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We Chat with PhD Candidate Morgan Tear About His Study of the Effect of Violent Video Games
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:49am 05/07/13 | Comments
We chat with PhD Candidate Morgan from University of Queensland about his study of the effects of playing violent video games, and the results of his recent published first round of research experiements. Read on for what he had to say...

Studies in the field of the effects of playing violent video games have yielded mixed results over the years, many in the negative and many in the positive. Currently, there is still little-to-no evidence to support the claim that playing violent video games has a causal link to anti-social or violent behaviour, and thankfully more and more studies are taking place to help flesh out the topic more conclusively.

New research conducted by PhD candidate, Morgan Tear and his supervisor Dr. Mark Nielsen of the University of Queensland, with the aim to "Demonstrate That Playing Violent Video Games Diminishes Prosocial Behavior" has recently been published. Their findings, however, came up as a "Failure to Demonstrate" the intent of their tests, chalking up more research evidence that a causal link is not as strong as many would like to believe.

We took some time out with Morgan to discuss their tests, the results and the many variables that such a research endeavour carries with it.

AusGamers: The Pen Drop Test sounds ominous, because certain human behaviours would surely be ingrained based on social surroundings and influence at home, school, work and with family and friends before testing: how is it a quantifiable measurement for behaviour? Can you break it down for us in a digestible manner?

Morgan Tear: We were looking for a measure of real behavior that participants wouldn’t suspect, away from pen-and-paper questionnaires. The advantage of the pen-drop task is that it mirrors everyday helping behavior pretty closely. The experimenter drops a handful of pens in a manner where a participant could easily help gather them. In some of experiments the experimenter knocks a jar of pens from the table, in others he drops them as he gathers his possessions at the end of the session. We record whether the participants help gather the pens or not, the rationale being that if video games can influence someone’s temporary state to be more or less helpful, then we should observe that change in the pen-drop task. Past studies have shown that video games (and other things like mimicking the participant’s behavior) can influence whether they help gather spilt pens or not. Sure, we get some people who are naturally helpful and others who would rather not help, but if we run enough participants then those differences should come out in the wash.

Grand Theft Auto has long been something of a violent video game poster child, some might say unfairly

AusGamers: You refer to Grand Theft Auto as an anti-social game, yet within the game there are myriad positive activities a player can perform. Moreover, the player-character has a background, his own voice and, presumably, context for anything he does from a narrative level, is it possible that this is a barrier for connectedness to the player over a violent game where the player can create themselves as an avatar (for example Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)?

Morgan: You’re right, there are plenty of opportunities for participants to act prosocially (or avoid antisocial acts) in Grand Theft Auto. In none of our experiments, however, did participants elect to play the game this way. Every participant stole cars, shot at police, and ran over innocent civilians. We made all the in-game weapons available to participants and demonstrated how to use them, but we never actually instructed them on what to do in the game, that was their decision.

Immersion appears to be important for whether violent video game effects will manifest. There’s some literature that finds using a personalised character in a violent game leads to players exhibiting higher levels of aggressive behavior (assigning a fictitious participant to undertake an unpleasant experience) than player who played had a non-personalised character. That literature is yet to be replicated, so we should remain cautious about those results.

AusGamers: You cite a number of video games and violent behaviour studies. Can you explain why you chose to replicate Greitemeyer and Osswald and not any of the others you researched? In your research of other studies, have you found anomalies in experimental conditions that would support a positive or negative result for the basis of the tests? If so, how common was this?

Morgan: We decided to replicate the Greitemeyer and Osswald study for reasons of utility, they showed a result we were interested in, using a compelling measure (the pen-drop task) that we wanted to apply to other research questions. We felt it was necessary to try and recreate the original Greitemeyer and Osswald findings as a base from which to test our ideas. What followed was a number of surprising failures to recreate their results.

Anomalies like this do exist in the violent video game literature. For example, some studies show negative effects of violent video games on social behavior, but then other studies, surprisingly, can’t reproduce those results. It’s a young field of research so there are bound to be disagreements and surprising results. I think the picture will become clearer as better data and better designed experiments are published.

AusGamers: Exposure is obviously a variable difficult to replicate fully in a controlled test environment, and coupled with social surroundings (ie playing an “anti-social” videogame for an extended period of time in solitude) could have ranging impacts on the person playing. Is it important these variables be tested in future research, or is there evidence to support that a specific amount of exposure is, or should, be enough to elicit a result usable in metrics and data?

Morgan: This just highlights how complicated the effect of violent games can be. Exposure is definitely an important variable. If we bring a video game novice into the lab, then having them play a video game is going to have a considerably different effect than if we tested a seasoned gamer.

Could killing a Super Mutant in a post-apocalyptic world be linked to real-world anti-social behaviour?

AusGamers: The aforementioned games: Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, are two examples of games that could be construed as “anti-social” and “violent” with the “violent” factor also containing both prosocial and indefensible options for the player. In short, the games are about choice, where a game like the exampled GTA IV is less about choice in the progressive nature of the game (ie you’re following a heavily-directed narrative). Do you see a problem when experimenting with games of an almost bias angle (eg: GTA IV) to gauge the psychological impacts of violent behaviour as a result of playing video games for contemporary results, when many modern games are about player-choice? (“Player-choice” being the defining factor where exposure to violence -- both defensible and indefensible -- and prosocial elements is concerned.)

Morgan: Video games are very complicated stimuli to work with and many games have opportunities for the player to act both anti-socially and prosocially, even offering situations where a prosocial goal can be achieved with violence! We tried to find games that kept these decisions to a minimum but in the end it was difficult to find games with only violent content, or only prosocial content.

AusGamers: Do you think it’s equally important to perform similar tests for other forms of violent and non-violent media as a parallel to video games? For example, would it be more inclusive to include an indefensibly violent scene from a movie, a defensibly violent scene from a movie and a prosocial scene from a non-violent movie alongside the same examples for video games?

Morgan: To determine how concerned we ought to be about violent video games then, yes, we need to compare their effects to other media and leisure activities. This sort of work hasn’t been done yet, to the best of my knowledge.

AusGamers: Obviously research in this area remains somewhat inconclusive – is it problematic for studies of this nature, which often take years for practical results to emerge, that technology and the “immersion” factor you mention advance so quickly?

Morgan: We are always playing catch up with the technology but we try to use games that people currently/actually play to maximise the applied value of our research.

AusGamers: Do you think these studies are able to be applied in their current form to government regulation in areas such as age-restrictions and ratings? Have they reached a point of being able to be utilised as an informative tool to the likes of parents, for example?

Morgan: The problem with basing classification policy on the results of this sort of research is that we haven’t reached consensus yet. Even if we do establish that violent games affect people differently from non-violent games, we would still need good evidence to conclude that violent video games are 1) harmful, and 2) more harmful than other leisure activities, like basketball or chess.

AusGamers: Your study used university students. Do you think there would be more value in having a more diverse crowd of volunteers from varying walks of society – both privileged and underprivileged for example?

Call of Duty is a game with violence classed as defensible because of the greater good involved in it

Morgan: Ideally, we would use a wide range of volunteers but the fact remains that first year undergraduate students, who participate in experiments for course credit, are a super convenient resource for psychology researchers. That said, our next experiments will move away from the lab and start testing people in the real world.

AusGamers: Do you plan to continue studies in this field, and if so, how will you approach the topic next time?

Morgan: We are working on a few more experiments at the moment. I can’t say too much yet but we are looking at new measures and different comparison groups. Stay tuned!

AusGamers: Are you a gamer? And do you personally believe violent video games elicit violent behaviours in gamers?

Morgan: I’ve played video games for most of my life and got into this research because I couldn’t believe that violent video games could make me do something I didn’t want to do, that is, be aggressive. My attitude has changed somewhat. These days I find it totally plausible that violent video games could influence people’s behavior, but the real question is whether their influence is harmful, and I’m not yet convinced of that.

AusGamers: Is there an application for study of more social gaming, both core and non-core, for prosocial benefits (ie competitive multiplayer and cooperative games)?

Morgan: Some studies have found decreases in prosocial behavior when participants were playing against an opponent but not when they were cooperating with another player. This is an interesting question and I look forward to more research like this.

Latest Comments
Posted 02:58pm 05/7/13
Thanks for the TLDR quote.
Posted 03:17pm 05/7/13
Steve Farrelly
Posted 03:32pm 05/7/13
You're welcome.
Posted 03:56pm 05/7/13
did he get pissed off with you or something? His answers start getting very short very quick.
Steve Farrelly
Posted 04:13pm 05/7/13
Nah he said he really appreciated my questions, especially in the wake of the derivative stuff the mainstream press had been throwing at him. I'm not sure why it thins out, but perhaps it's more a case of the depth I get into just doesn't have enough outcome to warrant an equally in-depth response. At some point I suppose he needs to have a non-partisan approach to what he does...
Posted 04:24pm 05/7/13
Yeah he seemed pretty good at dodging a partisan reading of his answers. He just fobbed off the question about contextualized violence rather than wanton violence.

I guess he didn't want to say something unsupported by evidence. What a jerk.
Posted 06:01pm 05/7/13
how about how people act outside controlled environments though, it's not like that can be measured.
Posted 06:52pm 05/7/13
Have taken a few of Dr. Nielsens courses, he's a very intelligent guy with huge insights that for some reason aren't in the public eye.

Problems with this study aside, there's no conclusive evidence towards violent/antisocial videogame effects because there hasn't been any half-decent longitudinal studies. When one does come out we'll have some real insight.
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