Dueling Editorials: Researchers Christopher J. Ferguson and Dr. Brad Bushman go Head-to-Head on CNN

Christopher J. Ferguson, chair of the psychology department at Stetson University goes head-to-head with Dr. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University in two different editorials on CNN.com. Bushman's editorial, "Do violent video games play a role in shootings?" was published on September 18, while Ferguson's, "Don't link video games with mass shootings," was published today.

Both editorials deal with the recent Washington Navy Yard shooting as it relates to violent video game play and the research about causality.

In his editorial, Bushman contends that violent media such as video games do cause aggression, according to research he has conducted personally, as well as other studies conducted by like-minded researchers:

"My colleagues and I found that typical college students who played violent video games for 20 minutes at a time for three consecutive days showed increasingly higher levels of aggressive behavior each day they played. If that's what happens to typical college students, how might someone like Alexis react to playing for 16 straight hours? What if he does this for months or years?

Other researchers have found similar results. My colleagues and I conducted a comprehensive review of 136 articles reporting 381 effects involving over 130,000 participants around the world. These studies show that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure), and aggressive behavior. Violent games also decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others. The effects occurred for males and females of all ages, regardless of what country they lived in."

Bushman goes on to say that, while specific details on the Alexis case have not been revealed, the video game connection fits in with other mass shooters:

"Despite the evidence, many people still deny violent media effects for a variety of reasons that I summarized in a Psychology Today piece.
Alexis was not the first mass killer to have an obsession with violent video games. Adam Lanza, who killed 26 children in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was also said to be a fan of first-person shooting games. Other killers have been found to be avid players.

The effects of these games go beyond making players more aggressive. In our research, we found that people who played first-person shooting games were more accurate than others when firing a realistic gun at a mannequin — and more likely to aim for and hit the head."

In his editorial, Ferguson refutes much of the "evidence" presented by Bushman;

"I respect Dr. Bushman and understand that he speaks in good faith about his concerns regarding violent video games. Yet, the field he portrays in his op-ed is not one that I recognize. Research linking violent video games to even mild acts of aggression has been, at best, inconsistent and, as the Supreme Court noted in 2011, often methodologically flawed."

Ferguson goes on to point out the flaws in the studies that Bushman cites as definitive proof about aggression after playing video games, and that playing first-person shooters makes a person a more accurate shot when using a firearm:

"Even the studies Dr. Bushman refers to are not as clear-cut as he suggests. For instance, in discussing his meta-analysis, he implies that the 136 articles he reviewed on video game violence were consistent in outcome, which, in fact, they were not. He also neglects to mention that, in his own meta-analysis, video game effects dropped significantly when only a few controls were included.

For instance, in his analysis of long-term outcome studies, video game violence effects dropped to nearly zero when simply gender and prior aggression were controlled. Furthermore, at the time his meta-analysis was published, colleagues including John Kilburn and myself expressed concerns in the same journal that Dr. Bushman and his coauthors had neglected to include many studies finding no links between video game violence and aggression in their analysis.

Dr. Bushman also refers to one of his studies suggesting that college students who played an action game were more accurate with a lifelike pistol. He extends this research to imply that mass shooters may be more accurate due to playing video games. This also, to me, seems a considerable overreach. Alexis had actual military training which would seem more relevant than video games, and shooting unarmed civilians typically requires no great feat of marksmanship. It's important to note as well that Dr. Bushman's study is, as of yet, unreplicated."

Ferguson also mentions a considerable amount of research that Bushman ignored while writing his editorial – including research he conducted alongside colleague Cheryl Olson that found "little evidence that violent video games had negative influences on children with pre-existing mental health problems." He also noted that there are plenty of shooters who do not play video games, but because they don't fit the narrative of the "mad gamer" they don't get as much media attention.

Finally, Ferguson points out that Bushman's call for regulations on video games is an unlikely goal, given the "Supreme Court's Brown v EMA ruling (2011), which also criticized much of this research field, such efforts are clearly in violation of the First Amendment."

You can read Dr. Bushman's editorial here and Ferguson's rebuttal here.

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