Cognitive Daily

Steven Johnson is a writer who I very much admire. I’m particularly impressed by his defense of video games and other technologies in his book Everything Bad is Good For You. However, in defending the good aspects of video games, he has also felt compelled to downplay their negative effects. For example, a recent blog post argues vehemently that video game violence does not lead to aggression. He makes his argument by examining a recent study which found a link between violent game exposure and aggression. I’d like to do something a bit unusual for Cognitive Daily. First, I’ll examine the study itself, then take a look at Johnson’s critiques and see how well they hold up.

The study, conducted by Douglas Gentile, Paul Lynch, Jennifer Ruh Linder, and David Walsh, examined survey responses for over 600 8th and 9th graders. The students were questioned not only on their exposure to violent video games, but also on a standard measure of hostility (the Cook & Medley Hostility Scale). Finally, they were asked two simple questions: how often they argued with their teachers, and if they had been in a physical fight in the past year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers found a positive correlation between hostility and both arguing with teachers and fighting. Exposure to video game violence also correlated with these aggressive behaviors, as well as with hostility itself.

Next, the students were divided into two sets of quartiles based on the data: 4 equal size groups were created according to their exposure to violent video games, and another set of groups was made for hostility ratings. Not surprisingly, the students that placed in the top quartile for both measures were most likely to get into fights. However, for students in the lowest hostility quartile, those who had the most violent video game exposure were actually in more fights than those with the highest hostility ratings and the lowest violent video game exposure. Here’s a summary of this data:

Exposure to violent video games
1 (lowest)
4 (highest)
1 (lowest)
4 (highest)

Next, they conducted a logistic regression analysis—essentially a way to isolate the impact of certain factors while factoring out others. After controlling for hostility, they found that exposure to violent games still accounted for a significant portion of the physical fights kids got into. Interestingly, parental involvement in regulating their children’s access to violent games also had a significant impact.

Now, let’s take a look at Steven Johnson’s specific critiques of this study.

First, Johnson complains that the study doesn’t compare its results to other activities that are potentially associated with violent behavior—playing football, for instance. In one sense, Johnson is correct to point this out: what if it turns out that football is a more significant contributor to aggressive behavior than video games? However, one might also ask just how many other activities researchers might be asked to account for—gun ownership, knife skills, karate class—the list is endless. None of these examples take away from the fact that a correlation was found between violent gaming and aggression. Perhaps all these other issues warrant further study, but they can’t contradict the results of Gentile et al.

In a separate post, Johnson argues that this kind of study can’t explain the significant decrease in violence nationwide over the past two decades—the very same decades in which video games have significantly risen in popularity. Again, in one sense, he’s correct. But consider an analogy. If a 1940 study argued that bicycle riding results in a large number of head injuries, would you accept as a refutation of that study the argument that in the years between 1910 and 1940, there was a 50 percent decline in head injuries? Not if you also knew there was a 60 percent decline in horse riding during those same decades (I’m making these numbers up, by the way—the point is that it’s entirely possible for overall violence to decline while video game related violence is increasing. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about video game related violence).

Finally, Johnson quotes the following passage from the Gentile et al. article:

In fact, statistically controlling for respondent sex, hostility, weekly amount of video game play, and video game violence exposure, the frequency with which parents monitor their adolescents’ video game habits added a significant amount of predictive power when predicting physical fights.

Johnson uses this quote to suggest that parental control (or lack thereof) accounts for all fighting among youth. But this is not what the article says at all. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a weakness of the article that it doesn’t indicate what the contribution of video game violence is after accounting for parental control.

But Johnson takes this argument one step further, making the following claim:

Think about it this way: these kids who have heavy exposure to violent video games—their parents are letting them play at least 3-4 hours of these games a day. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that there might be something else going on in a household where the kids are left unsupervised to play violent games with that frequency?

Wait a minute… I thought Johnson was arguing that video games weren’t so bad. Now he’s making the opposite argument—that any household which allowed kids 3-4 hours of gaming a day must have something wrong with it. You can’t have it both ways—either video games do or don’t promote violence. If you now make the claim that anyone who’ll let their child play video games must be neglecting them and thereby promoting violence, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. And what of the many studies that show that non-violent video games don’t cause aggressive behavior? If leaving kids unsupervised to play violent video games demonstrates that something is wrong with a household, then why doesn’t leaving kids unsupervised to play nonviolent video games indicate the same thing—unless the violence in the video games itself is part of the problem?

Johnson’s conclusion is most suspect of all: “if you’re an involved parent with a kid who doesn’t have any major aggression issues, then playing some violent video games isn’t going to make much of a difference either way.” Remember, the data indicates that video game violence matters more than aggression.

None of this is to say that the Gentile et al. article is the definitive answer to the problem. No one study is. And I’m certainly not advocating the panic or censorship that Johnson seems to fear, especially given the positive aspects of many video games. But there’s little reason to suspect that video games don’t have an impact. As Johnson points out in his book, games can be powerful learning tools. Why should we suspect that when games teach us violent or aggressive solutions to problems, we don’t learn those, too?

Gentile, D.A., Lynch, P.J., Linder, J.R., & Walsh, D.A. (2004). The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 5-22.


  1. #1 Steven Johnson
    August 30, 2005

    Hey, really interesting write-up, and thanks for the kind words. One quick response, where you say:

    Wait a minute¡­ I thought Johnson was arguing that video games weren’t so bad. Now he’s making the opposite argument ¡ª that any household which allowed kids 3-4 hours of gaming a day must have something wrong with it. You can’t have it both ways ¡ª either video games do or don’t promote violence.

    First, I say very clearly in the book: moderation in everything. Playing video games for some part of your free time can be cognitively stimulating, but it seems to me doing 3-4 hours of anything in your daily free time is excessive. (When you take out school, meals, homework and sleep, there’s barely four hours left for recreation anyway.) Secondly, just because I happen to think that games can be good for you doesn’t mean that most parents feel the same way. I’m a very big fan of these things, but I still pay a great deal of attention to the media choices my kids are making—not because I worry about the aggression question, but because I want them to be engaged participants in what they’re watching/playing, and because I want them to have a mix of different media experiences. And frankly, because I want to experience whatever they’re into for the pure reward of sharing with them. The kids who were most at risk for aggression in the study had parents who took the exact opposite approach: they basically didn’t monitor or engage with their media choices at all. I think it’s a reasonable possibility that this disengaged parenting style is the real culprit here. Remember the key point that I stressed in my original post: kids who played the exact same games for the same with involved parents had significantly less problem with aggression than kids who had less involved parents. That says to me that it’s the parenting not the games that’s the crucial difference…

  2. #2 Dana Leighton
    August 30, 2005

    Excellent analysis, Dave. I will be using it in my intro psychology classes as an example of how to read critically and questioningly.

    Steve, I liked your analysis, despite a few overclaims. I’m not sure about video games, but there is some support for the idea that less parental monitoring is one of the correlates of lots of TV watching, and behaviors that might be associated. This reminded me of the article from Pediatrics in 2004 looking at a “diet” of strongly sexually oriented television predicted onset of intercourse and non-coital sexual activity. The authors stated in that article:

    Many of the other respondent characteristics that were bivariate predictors of intercourse initiation remained significant in the multivariate model, including older age, having mostly older friends, lower parent education, not living with both parents, less parental monitoring, less religiosity, poor mental health, sensation-seeking personality, deviant behavior, and low school grades. Only a small subset of these factors predicted noncoital activity in the multivariate model. Other than viewing sexual content, older age and less parental monitoring predicted advancing noncoital activity.

    (emphasis mine).—Collins, R. L., Elliott, M. N., Berry, S. H., Kanouse, D. E., Kunkel, D., Hunter, S. B., & Miu, A. (2004). Watching sex on television predicts adolescent initiation of sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 114(3), e280-e289.

    The authors of this study indicated that these factors needed to be controlled for in any studies on the effects of TV sex on initiation of sexual behavior.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    August 30, 2005

    Steven, thanks for the response. I just want to focus in on one part of your comment:

    kids who played the exact same games for the same with involved parents had significantly less problem with aggression than kids who had less involved parents. That says to me that it’s the parenting not the games that’s the crucial difference

    Unfortunately, the answer to this question—whether it’s the parents or the games that matter more—cannot be found this report, because the authors don’t provide that analysis. I think it’s fair to argue that both things matter. And as you’ve pointed out, as a careful parent, you make sure your kids have a diverse array of media experiences.

    The real question, I believe, is what message we should send to parents who aren’t making the same type of efforts you are. While a panicked response may not be appropriate, perhaps it would make some sense to offer judicious reminders that video games—especially very violent ones—may not be the best babysitters.

  4. #4 Donna
    August 31, 2005

    I only ever had to restrict the one-on-one style fighting games with my boys when they were younger. They seemed to promote hostility between my kids to some extent. Other than that, I didn’t ever restrict the type of games they played, although I would restrict the time to make sure homework was done, etc. Neither of my boys has ever gotten into a physical fight, and they are now 19 and 16.

    Hey, they also respect women and all adults, think drugs and drinking are stupid, and haven’t had sex yet. We’re doing all right, I think.

    Video game violence is just that – a game. It’s certainly not promoting violence in my kids. Children learn the most from the examples around them, not mocvies, TV, and games. Studies that go looking for a particular effect from any product will usually manage to find it – just look at all the drugs we have that later turn out to be dangerous or worthless, even after millions of dollars and years of research studies. Especially if one can scare enough people into buying a book about it….

  5. #5 Jennifer Ruh Linder
    August 31, 2005

    As an author of the article being discussed, I wanted to respond to the issue of whether it is the “parental monitoring or the games that matter more” in predicting a child’s aggression. To me, that is like asking what matters more when determining the area of a rectangle- the length or the width? Both matter. The research on television violence clearly indicates that parental monitoring matters. If you restrict violent media and discuss it with your children, the negative effects are greatly diminished. However, this does not mean that if you discuss violent media with your children that there are no effects.

    I also think part of the problem is confusing the meaning of the term “involved parents” as we defined it in the article. We defined “parental involvement” to be synonomous with “monitoring”, which means resricting time with violent video games, using the ratings to restrict play of games, etc. Again, by definition, these parents do not have children who play many hours of violent games. Parental monitoring and violent media consumption are highly negatively correlated by definition. Parents who are high monitors restrict their children in their consumption of violent media. If a parent is consistently using video game ratings to restrict and select the games their child is playing (the definition of monitoring) their child would not be exposed to video game violence because most games with excessive violence are rated as “M” (for ages 18 and older). Therefore, this statement by Steven Johnson is incorrect, because it was not something we tested (or could test): “kids who played the exact same games for the same with involved parents had significantly less problem with aggression than kids who had less involved parents. That says to me that it’s the parenting not the games that’s the crucial difference¡­”

  6. #6 Katie Dunn
    October 17, 2005

    While other researchers and authors are writing about the negative effects of video games, television and the Internet, Johnson is attempting to see the more optimistic side of media today in Everything Bad is Good For You. He focuses on how the complexity of technology is actually giving society a ¡°cognitive workout¡± and they do not even realize it.

    He claims that complexity of television dramas and video games helps to improve a viewer or player’s problem-solving abilities. Problem solving is key to the success of an individual in our fast-paced society today. Can you name a job where an employee is not forced to use problem solving to some extent? The school system knows that this is a major concept an individual must learn and has always taught pupils how to think. Only Mathematicians would find real world value in calculus, but the rest of the students that take higher-level math classes are being trained to use their minds to think hard in order to comprehend difficult concepts.

    Why is it such a crime for people to actually enjoy a ¡°cognitive workout?¡± Most people respond better and learn more in a situation where they can actively participate. Video games engage a child and force them to enhance their ¡°probing¡± and ¡°telescoping¡± skills. They learn by doing and focus on immediate tasks that ultimately lead to achieving a larger goal. When a viewer watches a multi-threaded drama such as 24, they are forced to pay close attention and keep track of a complex character web.

    New technology is being created constantly due to the concept of electric speed, so there is no use being vehemently opposed to its effects on society. Johnson makes a good effort in this book to justify society’s obsessive use of the Internet and explain why we are so attracted to television and video games. Overall, he gives his readers some information that can help to rationalize our infatuation with popular culture.

  7. #7 MeowMix
    October 26, 2005

    Um….. drugs are bad for you…

  8. #8 Bruce Alexander
    November 30, 2005

    Here are some questions.
    If violent video games are such a concern that they require study, then why expose your children to that kind of media? Do children really need that experience?
    What ever happened to Love? Why must we focus so much attention on the destruction and mutilation of our fellow man? Just the possibility that violent media could have an effect on our children should tell us that maybe we should use a more nurturing approach to education and development. Maybe this idea is not politically correct or out of the pop-culture loop, but why is violence considered cool? How about all of us try to make a more positive contribution to society? Oh! I forgot about the share holders and the bottom line.

  9. #9 Samuel
    December 3, 2005

    My name is Samuel and I am doing a project for my high school about violent video games. I would really appreciate if maybe I could get some feedback from you on this issue. I need a written correspondence from an author on this issue. Could you tell me why you think violence in our society comes from children playing violent video games? What do you think about violent video games? Do you think that there should be stricter ratings on some of the games? Do you feel that they shouldn’t even be sold? What is your stance? I would love to know, so that I can add this to my project.

    Thank you for your compliance with my request!



  10. #10 Alexander
    May 15, 2006

    I am doing a prodject on video game violance plz tell me whether you think that video games cause violant kids

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    May 15, 2006

    Alexander: Please read today’s post and follow the directions. If you still have a question, I’ll be happy to help.

  12. #12 A
    May 15, 2006

    does anyone have a graph that relates video game time played and grade performance for elementary, middle and high school? Would like the info for a school project. thanks!

  13. #13 A
    May 15, 2006

    does anyone have a graph that relates video game time played and grade performance for elementary, middle and high school? Would like the info for a school project. thanks!

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