Video Games and “Moral Panic”

by on January 23, 2009 · 158 comments

Many folks are discussing Christopher Ferguson’s latest paper on “The School Shooting / Violent Video Game Link: Causal Relationship or Moral Panic?” And with good reason. It’s an important look at how “moral panics” develop in modern society, in this case around video games. [Moral panics is a subject I have written on at length here many times before.  Alice Marwick’s brilliant article on “technopanics” is also worth reading in this regard].

As I’ve noted here before, Ferguson has penned many important articles raising questions about the claims made by some other psychologists (and politicians) that there is causal relationship between exposure to violent video games and youth aggression. Ferguson has shown there are reasons to be skeptical of such claims — both methodologically and practically-speaking. More on that down below.

In his latest piece, however, Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M’s Department of Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice, is more fully developing moral panic theory, which he describes as follows: “A moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole.”  To illustrate the various forces at work that drive moral panics, Ferguson uses this “Moral Panic Wheel”:

Moral Panic Wheel [Ferguson]
This image makes it clear that there is no one group or factor responsible for moral panics. Rather, it is the combination of many forces and influences that ultimately bring such panic about. Activist groups and agenda-driven researchers obviously play a part. Ferguson notes that:

As for social scientists, it has been observed that a small group of researchers have been most vocal in promoting the anti-game message (Kutner & Olson, 2008), oftentimes ignoring research from other researchers, or failing to disclose problems with their own research. As some researchers have staked their professional reputation on anti-game activism, it may be difficult for these researchers to maintain scientific objectivity regarding the subject of their study. Similarly, it may be argued that granting agencies are more likely to provide grant money when a potential problem is identified, rather than for studying a topic with the possibility that the outcome may reveal that there is nothing to worry about…

Ferguson points out that the media and politicians also play a key role in whipping up a frenzy:

The media dutifully reports on the most negative results, as these results ‘sell’ to an already anxious public. Politicians seize upon the panic, eager to be seen as doing something particular as it gives them an opportunity to appear to be ‘concerned for children’. Media violence, in particular, is an odd social issue with the ability to appeal both to voters on the far right, who typically are concerned for religious reasons, and on the far left, who are typically motivated by pacifism…

Importantly, Ferguson also notes that the generation gap fuels the fires of moral panics: “[T]he majority of individuals critical of video games are above the age of 35 (many are elderly) and oftentimes admit to not having directly experienced the games. Some commentators make claims betraying their unfamiliarity,” he says.

Now, let’s get back to Ferguson’s more general skepticism of what other psychologists or social scientists have said about violent video games causing real world violence. [I highly recommend this layman-friendly essay that Ferguson wrote as an introduction to his thinking on the topic]. In his latest piece, he summarizes what is wrong — both from a methodological and real-world perspective — with that research. Here’s some of what he has to say:

  • “Seldom are actual physical acts of aggression examined” in that research
  • “there are considerable difficulties in generalizing the results from laboratory tests of aggression to real world serious acts of aggression”
  • “the generalisability of these results to real world acts of serious violence is dubious”
  • “most correlational studies fail to take account of potentially confounding ‘third’ variables such as personality, family violence, or genetics. A few do, and consistently find that the link between video game violence
    and aggression is greatly weakened by the inclusion of ‘third’ variables.”
  • “[there are] significant problems in the violent games literature related to the use of unstandardized, unreliable aggression measures, as well as publication bias.”
  • “the empirical link between violent gameplay and serious acts of aggression or violent behavior appears to be slim at best.”
  • “In at least one recent court case, it was pointed out that even some social scientists have cherry-picked data that support the panic view, ignoring unsupportive research.”

Next, Ferguson does something I have been trying to do in all the papers and essays I have penned on this subject in recent years: Introduce real-world data! After all, if there is anything to the ‘monkey see-monkey do’ theory of media effects, then the lab research should be showing up somehow in the data we have about actual societal trends. Of course, when you do look at real-world data you find the exact opposite story, as Ferguson illustrates:

as violent video games have become more prevalent, violent crimes have decreased dramatically. This is true both for police arrest data, as well as crime victimization data. Similar statistics for reduced crime have been found in Canada, Australia, the European Union, and the United Kingdom using both arrest and victimization data. This is certainly not to say that violent video games are necessarily responsible for this decline, even partially. However, this certainly cuts away the basis of any belief that violent games are promoting societal violence. The correlation (an astonishing r = -0.95) is simply in the wrong direction. This would be akin to lung cancer decreasing radically after smoking cigarettes was introduced into a population, which is simply not the case.

games and violence

(Sources: C.F. Ferguson, ESA,

I highly recommend Prof. Ferguson’s latest paper and hope that it can contribute to the shaping of a new dialogue about youth and media. We do need to be good stewards of our children and be mindful of watch they watch, listen to, download, and play. [I’ve written an entire book about how to do so.]  But we first need to bring this moral panic over games to an end so we can get on with a serious, level-headed conversation about how to better mentor our kids in an age of media abundance.  The current hysteria is not helpful.

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