of anti-vaxxers and chemtrail truthers.

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The gist of the peer-reviewed study is that researchers in Germany found no difference in the neural responses of gamers and non-gamers to emotionally charged images after observing their responses with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The 15-man control group didn't play video games that often, and the other 15 members of the group included fans of first-person shooters like Call of Duty or Counter-Strike.

To eliminate short-term effects, participants refrained from playing games for at least three hours before the experiments, which mainly consisted of asking the participants how they would feel in situations depicted in images shown to them and watching the MRI scanner to study their neural responses.

An example of the images shown to participants. Image: Gregor R. Szycik, et al.

The study vindicated the safety of playing violent video games, and somewhat opposed the "General Aggression Model," which, in this case, suggests that playing violent video games for a long period of time should eventually desensitize the players to violence.

The report's findings are at odds with a study from the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Violent Media that came to decidedly different conclusions in 2015 after reviewing the existing research on the subject. It's worth noting that more than 230 scholars and researchers from Harvard, Yale, and other academic institutions expressed their extreme dissatisfaction with the APA's methods in an open letter in 2013, calling their findings "misleading and alarmist."

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"The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression," the task force said at the time.

Another example of the images shown to participants. Image: Gregor R. Szycik, et al.

The task force was also careful to add that an "accumulation of risk factors" led to a person being more aggressive rather than any single influence, but it didn't shy from confidently identifying violent video games as one of those risk factors.

More to the point, let's look at some of Frontiers' awful retractions. Last summer it retracted an article in its Frontiers in Public Health journal arguing that the white trails we see released from jets are actually spreading chemtrails that spew toxic compounds at the government's behest. The journal admitted after the fact that the article didn't meet its "standards of editorial and scientific soundness," but as we noted at the time, somehow Frontiers was okay with letting it slip through the peer review process prior to publication. Last December, Frontiers pulled an abstract for a paper arguing that unvaccinated children are less likely to suffer from autism following an uproar from autism experts on Twitter. As we discovered, the study was funded by actor Jenny McCarthy's autism nonprofit, Generation Rescue.

If there's one reason why the study's findings should be held suspect (and why such research keeps getting through the cracks), it's that Frontiers supports a model in which its contributors pay anywhere from $450 to $2,490 to have their articles published. Just this week Retraction Watch published a post on how such "pay to play" journals are "subverting academic publishing," and in 2015 The Scientist lamented how such shops are causing a decline in the quality of reliable research.

Is it okay to play violent video games? Yes, probably. I'm not going to stop playing them, I can tell you that much. But if you're trying to make the case for them, this study isn't helping.

We've reached out to both Frontiers and Dr. Gregor R. Szycik, the primary author of the study, but did not receive an immediate response. We'll update this story when we receive one.