This week we will be summarizing and discussing an article published in 2018 in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry. The article, “Does playing violent video games cause aggression? A longitudinal intervention study” was written by authors Kühm, Kugler, Schmalen, Weichenberger, Witt, & Gallinat with the aim of investigating the effects of long term violent video gameplay.

What did they do?

Using a variety of measurement tools (questionnaires; behavioral measures of aggression, sexist attitudes and empathy, impulsive characteristics, and executive control functions) the authors of this interesting study sought to investigate the effects of long term violent video gameplay. The authors compared participants playing a violent video game for 2 months on a daily basis to participants playing a non-violent video game for the same duration, as well as to a control group where participants played no video games.

Why did they do it?

The negative effects of playing violent video games is a frequently debated topic, with much of the existing literature focusing on short term effects of violent video gameplay on aggression. The authors of this study suggest that there are reasons to believe the effects found in existing studies could be the result of priming. They note that even meta-analyses, which serve the primary function of aggregating results from prior studies, have historically yielded inconsistent conclusions about this topic.

Comparing the present study to much of the existing literature, the present study is the first of its kind to study the long-term effects of violent video gameplay. Based on the authors hypotheses, the relationship between violent video games and aggression is merely a priming effect, such that exposure to violent content in video games increases immediate (short-term) accessibility of aggressive thoughts. This argument suggests that these priming effects should only occur in close temporal proximity to gameplay, with short-lived effects.

How did they do it?

In an effort to fill a highly debated gap in the literature surrounding the topic of violent video game play and aggression, the authors exposed participants to either a violent video game, a non-violent video game, or no violent video game for a 2 month period, daily. Participants (n=90) consisted of a combination of college students and members of the general community. The participants were randomly selected to be in one of 3 groups; the violent video game group, where participants played the game Grand Theft Auto V; the active control group, where participants played the non-violent video game Sims 3; or the passive control group, where participants had no video game task, but received the same assessment battery following the video game intervention period.

To assess aggression, the authors used a variety of self-report questionnaires which have been previously used in research investigating the effects of violent video games. Behavioral measures of aggression such as a Word Completion Task, a Lexical Decision Task, and a Delay frustration task were also used. Impulsivity was assessed using self-report (i.e. the Brief Sensation Seeking Scale) and behavioral measures (i.e. Delay Discounting, Balloon Analogue Risk Task). Other related constructs such as prosocial behavior, depression, anxiety, and executive control were also assessed using behavioral and self-report measures that have been previously cited in the literature assessing effects of video gameplay. Participants completed an assessment before and immediately (~1 day) after the 2 month training period, and again 2 months after the training period.

What did they find?

The results of the present study suggest no relevant negative effects in response to playing violent video games consistently over a 2 month period. Of the 208 statistical tests conducted, only 3 were statistically significant. Based on the large amount of tests, the authors concluded (statistically) that 10.4 significant effects would occur simply by chance alone. The authors also note that after applying a Bonferroni correction to their analyses, none of the significant effects survived the corrected threshold. Because of these reasons, the authors concluded that there were no aversive effects of violent video gameplay in any of the areas of interest (aggression, impulsivity, executive control, etc.) within their sample.

What does it all mean (our take)?

Taken all together, the findings of the present study suggest that there are no changes in aggression, empathy, interpersonal competencies, impulsivity, anxiety, or depression that result from consistent violent video gameplay. Please do keep in mind that these findings are specific to the included sample, and a substantially larger sample size would be required to develop conclusions about individuals at the population level. While further research is needed in this particular area, these findings are nonetheless interesting! At least up until the time of publication, this study, according to the authors, employed the most comprehensive test battery spanning a multitude of domains in which changes due to violent video games may have been expected. There is a great deal of time and effort exhausted when investigating research questions regarding aggression and video games, as it is such a highly debated topic. The results of this study will hopefully help to communicate a more realistic, and scientific perspective of possible real-life effects of video game playing, perhaps incentivizing further novel research questions surrounding the topic!

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