Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am as always your host Nico Perrino. And I’m here today at Villanova University with my colleague from FIRE Ryne, Ryne Weiss.
Ryne Weiss: Hi.
Nico: This is your first time on the show?
Ryne: This is, yes.
Nico: And we’re bringing you here because we’re talking about video games. We’ve been doing this podcast for 3 and a half years now, and we’ve never talked about video games, and you are the resident FIRE expert on them.
Ryne: Yeah. There are a few staff members at FIRE who play video games, but I would say I might be the most obsessed of them. So, yeah, that’s why I’m here.
Nico: Well, I grew up playing a lot of RPG games, role-playing games, and I think still my favorite video game of all time was Final Fantasy X. At least, that’s the one that stuck with me a lot. Now I just come home to decompress and play Call of Duty or Madden. Right now I’m playing Mario Kart Deluxe 8. No violence there.
Ryne: No. Yeah. I think comic mischief is the rating on that – or that’s the reason that it has an E for everyone rating, is comic mischief.
Nico: Yeah. Throwing bananas in front of your opponent. But the guest of honor today of course is Professor Patrick M. Markey. He is the co-author of a book with Christopher J. Ferguson called Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong. Professor, thanks for coming on the show.
Patrick Markey: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Nico: So, this is a topic, violent video games, that has been in the news almost since the origin of video games or the first violent video game that is. But it’s one that has been more in the news as of late as a result of school shootings. There is a concern on behalf of some people that violent video games and the almost ubiquity of video games in young adult life has led to more aggression, more susceptibility to violence.
President Trump after the shootings in Parkland told Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi that, “I’m hearing more and more people seeing the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” And then of course, after the El Paso shooting, he said, “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
And then of course, former vice president Joe Biden recently mentioned violent video games. He said of a meeting he had in Silicon Valley with a video game developer that these games teach you how to kill people essentially. So, a topic of much discussion especially surrounding the school shootings. But let’s take a step back before we actually get into that. I want to learn your interest in the topic more generally. Were you a gamer?
Patrick: Yeah. I was and I am, and I game with my children. I gamed with my parents when I was a child. It was a very social activity to do growing up. And it’s still. With children today, it’s still an extremely social activity that they do. The research that we did in video games started, oh my goodness, over a decade ago. In which case, we would do research basically showing a link or a potential link between video games and aggressive feelings after playing video games.
And where our lab really got going especially me personally got moved to really up our video game research and look at more horrific acts of violence was following the Sandy Hook shooting that after the Sandy Hook shooting, news media started citing our research as potential evidence that video games could be contributing to this crime – or to this horrific act. And at the time, it took me aback because – and I understand why they did that, but to me, our research that we were doing in our lab really was not generalizable to that type of level of violence.
And I realize that we don’t really know how far we can take research that we had done in laboratories and apply it to school shootings or just general homicides, aggravated assaults, things of that sort. And so, that moment really galvanized us as a group especially other scholars in the field too to understand can we really generalize these findings to these kind of horrific acts of violence.
Nico: So, those initial findings, and correct me if I’m wrong, found that there’s some sort of elevated aggression after playing video games. Could that be said about anything that gets the blood pressure going, movies, playing sports? Video games gets your blood pressure –
Patrick: Certainly. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s important to point out that our research also at the time was a product of the time, that as scholars we, and I put myself into this group, went out too much into video games examining the potential negative effects and not being critical enough of our own research, that we overstepped our data very often. And again, I definitely put myself in this category as a researcher who about 10 years ago were committing these types of sins of overstepping my data, that when you look at the typical laboratory study done at the time and still done now sometimes, what most of them did was examine things like –
So, the average laboratory study, randomly, they’d have half the subjects play violent video games for 15 minutes, half play nonviolent video games for 15 minutes. And then afterward, they’d measure some kind of outcome. One way that it would be done is they would just give them a questionnaire and say like, “How hostile do you feel? How angry do you feel?” And they’d find, sure, after people played violent video games, they reported feeling more hostile.
The rub is obviously if you just saw a sad movie and I asked you after you saw the sad movie do you feel sad, you’d probably say, “Yeah, I feel sad.” But it doesn’t mean it causes clinical depression. But the problem was we were taking that research done on video games and saying, “Aha, this probably shows that it makes children angry in the long run.” And even when we tried to look at other measures of aggression besides just self-report, we’d use these proxy measures of aggression because it’s hard to measure actual aggression in a laboratory.
And so they would do things like – one thing they’d do is they’d create a task where after playing a video game – or nonviolent video game they’d subjects give the opportunity to blast other people with white irritating noise, like shhk. And you could blast them by alternating the volume of the white noise or the duration of the white noise. And what they found is generally people who play violent video games blasted people with this white noise.
But the problem here was it turns out that how we measured that outcome was all over the map. Some researchers measured it just by how high they turned up the volume. Others multiplied duration times intensity. Some took the logarithm of them. It was all these different [inaudible] [00:06:42]. One clever researcher in Germany counted up there’s about 130 different ways we use these two measures or these two ways of adjusting the volume in intensity to measure aggression. And the problem is what he found was you could show anything you wanted with this study, that there’s too much variability in those potential results.
My favorite study that’s done in this area is the hot sauce paradigm. And in the hot sauce paradigm, what we do is people play violent video games and nonviolent video games. Then afterward, they go do another study, but really, it’s part of the same study. And in that study, we make them mad at another person. They hear the person say something mean about them or whatever. And then they make them a taco. It sounds very bizarre I know. And you find out this other person doesn’t like hot sauce. And they measure how much hot sauce do they put on this person’s taco, and what they find out is a person who played violent video games puts more hot sauce on their taco than those who don’t play violent video games.
And sure, okay, that’s fine, but the problem is again we were taking this research and generalizing something like this hot sauce to school shootings. And what a lot of us were concerned about is this is too much, that we’re overstepping our bounds, that maybe I don’t want a person who played violent video games to make me a taco but that definitely does not mean that he or she is gonna go on and be a school shooter. And so, to overcome that, we’ve since moved on to look at more ecological data of things like profiling school shooters or actually examining homicide rates and so forth.
Nico: Yeah. That was one thing I was wondering, is how do you actually determine the connection, the profiles of school shooters? But they’re rare. I mean school shootings although they’re in the news quite often because they’re so tragic – you say it’s more likely that your child would get struck by lightning or get in a car accident or die of a bee sting, for example, than die in a school shooting. So, how do you get a large enough sample size in order to actually analyze the things that might lead a potential school shooter to become an actual school shooter?
Patrick: Yeah. I mean thank gosh we don’t have enough data on some of this, right? We’re not looking for more data in this world. Unfortunately, there are a lot more school shootings than get reported especially school shootings committed by black youths and things of that sort. It tends to be the Columbines, usually typically a white youth with white victims that gets reported most often. So, there’s a lot of school shootings that don’t get reported that have nothing to do with things like gang violence or drugs or anything, just typical school shootings. So, there is data out there.
And our lab and the Secret Service of all people actually have worked on profiling school shooters. And we look at video game habits of school shooters. What’s interesting is regardless of the data you look at, the Secret Service or ours, it’s basically the same story, that we find about 13 to 20 percent of school shooters had a decent interest in violent video games. And the issue is if you look at the average high school student, male (those tend to be the most school shooters), you find that about 70 percent of them have interest in violent video games.
And so what’s actually interesting here is there is a link between violent video games and school shootings but it goes in the opposite direction of what we tend to think, that if anything, school shooters play less violent video games than the average male high school student.
Nico: Yeah. And you actually talk in your book about – well, let’s talk about a couple of the school shooters. So there’s one, I believe it’s Sandy Hook, right, this school shooter played video games but the most common one that they played was Dance Dance Revolution.
Ryne: Yeah. And as someone who played a lot of Dance Dance Revolution when I was in high school, that was fascinating to me, that the Sandy Hook shooter’s favorite game was going to the arcade and playing Dance Dance Revolution.
Patrick: Yeah. And what’s interesting about that case is – that one was obviously linked to Call of Duty, is the one that it got linked to.
Nico: Yeah. Because they also played Call of Duty.
Patrick: Yeah. And he owned Call of Duty. But again, I think both of you guys said you played Call of Duty.
Nico: Yeah. I play Call of Duty. Yeah.
Patrick: So a million games [inaudible] [00:10:39]. It’s not surprising that a youth owned Call of Duty. But what they found out is in the investigation afterward they kept tracing his GPS going back and forth to this movie theater, and they couldn’t figure out why. And they went to the movie theater and talked to them, and exactly as you guys said, what they found out is he was going to this movie and obsessively playing Dance Dance Revolution. So if he had an obsession with anything, it wasn’t Call of Duty, it was Dance Dance Revolution.
And even in interviews with people who knew him, when they asked them about his video game habits, they all report that his favorite video game was Super Mario Bros. So again, it’s not the traditional games. But there’s still that narrative out there that’s wrong that the Sandy Hook shooter kind of was this loner who stayed in his basement obsessing over Call of Duty, practicing on Call of Duty. And really, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that happened other than the fact he happened to own a copy of Call of Duty.
Nico: Yeah. And in the Virginia Tech shooting, that person had never played a video game, correct?
Patrick: Which is amazing, I mean that a student at Virginia Tech who never played – or didn’t own video games and didn’t seem to play them anymore. They know this from interviews with roommates. And his roommates even had commented that they thought it was weird that he didn’t play video games. And in a way, it is kind of weird, again, that a college student didn’t play any video games at all.
But again, that one is linked to the video game Counter-Strike, and it’s only linked to that not because he owned it because there’s no evidence he ever played it even. It’s simply because of how he had dressed during the shootings, that he dressed in a manner that kind of looked like a character from Counter-Strike. But other than that, there’s absolutely no link at all between video games and that shooting. But again, that story’s still out there.
And even in Columbine, that you suggested before that students – that’s the one that really started research into violent video games and we really started looking at if they cause violence and so forth. And that one, it’s linked to Doom, is the game. And again, they certainly played Doom, but there are all these stories about how they practiced on Doom, they created levels on Doom to mimic their high school. And actually, what the researchers – or the investigators found is they couldn’t find any of that. They had created one level, which was this moon level. It had nothing to do with their high school. But there’s no evidence at all that they practiced their high school shooting in the world of Doom. But again, that’s out there and people repeat that over and over again.
Nico: Now, there is an instinct after one of these tragedies of course to try and understand why it happened. But there’s also an instinct to do something about it. And that’s where we see some of the gun-control reform efforts come into play. But seeing or suspecting this sort of link has led some places and some politicians as we’ve discussed to suggest banning violent video games. And there was an effort to try and prohibit the purchase of violent video games by minors in California, right?
Nico: What happened there?
Patrick: I mean so, that ended up in the Supreme Court.
Nico: Yeah. This was the 2011 Brown Supreme Court case.
Patrick: Yeah. And I purposefully try to stay out of legislation. So as a scientist, I try to inform legislators but I try not to – so, I didn’t sign any briefs in that or anything along those lines. I purposefully try to keep myself out of the discussion of it. I mean so, obviously, what ended up happening in that case is it got rejected. It got shot down, that video games are not banned to minors in California. They actually wanted to put a label on it, a cigarette smoking label on those, that warning, “These can kill you” type of label. But, yeah, it ended up getting shot down.
And the justices had some negative things to say about the research in the area. Basically, they argued that it wasn’t conclusive enough, that it’s these odd methods that were used and so forth. Again, I personally wouldn’t use judges to judge scientific data. Even though they agree with how I go in this debate, I wouldn’t necessarily use that as evidence that video games aren’t really bad or good. It was their opinion or their judgment obviously. But again, it’s a person not trained in this discipline making comment on it.
Nico: Well, that’s the reason that we wanted to talk to you of course, is we have an interest in free expression. To the extent that these games are works of art (and I think most people would argue that they are) they would be protected under the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of expression.
And I’d like to hear about your experience talking to people who work in the industry. We’ve heard that there’s concerns in the industry that there are certain things that they build into their games or that there are certain types of games like Grand Theft Auto that legislators have their eyes on and that it might come to the point where you have to depend on the First Amendment in order to actually create these games. I mean what are you hearing behind the scenes?
Patrick: Well, I hear nothing. I completely –
Nico: Try and stay out of it.
Patrick: Yeah. Just like I don’t try to make too many comments on law, I definitely don’t talk to video game developers or anything along those lines. And that’s completely on purpose, that I’m a researcher in this industry, and one thing we often get blamed for is being in the pocket of big video game manufacturers. I’ve never realized there was a big pocket out there that I could fall into, but me and my co-author and every researcher I know in this area, nobody takes money from game companies. It’s actually something we actively avoid doing. So I can’t tell you what’s happening behind the scenes in terms – I wish I could. But again, it’s something we try to avoid doing.
The First Amendment, I mean that’s obviously what it came down to in the Supreme Court case. They judged that it can be viewed as art essentially. And as a gamer, I certainly think that’s a legitimate argument to see it as, is – and I think this is where you see a disconnect between older folks, and I’m older, and younger folks, that us older folks, very often we don’t see the art in video games. We just see it as basically Space Invaders and Pac-Man, right?
Patrick: And we can argue if that’s art or not. But certainly, as time has moved on, nowadays, we have games with deep stories, just as deep sometimes as film like The Last of Us, and you have games that can actually –
Nico: Make you cry.
Patrick: – yeah, make you cry, evoke emotions, make you angry as we know from research. So, I mean you can certainly alter people’s moods from video games just the way film and books and so forth do. And I think that’s really what’s gonna be happening as time goes on, is it’s gonna be basically us older folks are gonna be dying out and the younger folks who grew up with video games, they’re gonna be the ones that are gonna start to recognize more of it as an art form, that this is just as legitimate as cinema, just as legitimate as books, and so forth, and a way to express ourselves and so forth.
And so that’s where I think our panic will eventually go away from video games, is as us old folks start to die off who didn’t grow up – well, I grew up – who obviously didn’t grow up around video games and the younger generation who did doesn’t fear it anymore. Now, they’ll have some other panic that they’re going to be worried about.
Nico: Oh, of course. As new technologies come along, there’s always panics that are commensurate with them. But, Ryne, I want to let you jump in.
Ryne: Yeah. One of the interesting things I thought about the book is that you tie outrage over violent video games not to those games being the most violent ones around but that they represented leap forwards in technology, for example, Doom as the first really famous first-person shooter with graphics that people saw as more realistic, Mortal Kombat with its graphics that were digitized actors then edited to performing these gruesome fatalities.
Virtual reality is obviously an emerging technology that’s becoming cheaper and cheaper and is now accessible to average people in a way that it wasn’t even three years ago. Do you see any possibility there that virtual reality might represent the next leap forward that might cause the next kerfuffle over violent video games?
Patrick: Sure. Yeah. I think it’s hard to predict the next moral panic in technology. I mean my guess is it’s smartphones. I think we’re seeing that already, in social media, smartphones, and so forth. I think virtual reality certainly could be it if it does hit that point that it’s popular enough. I mean you’re right. Something like PlayStation now has its own headset and Oculus and all these other brands that are now more available. It’s still not quite as mainstream as Nintendo and Microsoft and so forth.
But if that does happen, I would guess you would see that. And exactly the reason why you said, is that every time there’s a leap in technology, parents get worried. And so, like you said, we saw it with Mortal Kombat. We saw it with Doom. And we also saw it with – I don’t know if you remember the Night Trap game –
Ryne: Night Trap. Yeah.
Patrick: – for the Sega Genesis, which is this terrible B-level movie where you’re actually protecting the people in the game from these really weird looking vampires. This was released in ’92. And it actually started the Senate hearing on it around whether or not video games should have a rating system. The video game industry eventually decided to self-regulate itself like the movie industry. So, they avoided anything. But that’s what began it really.
Interesting side note from that is after the ESRB, that’s the video game rating industry, was created, we actually saw an explosion in violent video games. What happened is after it was created, video game companies like Nintendo felt more free to make violent video games – not that Nintendo – but on their systems they released it. A good example is Mortal Kombat II was released on the Super Nintendo with blood in it after the ESRB because they could put an M rating on it and say, “Oh, we rated this game. It’s okay now.” And so, in some ways it had a backfire for people who were concerned about violence because it actually just created the ability to make even more violent video games.
Nico: And I remember when I was young and I would see that M on front of a video game or whatever, that would draw me to it. It’s like it became forbidden fruit.
Patrick: Right. And I’m older, but I remember back when they first started putting the parental advisory lyrics on albums, CDs, now on iTunes I suppose where you’d see like, “Oh, it has explicit lyrics in it.” And as a kid, you were like, “Oh, that’s [inaudible] [00:21:01].”
That’s another great example of a moral panic that happened at one point, was just in that time with Tipper Gore and so forth, and they created this group that was worried about rock ‘n roll music at the time and if it was damaging children. And they created this list of the most vile songs. And on that list was Cyndi Lauper and her song She Bop. They were scared it was gonna teach masturbation to teens because – I mean who would ever guess that could happen.
But at the time – and again, it’s important to know – we laugh at all these past moral panics like comic books. We all think, “Ha, ha, how silly was that?” Elvis Presley they were worried about, Dungeons & Dragons, “They’re so silly.” But the point is at the time they didn’t think it was silly. This was serious stuff just like video games are right now for a lot of people, that I predict in a decade or two decades we’ll look back and say, “Oh, those silly people who were scared about video games.”
But every moral panic, the people who are pushing it, who are really worried about it, they’re being genuine. They really are worried about it. I mean there might be some people taking advantage of it. But there’s a lot of parents and so forth that just really want to do what they think is best for their kids. And so it does become a hard cycle to break because as a parent, you just do want to do what’s best for your child. And so, it can get difficult.
Ryne: But at least now I think we have the data that shows that video games aren’t harmful in the way that people were afraid in the mid-‘90s.
Patrick: Yeah. And I think what’s the biggest thing that’s happened in video game research that shows that are the ecological studies. So, not even the school shooter space because again, thank goodness they’re rare but the bigger worry if you’re worried about being murdered or being assaulted, it’s probably not at a school. It’s gonna be out on the street and so forth. And when researchers have looked at data like that, we actually find that when violent video games are released on release dates or when people are home playing violent video games –
Nico: Yeah. This was my next question.
Patrick: – yeah, we see violent crime drop, and it’s consistent over and over again. And this has been done in labs, in our lab. It’s been done by economists. It’s been done by criminologists, that whenever violent media comes out, and this is true also for movies and television back when you used to watch television at certain times, they had the exact same findings, that when people are consuming violent media, we see dips in homicides and aggravated assaults.
So again, we see that video games are linked to these horrific acts of violence but they’re linked in the exact opposite direction from what common sense would tell us, that the data actually consistently shows that when people are playing games, it’s actually safer out there than more dangerous.
Nico: Because they’re at home in front of their consoles.
Patrick: So, the data are what the data are. The why is the bigger question.
Nico: Big question.
Patrick: Yeah. And so, I mean probably the one that gets talked about the most is the idea of catharsis, the idea that if you – this is an old Freudian idea actually. It’s the idea that you just have to let out your anger in some kind of constructive manner. It’s almost like we’re teapots and the steam is boiling up in us and there’s a cork over the top and we just have to let out the steam a little bit otherwise we’ll explode.
Nico: The idea of a stress ball at work or –
Patrick: Yeah. Or punching a pillow or whatever. And it sounds cool. The problem is research doesn’t back it up. Researchers who typically do research on having subjects come in and punch pillows and stuff, they find it doesn’t do anything. And so, yeah, we think the explanation for why violent video games are linked to decreases in crime is exactly what you said, Nico, that we think that it’s that when people are playing violent video games, they’re simply off the streets. So they’re less likely to be perpetrators of violence and they’re less likely to be victims of violence. And so it’s essentially remove themselves.
And the neat thing about it is that people most likely to be perpetrators and victims are adolescent males, and those are the people most attracted to violent video games. And so, in a weird way, it targets this group that’s most at risk and removes them from interacting with each other thereby potentially making the world a little bit safer, making it safer outside.
Nico: Yeah. You talk in your book about how the times where it’s least likely that you’ll see violent crime committed are, what, between 7:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. when students are in school.
Patrick: School. Yeah. Yeah. When you take into account school days, yeah. And the idea of criminals and victims have to be together for a crime to happen seems so simple, but it does actually have a name. It’s called routine activity theory. And criminologists use it to explain all types of criminal behavior. But like I said, we can just apply it here. And it seems to work so perfectly. And like I said, it’s not just video games, it’s all violent media, that when economists did a study with movies and they found that around the movie theater if they were playing a violent movie, crime would dip in that area.
And the neat thing about all of this is we don’t see a bump up later on. So it’s not like they’re home off the streets playing Grand Theft Auto V and they’re not committing crime but once they turn off the console and walk out, look out. We never see a bump back up. There’s never an overreaction to the reduction in crime. So it appears just to reduce crime by removing people from the street, and then you don’t have to pay the price later on if you will.
Nico: Yeah. You say that I think in the book the biggest correlation between violent crime is the temperature outside.
Patrick: That’s what we used as an example of what researchers – what I’m talking about we use the same methodologies that researchers had used in the past to show that when it’s hot outside, there tends to be more violent crime. And so, I mean an example of how this study goes (it’s good to use the heat example) is what researchers have known for a while is that heat outside is correlated to violent crime, that when it’s hotter you tend to have increases in violent crime.
And everyone knows the old adage correlation doesn’t mean causation. So, just because they correlate doesn’t mean that happens. So, what we do as researchers, we try to break that relationship, that we try to throw in any other variables we think that might be potentially a third variable, throw in things like police presence, socio-economic issues. Things of that sort you throw into your models and you try to get rid of that correlation. And with heat, for example, there’s nothing that people have been able to throw into the model to break it. No matter what, when it’s warmer, there’s more crime. And we can’t think of a third variable that’s causing it. So at some point we say, “Ah, maybe there really is something going on here.”
And with video games, it’s the same thing. What our lab and other labs have done is we look at the correlation between video game play or when games are released and violent crime and then we throw in as many variables as we can think of that might break that relationship. And just like heat, no one’s been able to find any other variables that could explain why when people are playing violent video games crime tends to go down.
Nico: Is there anything that we can say about playing video games? It doesn’t even have to do with violence. Does it make people better problem solvers or critical thinkers, or does it have negative effects because it makes them, I don’t know, less social? I don’t know. I mean what can we say?
Patrick: Well, I mean video games are a medium. So, they’re neither inherently good or bad, right? So, they can be whatever they are just like literature can be whatever it is. It can be good or bad depending on how it’s used and written. And video games themselves, how they are now with social, say, for example, what we tend to find is actually video games tend to be a pretty positive social outlet for most – I’m talking about youth now but adults too especially since so many youth are playing video games that youths themselves report that video games they use to make friends and create new friendships and things of that sort.
Nico: You play online in multiplayer.
Patrick: You play online. It’s just like play in general. I mean let’s be honest, video game play when you’re playing with others is play. It’s a virtual play but it’s still play. And you have the same exact advantages as you do with playing in a sandbox with another kid that – you do. You learn rules. You learn how to communicate. You learn how to control your emotions. You learn all these important things in life. And that’s what play really does for us as humans, just playing in general. It’s so important but it gets discounted so often. And so video games tend to have that same advantage as other media in terms of play.
I mean there’s other things that they can potentially do too. Again, they make the world potentially a little bit safer place. There are some arguments that people have made that it might create moral development in some individuals and so forth. Obviously, the elephant in the room with video games and their potential negative effect that’s not violence is video game addiction. I mean I think one of you guys said you played games so much – maybe you had said, Ryne, that you play so much you were worried or something along those –
Nico: Yeah. I want to get into this addiction question too.
Patrick: Yeah. And it’s a hot topic in video game research. And right now the data are really early. So the World Health Organization created a formal diagnosis of basically video game addiction.
Nico: Yeah. Ryne was telling me that on the way here.
Ryne: Yeah. When you wrote the book, that hadn’t happened yet, and you mentioned that the American Psychiatric Association might have been about to do that, but then the World Health Organization did it in I think May 2019.
Patrick: Sounds about right. Yeah. Yeah. And so, my basic believe on it is it’s a little too early to jump the gun on if we should have a formal diagnosis for it. Certainly, there are people that are addicted to video games. There are people addicted to food. There are people addicted to sex. Now, food and sex do not have a formal diagnosis. So, not everything that we can be addicted to is recognized in this manner. And so, the question is is video game addiction high enough that it should be at the same level as other types of addictive behaviors like alcoholism and things of that sort? And so, it’s unknown right now if it’s there.
The biggest study that I know of done on this topic was done at Oxford where they examined two or three thousand people. I’m going off the top of my head. And they looked at the prevalence of video game addiction in this group. And they found that it was about one percent of them could be diagnosed as a video game addiction using American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines, which are actually pretty close to the World Health Organization’s. So about one percent. So it’s not a giant prevalent group. But even if it’s not, it still doesn’t mean it’s not important.
And so, what they then looked at is of these people who were diagnosed, how are they different than people who are not diagnosed: are they less sociable, are they less physically fit, do they stay inside all the time. And across the board, they really couldn’t find any differences except for one. Those people who were classified as addicted to video games tended to play more video games than those who weren’t classified. But otherwise, they had just as many social interactions. They were just as emotionally happy and so forth. So it’s findings like that that you have to be very careful with on is this something that we want to potentially make seem like a bigger problem than it is.
Again, a parent who has a child who’s really addicted to video games, that’s a horrific situation. So I don’t want to make light of that. But the problem is we might have too many instances where people are misdiagnosed with this type of issue. For example, you might have a parent whose child is depressed and they go see a therapist, and the therapist just heard about all of this video game addiction and they have this checklist where they can go down and figure out with this client. Sure, they show they’re depressed but they also show video game addiction, so, what’s the therapist gonna suggest? Get rid of the video game console. Let’s try to wean the child from the video game console.
But there could be a danger there. If the video game console is their primary social outlet, then what you’re doing is you’re taking this social outlet that they have to their friends and everyone else and you’re completely removing it.
Nico: And you’re isolating them.
Patrick: And now you have a depressed kid without any social outlet anymore. And so, again, that might be what we want to do eventually, but I just think right now we’re too far ahead of the data that we want to be very careful. There’s a real danger in creating a panic about something that might not be as prevalent as we think about it.
And even parents who are worried about their kids being addicted to games (again, I have sympathy for parents whose children are really addicted) most of them, when they talk to me, they don’t really mean their kid’s addicted to video games because they’ll kind of roll their eyes kind of like what we did and they’ll say, “Oh, little Johnny’s so addicted to Fortnite.” You would never do that if you thought your kid was addicted to heroin. You’d never say, “Oh, little Johnny’s so addicted to heroin.” So we’re just misusing the word addiction in this concept.
We usually mean now when we say addiction in video games imitating, too much. We as parents don’t approve of it. And, hey, I get it. Again, I have a teenager. And I get it. Sometimes he might play video games too much and I might want to limit it. But I’m not trying to limit it to prevent depression or anything along those lines.
Nico: But are game developers trying to get people addicted? I mean to a certain extent you can say anyone who creates something is trying to get people to enjoy that something, hooks for commercials and television shows. They try to keep you – but the last interview I conducted for this podcast was with a guy Luke Morgan who wrote an article called Addiction and Expression that was in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly because there are efforts on behalf of some legislators to try and regulate, for example, loot boxes in video games. Josh Holly, for example –
Ryne: We should probably for the benefit of the listeners explain what loot boxes are first.
Nico: Yeah. Well, do you – I’ve never actually used a loot box before, but.
Ryne: Oh, I guess I can. Yeah. So in some games, you can put in real-world currency, pay US dollars to get an in-game currency. And with that in-game currency, you can pay for these things called loot boxes, which is a mystery, surprise thing. You open it –
Nico: That comes into the game.
Ryne: Yeah. It comes into a game and it gives you a random assortment of items. So, you’re paying real-world money for the contents of this box of in-game items, and you can’t know what it is before you purchase it.
Nico: So, it could be new armor for your character, a new sort of gun for your shooter game.
Ryne: Or armor that your character can’t even wear. And so, you buy another one hoping to get armor for the character that you do play.
Nico: Yeah. And there’s some science behind this. So, in Luke Morgan’s article he talks about John Hopson, and I’ll read a little bit from the article. He said, “In April 2015, John Hopson then the head of user research for Bungie and the holder of a doctorate in behavioral and brain sciences spoke to the 2015 Game Developers Conference. And it was there he revealed how Bungie so carefully created a game meant to hook players and keep them coming back time after time. Those are John Hopson’s words. John then proceeded to lay out the behavioral game design that guided Destiny (and that’s the game that they created that everyone said was so addictive) development from the beginning. And they used what’s called variable-ratio contingencies.”
You’re the scholar of us here. You probably know what that is. But essentially, it’s random chances that receive an award upon the completion of an activity. And then Hopson noted that this design choice produces “a high consistent rate of activity.” He then goes on to say, “The classic example of this that hopefully none of you know too well is the slot machine. So every time you pull the handle of the slot machine there is a chance of winning, there’s a chance of getting a reward on that pull. You don’t have to pull 10 times before you get something. The first pull could win you the jackpot. And that’s what produces this incredibly high powerful rate of activity.”
“So this is a good thing, John Hopson says, in that there’s a high level of activity. There’s a high level of interest. It’s very motivating. It’s very addictive, he says, as anyone who has played slots or gambled in any other way can tell you.” So I was wondering what you think about that sort of game design, that it seizes on variable-ratio contingencies.
Patrick: Yeah. So it’s important to keep this separate from video game addiction especially from the World Health Organization. That is not talking about loot boxes. Loot boxes are really a completely different animal in this world. And quite frankly, it’s because loot boxes became really popular after a lot of the research had started on video game addiction and so forth. There are some good researchers starting now research on loot boxes. But again –
Nico: But it’s one of the things that game developers bake into a game to try and get you to play.
Ryne: Yeah. In that Destiny example, they’re actually talking about rewards you receive for defeating bosses. So while Destiny does have loot boxes, the thing that he’s talking about in that specific quote is a reward you get for doing an in-game activity that you don’t need to pay extra money to do.
Patrick: And so there is a good argument. So again, I would separate the two because the question is I like to think of it this way that, 1.) Are video games addictive? Can we just take a video game with no loot boxes and is that addictive? Traditionally, up until loot boxes became a thing a few years ago, that’s what everyone meant when they talked about video game addiction.
Now loot boxes are the new thing that people are starting to look into. And the two are getting mixed together. And they really belong separate because you might have an issue where loot boxes might be really addictive but video games themselves are fine or the opposite. You could have any combination. And right now the research for the video game part is inconclusive. Loot boxes are using the same mechanism as slot machines. There’s no doubt about it. So there’s no reason to suspect that they would be less I’m going to put this in quotes “addictive” than a slot machine could be addictive.
So some people might be more inclined to use loot boxes than others. In fact, there is some early research that suggests that people who are problem gamblers do tend to use loot boxes more. It doesn’t mean loot boxes cause problem gambling. It means people who have those characteristics already. So there might be something with loot boxes that’s there that might be something that might not be the greatest thing in the world for a gamer in the long run. We don’t know yet. It’s still too early. One of the nice things about loot boxes though is you’re starting to see it almost start to regulate itself. There’s been a lot of backlash from consumers.
Nico: Yeah, I’ve heard that.
Patrick: And so you’re starting to see game companies try to balance it out a little bit more. They’re still there. They still exist, but they’re not quite as in-your-face as they used to be.
Ryne: I think one of the big steps there was that when they started getting pressure I think from other countries to regulate loot boxes, Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo all agreed basically at the same time that they would require games in the future to disclose the odds of different things you would receive from the loot box so you could at least have some information when purchasing it how likely you would be to get the thing that you are trying to get.
Nico: Whether that will actually affect behavior. I think the lotto gives us all we need to know.
Patrick: I don’t think a game company has anything to worry about from that information for exactly what you said. And that’s actually, if you will, the beauty of this variable-ratio kind of reward system, is that we think, “Oh, the next one. No, it’s gonna be the next one. No, it’s gonna be the next one.” And so it is, it is a thing that – and you don’t need a PhD in behavioral sciences to know this. You don’t need a PhD in anything to know this. You just need to know how slot machines work and you’ve got the basic idea of why this works.
Ryne: I do want to complicate the division between loot boxes and video games because games can reward loot boxes for both time and money that you put into it. In Destiny, for example, they have both. They have paid loot boxes and they have loot boxes that you just receive at regular intervals for playing the game. Is it really that different psychologically that you’re paying money for one versus paying your time for the other?
Patrick: No. No. No. No. But randomness is in all games. I mean you get randomness in Monopoly when you roll your dice, right?
Patrick: So, the idea of there being randomness in a game is not by itself an evil thing. At least, I wouldn’t think it is because randomness is a part of a game. I mean, just to use an example, Diablo, first Diablo, way back when, you get random loot when you can kill a certain person. You’re not paying any money into that, and that’s part of the game. And, sure, that might make the game more – you might want to play the game more. We’re not talking about video game addiction. It’s just making it more interesting just like playing Monopoly, rolling the dice isn’t necessarily going to make you want to keep playing.
But that’s different than – at least I think it’s potentially different than paying money for that. I think you have one situation where you might be taking advantage of – advantage may be too strong, but might be taking advantage (let’s just go with that) of people who want to play the game and they just want to get that armor and so they keep paying $5.00 every time to get this loot box. Or another person wants that armor and they’re just gonna play the game for five more hours. So I think it is different when money is involved, that – and again, that’s a personal thing. The psychology behind it might be the same. But my worry about when money is involved is you have the potential negative outcome of spending money on this type of thing, so.
Nico: Yeah. There’s enough of a concern around it that they’re starting to see legal scholarship questioning whether that would implicate the First Amendment prohibiting video game distributors from baking loot box variable-ratio contingencies into their games. But I think the whole thing from the Brown case in 2011 would still hold insofar as code is held to be speech and protected by the First Amendment to the extent that there’s artistic intent in these games then that implicates the First Amendment. But we do have a history in the United States of regulating addiction.
Patrick: Or gambling. I mean because at the end, I think that’s what the legal question is, not the research question, is this gambling with loot boxes, that you’re putting money in but not really getting a prize? Or is it more like Dave & Buster’s? I don’t know what exactly – I’m not obviously a legal individual. But I think that tends to be the bigger thing, is is this just simply a form of gambling?
Nico: Yeah. You mentioned social media right now. Do you do any research into that because I want to ask in so far as our boss Greg Lukianoff wrote a New York Times bestseller in which they speculated with Jonathan Haidt of course on some sort of connection or correlation between social media and anxiety and depression? What has your research found?
Patrick: Yeah. With Jonathan –
Nico: And don’t hold back.
Patrick: Yeah. No, that’s fine.
Ryne: It is a free-speech podcast.
Patrick: So, I think that social media and the research that you’re talking about specifically and other scholars in the area that have done research on the link between social media and depression and suicide and so forth, I think it is potentially contributing to the ongoing moral panic right now, that we are way ahead of our data, that our data right now linking social media to these kind of outcomes is so limited.
As an example, other scholars have supposedly found links between social media and things like depression or unhappiness and so forth. But when you actually look at the research, you find first of all they don’t even measure social media use. They measure screen use, and they measure screen use at a time period where there even wasn’t social media sometimes. So, one of the variables is a little questionable.
Nico: So, it’s being able to separate out the social media from the screen use –
Patrick: Right. But then the other issue is –
Nico: – because not all screen use is social media use.
Patrick: But even when researchers have examined specific social media use or even screen use, they use self-report. So they’ll say how many hours did you use your phone last week or how many hours did you do this last week, whatever. But then other researchers more recently – David Ellis did this. He actually found that when you actually look at how many hours a person actually uses social media or screens and relates it to what they think they did, they’re completely different worlds, that we have no idea how much social media we use in terms of time, that some of us overestimated dramatically, some of us underestimated dramatically.
Nico: Well, I think now a phone gives you reports on what you’re doing with it.
Patrick: Yeah. Yeah. So you could do a study using that. But the point is all of this panic was built on self-reports, and now we know they’re completely invalid, that there is no at all link to it at all. And the final issue is we think of this as social media causes depression or social media causes this thing, but that’s not how anything works. It’s not like a light switch where it’s on or off. It’s like a dimmer switch. We want to know how much does it cause.
It’s a very kind of nuanced – and you might think from all the worry and everything about social media and depression that maybe we explain 40 percent of the variability in depression from social media or maybe if you’re cynical, maybe just 10 percent. But actually, what we find out is when you look at – even these are studies done by the person you talked about and other people in the area, that their studies find that the variability that we can explain depression that’s explained from social media use from these self-report measures is about 0.3 percent, so less than 1 percent of it. So, even if we take that as a finding, it’s a minuscule finding compared to the amount of worry that’s around it.
Nico: Yeah. To connect it back to what we were talking about before with addiction, I mean some social media creators are using these variable-ratio contingencies to write the code for how your newsfeed appears or when you get that little yellow or little red button at the bottom of your Facebook app that are you going to get the red button, are you not? You open up the app and check it out.
Patrick: But as you said before, I mean, again, if I were to find out that social media use, and we had a good measurement, it was highly related to these terrible outcomes, then oh my gosh, I would be very worried about it. But the fact that they’re using these doesn’t necessarily mean they’re as effective as they think they are. It doesn’t mean they don’t work, but it doesn’t mean that they’re as effective at you think they are. And it also certainly doesn’t mean it’s causing depression or suicide or anything along those lines. As you said before, all basically media creators across time have tried to keep their audience engaged. And so –
Nico: Television. Radio. Yeah.
Patrick: – we’re always doing something.
Nico: Otherwise it would be bad media.
Patrick: At the end of the chapter, I like to try to leave it on a little bit of a cliffhanger so that maybe you’ll start the next chapter, right? So am I using psychology? Sure. I mean is it deep psychology? Not at all. But I’m still using it. So I’m not trying to rewire anyone’s brain when I do that or anything like that and just like a lot of these are. It sounds sinister, but really, at the end of the day, there’s no data there that’s really showing that it’s having this immense negative effect on things like depression and suicide and things of that sort.
Nico: But we are seeing rises in depression and anxiety or at least self-reports. Maybe it’s just [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:47:01].
Ryne: Also when you look at self-harm and suicide objective measures rather than self-reporting.
Nico: Whether that’s correlated with social media of course.
Patrick: But even that, it’s not quite. So, you’re doing half of the story in terms of talking about it. Certainly, there’s been an increase in suicide. And every suicide is tragic. So, I’m not trying to downplay suicide. But if we look back at what suicide rates are about now to what they were in the ‘90s, they’re pretty close. They’re not that different from each other. What had happened was we had a dip in suicides that happened and now it’s come back up to where it was at before. So, in the ‘90s, no social media, suicide rates are about the same as what they are now.
So we have to be a little careful with just this rough correlational data. These are not data by the way that they’re controlling for trends or third variables or anything at all. So when I talked about video games linking to homicides, we try to control for these. These researchers are just pointing out, “Hey, suicides have gone up since here. Maybe there’s a connection.” But when you look at the whole data across time, and suicide data goes back pretty far, you don’t see that it’s this sudden peak that’s out of nowhere.
Nico: Yeah. I’m not as familiar with the data. And I think what Greg and John talk about in their book is amongst young people, suicide’s much – you see it in particular amongst younger women who they argue in their book I guess are more susceptible to the kind of things that social media might do to you, the mean-girls aspect of social media.
Patrick: Well, I’ll talk about this since it’s a free speech podcast –
Nico: Yeah. Go for it.
Patrick: – in that all of those were created post hoc. They were created after the data was collected. So what happened was researchers saw that, “Oh, you only see this with one group. Oh, it must be because it’s women.” There’s a danger in doing that, of looking at data then creating a story around it. The other issue with that is if you look at charts and the data you’re talking about, they’re only reporting data in that timeline that’s really in the later part. They’re not going back further to show that it was higher before and then it went down. You’re only seeing that one figure released in the last 10 years or so. You need to see the entire data set.
And so, there is a danger I think again in creating this potential panic. And this is where I do see a moral panic creating, is with cell phones. And again, I might be wrong. I’m not saying that social media is harmless by any means. I’m saying we don’t have the data yet to be this worried about it, that we need to wait for the data because just like with video games, there’s a danger in creating a potential red herring especially with social media and say smartphones because usually, it’s smartphones that people are more worried about.
If smartphones really aren’t causing this but we make parents really worried, “Hey, smartphones are making your kids depressed. Smartphones are making girls depressed and so forth,” if you have a young girl and she seems depressed and you’re a parent, you’re gonna take that smartphone away from her right away because that would be the smart thing to do because –
Nico: The same thing you were talking about video games. Yeah.
Patrick: Right. But you’ve completely isolated her now because especially now for this generation whether we like it or not as parents that is the primary way that they communicate with their friends, how they set up times to meet with friends.
Nico: It’s like taking away their bike.
Patrick: That’s exactly what it would be like. And so, it’s not as if – some people say, “Well, what’s the harm? Take it away. It’s probably better. Just take it away.” And I have no love of iPhones. Again, I have a teenage kid. Trust me, it drives me crazy. TikTok, I still don’t get it. But it drives me insane. And so, I get the idea of it, but the problem is if we do something we don’t have the data for, we might be causing more harm. Now, we don’t know yet though. And so I think it’s really important that as researchers and as clinicians and so forth we need to be particularly careful about giving advice at this early stage.
Nico: Is there one benefit of moral panics insofar as they spur researchers like yourself to do more research?
Patrick: They keep us employed I suppose. I mean it’s funny with our book Moral Combat, when we first wrote it a few years ago, we thought, “Video game panics are all over now. Nobody’s worried about video games. This is gonna be so old no one’s gonna want it.” And then unfortunately, I get a text from our great PR staff here and they’ll say, “Uh-oh, there’s been a school shooting. You’re probably going to get a lot of reporters,” because that’s what happens unfortunately, is that we don’t worry about it for video games and then there’s a tragedy and then suddenly we get worried about it again.
So, I would love this not to be part of my career. It’s sad that I do research on video games and I don’t do research on guns, on mental health, on anything that other people are worried about that are potentially related to mass shootings. I do it on video games, and that’s when everyone wants to talk to me. That should not be one of the top issues that people are worried about after a tragedy, that we shouldn’t be worried about video games. And it’s taking way too much time.
And again, I’m a researcher in this field who makes money through Villanova (I don’t make money otherwise) whose job is basically to examine violent video games. And I’m telling you don’t worry about it. They’re gonna be fine. Leave me alone. I’d rather be ignored in this world because it’s not that important in terms of predicting mass shootings and things of that sort.
Nico: Yeah. Well, I think that’s a good place to end although I want to ask you, Ryne, did you have any last questions that you feel compelled to ask the good professor about before we stop?
Ryne: This is out of left field, but one of the first things you say in the book is you mention Marshfield, Massachusetts, had a ban on public playing of video games. And as someone who’s followed video game news since I started using the internet probably in 2000, I was shocked that I had never heard that this law was apparently on the books until 2014 and survived two different attempts to have it repealed. To your knowledge, was anyone ever prosecuted under this law? Was there any attempt at civil disobedience because –?
Patrick: I don’t think so. As I recall, the law was more for arcade machines, not home consoles and so forth. No. And as I remember, the town’s this touristy kind of town or sleepy town where they’re trying to get people to come and do things and so forth. I don’t think they had any interest in – they were worried. And it went into effect in the ’80s. And so, it didn’t originally go into effect because people were worried about violent video games. They were worried about arcades. In the ‘80s, arcades were these neon dungeons of evil where older kids would smoke and it was this – so, they more wanted to keep the riffraff associated with arcades out. But it stayed on the books for a long time. It’s a very bizarre case that happened.
Ryne: Yeah. No, if I had known about it when it was still around, I think I might have been tempted to do some civil disobedience, take a vacation there and see if I could get arrested for playing a video game.
Nico: You’d have to role in your arcade big old box or whatever. But anyway, this has been illuminating and a lot of fun. And, Ryne, I want to thank you for joining me as a cohost here. And professor, thanks for coming on. The book is Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong. It’s authored of course by our guest today Patrick M. Markey and co-authored by Christopher J. Ferguson. This podcast is hosted and produced by me Nico Perrino, cohosted by Ryne Weiss, recorded by me and the fine folks here at Villanova University, and edited by Aaron Reese.
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