For Science: Academics blast APA’s updated resolution on games and aggression


My Twitter feed was on fire about three things today: politics, coronavirus, and violence in video games. The last entry there is all because the American Psychological Association published a new update to its 2015 resolution on violence and games, and it’s a contentious mess, even (especially) among leading academics in the field of games study.

While the update sets off noting that its resolution should “not be misinterpreted or misused by attributing violence, such as mass shootings, to violent video game use” and criticizing the media for popularizing these notions throughout the past two years of (in particular) gun violence, it then goes on to spend the next two pages asserting that “the link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior is one of the most studied and best established” and that “all existing quantitative reviews of the violent video game literature have found a direct association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes.” If you’re blinking right now in confusion, having read many papers and studies that say precisely the opposite, that could be because the newest study cited is, bizarrely, from as long ago as 2013, suggesting that even the update is already far out of date with modern research.

Multiple academics have already pointed out some of the flaws in the update. Dr Rachel Kowert – you’ll recall her as one of the academics behind The Video Game Debate research and panels – penned a long thread pointing out that the update to the resolution fails to illuminate some of the methodological problems that have plagued aggression research. For example, one of the ways “aggression” has been measured for the purpose of some of the older studies is by having participants give hot sauce to people who hate hot sauce after playing competitive games, which is absurd on its face. “This release is very similar to 2005 despite the fact 10 years have passed,” she concludes. “I’m happy to see some progress in noting that violence is a complex issue [but] it is still far from reflecting the state of the research and scholarly consensus in an accurate way.”

Dr Christopher J. Ferguson, who’s been quoted many times in our For Science entries thanks to his work in this field and who in fact was (mis)cited in this very APA release, posted a positively scathing rebuttal. He argues that the APA is not only one of the last holdouts on this antiquated position but that it ignored papers from the last few years to remain so, and that its task force on this particular project was biased from the start. “One of my own studies is cited by the 2019 review as supporting the APA’s position when, in fact, it does not,” he says, seemingly in disbelief. Here’s his overview of how the APA functions internally:

“Why is the APA so bad at this? I had the opportunity to sit on the APA’s Council of Representatives for three years and saw how the organization makes decisions. Trying to describe it fully in this space would be impossible, but, put simply, it’s a mess. Older adults are vastly over-represented on the Council, the 2015 task force, and 2019 review. This is non-trivial for video games, since evidence shows that age biases opinions about games among both clinicians and scholars. Older adults — and, interestingly, adults who don’t like kids — are more willing to believe video games are bad. Put bluntly, the APA is providing a platform for the biases of older generations against the hobbies of younger generations and pretending this is ‘science.’ […] In most cases, we Council members were asked to vote on matters of science we honestly knew little more about than the general public. This gave considerable leverage to APA staff members — who, unlike us, worked for the APA — and to members with political or ideological agendas to shape APA policy, often in ways that misrepresented messy social science. Remember, this is the organization that just a few years ago erupted into controversy over troublesome decisions allowing psychologists to participate in harsh interrogations (i.e., torture) at Guantanamo Bay.”

Ferguson also points out that a large group of academics had previously called on the APA to revise the resolution ahead of its vote; Dr Patrick Markey posted that for the public. That letter points out the resolution’s scientific flaws, points of confusion, and missing references to the modern preregistered and longitudinal studies that have found chiefly null results in regard to gaming and aggression links. “We believe that there are arguments to be made for and against a number of potential effects of video games,” it states. “But we do suggest that the APA’s 2015 resolution, even with the clarifying statement, fails to fully inform the public of the nuances of research in this field. By appearing to suggest evidence consistently supports one side of a debate when evidence is not clear the APA puts itself in an untenable, unscientific position.”

Further reading, including some of the newer studies:

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