"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Streetlight Psychology

Recent article on Vox: Do Violent Video Games Actually Make People More Violent? It’s a good and even-handed article which concludes:

The short answer [is] we don’t really know. Some studies have indeed found that, in lab settings, people can become more aggressive after playing violent games. Some have also found that people who play violent games are more likely to commit violent acts in real life. But it’d be just as easy to conclude that inherently violent people are simply drawn to violent games — and indeed, several studies have come to that conclusion. Moreover, not all observational studies have found any correlation between gaming and violence. Perhaps most importantly, there’s been no surge in violence among youth over the past few decades in gaming countries to accompany the rising popularity of violent games. On the whole, the evidence is decidedly mixed.

I would, however, like to make one important point I think they left out, which also happens to be a very broad criticism of entire subfields of psychology.

They say that “lab experiments have shown violent games can increase aggression”, citing a meta-analysis of ninety-eight studies but using as their specific example a recent Italian study. In this experiment, a bunch of high-schoolers were randomly assigned to play Grand Theft Auto or some less violent game. Then they were asked to participate in an experiment where they got to blast loud noises at a partner, which seems like a pretty violent thing to do. The kids who had played Grand Theft Auto were more likely to give their partner louder, more violent blasts. A nice, elegant result very typical of results in this field.

Vox’s analysis:

There are a few caveats to keep in mind when considering these studies. One is that they use aggression and self-control as proxies for real-world violence, because researchers can’t actually allow violence to occur in a lab. The idea is that, in increasing aggressiveness, these games make it more likely that someone considering violence will be pushed over the edge and actually commit it. But there’s a huge difference between blasting someone with a loud noise, or scoring higher on a questionnaire intended to measure aggressiveness, and actually resorting to violence in the real world.

I think this is insufficiently skeptical.

Suppose I have a different hypothesis. I hypothesize that sad video games cause depression. It seems prima facie plausible. We’re having a lot of trouble with child and adolescent depression nowadays. And do you remember that thing that happened in Final Fantasy VII, with that one character (no spoilers)? Really sad. Maybe there are lots of video games like that, where you see your favorite characters or people you really like die or suffer terrible travails. In the past, maybe only a couple of people would lose people close to them, but through the vicarious experience of video games we’ve all experienced seeing our friends “die” dozens of times by the time we graduate high school. Hence, adolescent depression. Right?

We propose an experiment to test this. Fifty Italian teenagers play the appropriate scene in Final Fantasy VII; a control group of another fifty play something neutral like Tetris or whatever. Afterwards, we measure sadness in some way. For example, maybe we make them watch a comedy program and record how many times they laugh; if they don’t laugh much, we assume they’re sad. Or maybe we just give them a self-rating questionnaire. Whatever.

I predict that this study will easily find that the intervention group is sadder than the control group. I also predict that the original hypothesis, that sad video games cause depression, remains stupid.

The difference seems to be that between a temporary state of sad mood, and a long-term alteration of personality that amplifies a sadness “trait” (or more specifically depression, which sometimes presents similar to sadness but may have totally different causes). While it’s easy to imagine that sad video games affect the first, it’s much harder to believe they can do the second, and act in an additive way to make you a very sad person ten years down the line.

But the same should apply to the violence studies! Yeah, okay, you’re priming violence, you’ve got people in a high-arousal, aggressive state, they’ll probably be more violent until the effect wears off. But there’s a long way between that and saying that their personality becomes more and more violent until they shoot up a school. Especially since, as far as I know, no mass murderer is known to have played video games immediately before their crime, the period in which these kinds of effects might be relevant.

There is an old story about a drunk who loses his keys:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”

This has since been dubbed the “streetlight effect”, and these studies seem to be an example.

The policeman asks the psychologists what they’re doing. The psychologists say “Studying propensity to violence in the few minutes after someone plays a video game.” The policeman asks “And this is going to reveal important principles about why people are violent in real life?” The psychologists say “No, but it’s really easy to study.”

I want to stop for a second and say that this is not an argument that the field of videogamology is hopelessly flawed or that videogames cannot cause violence. Most of the videogamologists I have read freely acknowledge this problem. That they continue to do these kinds of studies time after time doesn’t surprise me – I’m working on a study right now for work which I don’t think will be hugely contributory to the Sum Of Human Knowledge, because I’m supposed to do something and this was a moderately interesting and do-able thing that came up. A society that rewards researchers per study, like one that rewards factories per kilogram of machinery, will get what it pays for. The videogamologists have taken this in stride and along with these sorts of laboratory studies are doing their best to do longitudinal studies adjusted for various confounders some of which reveal the same pattern. I haven’t studied the field and I have no opinion on it beyond what’s in the Vox article. I just want to make sure people don’t pay too much attention to the streetlight studies.

Which, by the way, are a problem far beyond videogamology.

Here’s an article called Arabs as terrorists: Effects of stereotypes within violent contexts on attitudes, perceptions, and affect. Participants consume some media with depictions of terrorist Arabs in it. Then they are asked what they think of Arabs. They are more likely than the control group to say they think of Arabs as terrorists. Therefore, media with stereotypical portrayals causes people to stereotype groups in various ways.

Okay. How long did the researchers give between the media in question and the survey? Five minutes? Ten? And we’re supposed to believe that this gives us important information about whether, if one of these people throws a brick at a mosque in ten years, it’s going to be because of all of the anti-Arabic media he’s been gradually consuming up until that time?

In fact, let me make a stronger claim. The “success” of this experiment actually disproves its hypothesis. Assume that everyone in both the experimental and control groups have probably seen hundreds of depictions of Arabs as terrorists throughout their lives. What the experiment finds is that one recent depiction of terrorists is enough to overwhelm all of those hundreds of past depictions, such that a clear and obvious difference shows up between the control group (who have seen hundreds of media depictions of terrorist Arabs throughout their entire lives) and the experimental group (who have seen hundreds of media depictions of terrorist Arabs throughout their entire lives, plus one extra one five minutes ago). What we’re actually finding is that any media depiction effect decays really really rapidly, so much so that people who have been told their entire lives that Arabs are terrorists can be used as the control group in an Arabs/terrorism experiment without anyone batting an eye.

Of course, it’s possible that there are two different effects – a very weak long-term effect that builds up with many exposures over time and existed in all of the study participants, and a very strong short-term effect you get when you just saw a documentary on Osama five minutes before someone asked your opinion. But in that case, you shouldn’t go proving the existence of the second effect and then pretending you’ve learned anything at all about the first.

A big chunk of the science in the area of prejudice and racism is exactly like these Arab studies, unfortunately.

Let me bring up one more area in which I think this effect distorts research.

Judith Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption makes the bold claim that most differences in how parents bring up their children don’t really change the children’s long-term outcomes that much. This obviously contradicts a wide body of research, and she goes at length into why she thinks the wide body of research is wrong.

I don’t have the book here, so I’m working from memory and it’s going to be more a general form than a specific example, but – suppose that some scientists find mothers who yell at their kids, and mothers who don’t yell at their kids, and find that the children of the yellers act out more and cause more trouble. You can conclude – and a lot of psychologists did – that yelling changes kids’ personalities and makes them more aggressive or rebellious or have some other trait desire to act out.

But other studies show that when the kids are in school, or after they’re taken away by social services, or twenty years later when they’re grown up, there’s no difference between the two groups. Why? Harris suggests that what we’re actually seeing is children responding to a dynamic. The presence of yelly parents makes kids act out, in the same way that the presence of cold makes kids put on a sweater. Cold doesn’t permanently change children’s thermoregulation and cause them to be more likely to wear a sweater twenty years later, it just causes an immediate reaction. Likewise, yelling doesn’t change children’s traits and characteristics and cause them to be more rebellious twenty years later, it just causes an immediate reaction. Remove stimulus, remove response. And this is all my vague half-remembered analogy to something I think was in the book, but I think it’s an important distinction.

Situations can cause immediate responses to those situations, or long-term changes in the way people think. You can’t just demonstrate the former and assume you’ve proven the latter.

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129 Responses to Streetlight Psychology

  1. Andy says:

    A big chunk of the science in the area of prejudice and racism is exactly like these Arab studies, unfortunately.

    How then would you study prejudice and racism over the long term?

    • Navin Kumar says:

      Same experiments as above. Revisit subjects one year later.

      • Amanda L. says:

        But if you’re looking for the “very weak long-term effect that builds up with many exposures over time,” then you can’t just expose them to a one-time stimulus and then come back a year later. You need an experimental intervention that puts half the subjects in a more racist environment for a year. And that’s hard.

    • veronica d says:

      It is not so hard to find evidence of racism and sexism. For example, the unconscious bias experiments show that people really do, right now, respond to blacks differently from whites, likewise women differently from men. The stimuli that cause the differences are simply white/black faces (or female/male faces). Similarly, the various “send out identical resume” studies show clear double standards.

      What Scott is talking about (I think) are studies that show causal factors; that is, studies that say “watching media type X causes response type Y.” These studies show Y-short-term, not Y-long-term.

      We know that Y-long-term exists from other studies that look for it directly.

      • RCF says:

        Sending resumes with “black sounding” names raises the question of whether “racism” refers to ethnic preferences, or cultural preferences.

        • More to the point, what we think of as “stereotypically black-sounding” names are actually stereotypically lower-class-black-sounding names, so that introduces an obvious confounding factor.

          I wonder how you’d control for this. Maybe you could send out some resumes with stereotypically lower-class-white-sounding names and see what kinds of responses they get? You’d need a way to compare economic class between black stereotypes and white stereotypes, which might or might not be possible even in principle.

          • Nornagest says:

            You’d need a way to compare economic class between black stereotypes and white stereotypes, which might or might not be possible even in principle.

            Well, if you had a big enough corpus of names linked with economic data, you could use that to estimate the class associations of those names directly. Find the average family income of a Billy-Bob compared to a Jaiden, for example, or a Bambi compared to a Shaniqua.

            Though that has the disadvantage of filtering out non-economic correlates of class. You could do similar things that might account for it, though, like using the average income of the neighborhood of residence instead of the family.

          • Wulfrickson says:

            Maybe you could send out some resumes with stereotypically lower-class-white-sounding names and see what kinds of responses they get?

            I could have sworn I read about a study that did just that and found that racial bias was still evident – but a search through Google Scholar doesn’t reveal anything likely, so I’m probably making that up.

            Also of note: I found an article claiming that girls with highly feminine names like “Isabella” are less likely to study math and physics past age 16 than girls with more androgynous names like “Alex.” I can’t find the original study, but the article I linked that reported on the study mentioned that it looked at pairs of sisters, which eliminates the obvious confounder that different kinds of families might name their daughters “Isabella” and “Alex.”

          • To be perfectly clear, I’m pretty sure that if you did run an experiment sending out resumes with stereotypically lower-class-white vs. stereotypically lower-class-black names, you would indeed see evidence of racial bias. But that’s just speculation until somebody actually runs that experiment; the existing resume experiments don’t directly demonstrate pure racial bias because we know that they’re confounded.

            My earlier musing about whether it would be possible even in principle was basically along the lines of “even if two people have the same income, if their socioeconomic environments are very different, can you meaningfully compare their results?” But then I realized that this is the whole point of the experiment and my objection was stupid.

          • MugaSofer says:

            >I wonder how you’d control for this.

            Send a photo, along with an identical – down to the name – CV. Some photos of black candidates, some of white candidates.

            But obviously not all CVs really come with photos, so what you should really be trying is a representative sample of black and white names, not just “stereotypical” black and white names.

          • I highly doubt you’d get more than a very small effect size if you did that. The names wouldn’t be different enough.

          • AJD says:

            More to the point, what we think of as “stereotypically black-sounding” names are actually stereotypically lower-class-black-sounding names, so that introduces an obvious confounding factor. I wonder how you’d control for this.

            Well, Bertrand & Mullainathan (2004) use level of education of mothers of children with a given first name, which they had direct data on, as a proxy for class status associated with a given first name. Unsurprisingly, the black first names in their study (Aisha, Latonya, Rasheed, Leroy, etc.) had uniformly lower levels of mother’s-education than the white first names (Emily, Meredith, Brendan, Jay, etc.). However, within each racial name group, higher levels of mother’s education did not correlate with higher rates of job-interview callbacks. (In fact, in each case there was a weak negative correlation—e.g., Aisha and Rasheed had the lowest callback rates but the highest mother’s-education scores among the black names.)

            There are various plausible interpretations of this—e.g., that employers do judge by class stereotype associated with a given name, but level of mother’s education isn’t a good proxy for that; or that employers are misinformed about relative class status associated with some names; or that employers’ are sensitive to differences in class status between “higher” and “lower” but not within the categories—but one of them is that class status isn’t what employers are responding to and race is.

            A study that actually paired black and white names of similar class status would be the best way to resolve this question, I agree.

        • Mary says:

          Especially since the worst name was a white male one — Geoff — and the overlap between the black and the white names was substantial. Some people looking at the lists concluded it was looking for normal names.

          I also observe that someone, having found data that listed the zip codes of where the mothers were born in some birth data, went and did the heavy crunching to determine that actually the names didn’t make any difference in reality. (Cited in one of the Freakonomics books.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      As Veronica said, it’s not too hard to get point estimates of these things (although a lot of people STILL mangle the attempt). Where the problem comes in is trying to find out to what degree X or Y causes longer term prejudice.

      This is really hard and I don’t have a good answer. Right now I think the way it’s generally done is laboratory studies like the one above – which have the problem I mentioned above – versus correlational studies. For example, you go to a bunch of people and ask them how many hours they watch TV per day, then give them a survey about racist attitudes, and if people who watch more TV are more racist, then maybe TV causes racism. But these are obviously potentially confounded – for example, maybe rich people both watch more TV and are more racist. One can try to adjust away confounders, but that never works.

      I don’t think there’s a great solution besides examining both of these types of experiments and hoping that their flaws sort of cancel out, which is optimistic to say the least. Sometimes you can get a quasi-experiment in (eg a state passes a law against racism on TV and then you can see if racism in real life decreases after that), but that’s rare and has problems of its own.

    • MugaSofer says:

      >>A big chunk of the science in the area of prejudice and racism is exactly like these Arab studies, unfortunately.

      >How then would you study prejudice and racism over the long term?

      Pay some kids to play videogames with X content, and some to play videogames with “control” content (like Tetris, as Scott suggests?) Give them tests every so often, see if there’s a trend.

      (I don’t think this has been done?)

  2. Matthew says:

    On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree with the main thrust of this. On the other hand, I think that, even though you can’t generalize from the short-term response of a single exposure to a stimulus, that doesn’t mean that repeated exposure to a stimulus on a daily basis won’t have an effect. It certainly does for habit formation; I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for mental habits. Playing GTA once in a lab for 15 minute !necessarily= playing GT for an hour every day for months.

    On a separate note, even if repeated exposure to the stimulus does have ill effects on mental habits, it’s still not clear that the net effect would be worse. Consider the porn consumption/rape example. It’s totally possible that porn consumption both increases the tendency of men to view women as agency-less objects for sexual gratification AND to provide an outlet for feelings of sexual aggression, and for the latter effect to swamp the former. The same goes for violent media and violent thought patterns/violent behavior.

    • Murphy says:

      If you were offered a pill for heart attacks and they said, “there’s 2 chemicals in this, we’ve not been able to purify it fully and when we tried it didn’t seem to work well as a whole. The whole pill seems to massively cut down on the risk of heart attack. we worry that one of the chemicals actually slightly increases your chances of having a heart attack but we can’t be sure because the other decreases it so much that the positive effect swamps the negative”

      Do you take the pill? how much do you even worry about the second chemical?

  3. This relates to something which I’ve wanted to ask on your blog for a while: What exactly is the deal with implicit association tests?

    You’ve cited them approvingly as an indicator of racism. Do they actually work for this purpose? How do we know? What’s the state of the evidence? If they reliably indicate racism, do they do so on an individual level (someone who scores poorly on an IAT is more likely to behave in an interaction with a black person in ways detrimental to that black person, compared to their interactions with a white person)? Or only on a societal level (black people are on average worse off compared to white people in societies where the average person scores worse on an IAT)?

    That’s too many questions, but the IAT struck me as the kind of thing that I would expect you to be skeptical of (regardless of my own feelings on it, which basically boil down to “I don’t know”), so I was surprised that you had positive things to say about it.

    • CThomas says:

      I share your skepticism. Educated people are primed from a young age to, when presented with paired stimuli in a test format, to draw connections between them. A timed test heightens the need to do so quickly. When faced with stimuli that the tested individual views as having no rational connection between them, such as racial identification and normative qualities, a person having to act quickly in this situation naturally and appropriately links them using now-long-rejected stereotypical associations of the sort we’ve all learned about in history classes. What other association is there to draw between these categories? That’s why it is easier to quickly pair the images and concepts in the manner found by these implicit-association tests. Of course, all this is speculative but it strikes me as far more intuitively plausible than the idea that these tests are ferreting out “unconscious attitudes” (whatever that phrase could mean) or the like.

      • MugaSofer says:

        I’m pretty sure that what you just described are unconscious attitudes.

        • Illuminati Initiate says:

          That doesn’t sound like unconscious attitudes, it sounds like awareness of the unconscious attitudes of others, or at least what they think are the unconscious attitudes of others.

    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      When I started to take an implicit association test for the hell of it I couldn’t proceed because my immediate response to most of the associations was that I don’t associate any of these things, so I didn’t know what to put down. Though I was “primed”(?) for it’s content I don’t think that taking it by surprise before I had heard of them would ended up any differently.

      Edit: I’m not neurotypical though, so my anecdote is quite possibly irrelevant.

  4. suntzuanime says:

    This is why it’s a really good idea to specifically cite the social science studies that you refer to instead of vaguely alluding to a popular science news article you read once.

  5. suntzuanime says:

    I have an acquaintance who’s a psychologist studying the videogames-violence interaction and he says he thinks the links that have been shown between violent videogames and aggression are an artifact of their choice of controls. Specifically the non-violent games that they use as controls tend to be slower and more sedately-paced than the violent games they use as a test, and it’s the excitement and adrenaline of playing an action game, not the violence per se that’s triggering the aggression that the studies are picking up.

    • That’s an exciting possibility, because such a thing should be easy to control for. You could have the control group play something like that level of Portal with the turrets. Has anybody done something like this?

      • suntzuanime says:

        At some point he was in the process of preparing to do it; I dunno if he’s still in that process, or in the process of writing it up, or in the process of trying to get it published, or if he failed to get published (possibly because he had a negative result.)

      • eqdw says:

        Or even a game like Metal Gear Solid, which is thematically violent but which has a very sedately-paced gameplay

    • Kyle says:

      But does that really mean we should be any more or less worried? I think you’ve highlighted how our preexisting conceptual categories allow us to believe these studies mean whatever we want them to mean.

      If all kinds of exciting games triggered aggression in the second part of the experiment, we’d likely interpret the results as meaning the subjects were merely excited.

      But if only violent games led to an increase in aggression, we’d be predisposed to interpret this as meaning they are also more likely to commit acts of violence, and we might push for social policies further limiting the sale of violent video games to minors and/or adults, based on the exact same behavior in the lab. This difference in response to the same behavior may be more or less reasonable depending on your Bayesian priors, but there is no overwhelming reason to distinguish the significance of this outcome categorically from the other possible outcome in which all video games could have caused aggression.

      I think this is the cognitive script we’re inclined to follow for these kinds of studies: we’ve already decided that the kind of aggression that follows from activities that are merely exciting can not possibly cause social problems worth worrying about, and this serves as a reference point to calibrate our attitudes to other instances of aggression. If the aggression that follows playing violent video games is of the same magnitude as any other exciting activity, it must be of the same kind. But if it is more intense, the difference in degree implies a difference in kind: since the outcome is inspired by violence, it probably causes violence, and probably causes enough violence to be worth worrying about.

      And that’s just violence in video games, which is kind of passe to get worked up about these days. There’s plenty of other social research in which a given outcome could be considered either the tiniest of trifles or a justification for screaming your lungs out in apoplectic righteous indignation depending on how you are inclined to categorize its cause.

      • suntzuanime says:

        I think the issue is not that we don’t think excitement could possibly cause problematic violent behavior, but that we are not about to take policy action to remove excitement from the lives of children. One hopes.

        The reason that “aggression that follows from activities that are merely exciting can not possibly cause social problems worth worrying about” is that it’s not worth worrying about something you can’t change. We could conceivably ban children from playing violent videogames (although the civil libertarians would kick up a fuss), we would never ban children from getting excited.

    • Icicle says:

      I am suddenly extremely interested in what would happen if these studies were done on extremely difficult levels full of rage and tears on the player’s behalf. Think “Jumper”, “I Wanna Be The Guy”, “N”, and “Super Meat Boy”. I bet they would be even more strongly associated with violence.

  6. 27chaos says:

    Can we talk for a second about the magic of Tetris? It has unique effects on visual processing that help people to block out trauma, and mental images of blocks falling can persist in people’s minds for hours after prolonged play. It also boosts willpower. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetris

    Tetris is in some sense functionally equivalent to an already prepared antidote for Godelian Basilisk exposure; Tetris is the phoenix tears of brain gaming. Basilisks use complex jagged fractals, Tetris uses regular predictable motion of squares. Tetris is fun, Basilisks are spooky. The contrast is awesome. Tetris is the best game there is, objectively. Fact. (More seriously, it wins polls and competitions of popularity all the time.)

    I would be interested in seeing if playing Tetris between learning sessions increased performance (relative to ?). Tetris is basically magic so I suspect it would, crazy as that might seem. Anyone who is willing to try dual n-back should definitely be giving Tetris some time as well, in my opinion.

    • AR+ says:

      “I would be interested in seeing if playing Tetris between learning sessions increased performance (relative to ?). Tetris is basically magic so I suspect it would, crazy as that might seem.”

      My immediate response was to pattern-match this to non-video game Halo Bias, and then, “You seem to be treating ‘is magic’ as some sort of magical goodness-fluid that…

      …wait.”

      • 27chaos says:

        Haha, amazing.

        To defend the hyperbole a bit, as that link shows, Tetris has some seriously beefy effects on general cognition when done over a long period of time (especially relative to other popular sorts of programs!). So it’s really not too much of a stretch to say it might also improve memory consolidation in the short term.

        • AR+ says:

          In my defense, a world in which magic exists would see actual magic subject to the same gross abuses of reason as all actual physics have been. This irritates me as much in fiction as it does in real-life, when I’m getting into the world, which means accepting magic as real, and then somebody explains something as “magic lol” as if it were a universal explanation. Sometimes it’s even abused as badly as quantum mechanics!

          Well, usually not that badly.

        • Anonymous says:

          especially relative to other popular sorts of programs

          What? I didn’t see a single comparison in those citations. (except the tetris effect, which is universal)

          • 27chaos says:

            I was not making any specific comparison. Only noting that there are some popular interventions which do not work. Like Nintendo Brain Age, for example. Odd to realize we’ve had Tetris forever yet Brain Age is the more popular less effective cognitive game.

          • Anonymous says:

            Are you really judging the two by the same standard? or is it that you are quoting a study of tetris by authors who wanted to find an effect and a study of brain age by authors who wanted to find no effect?

          • 27chaos says:

            Brain age specifically has been studied repeatedly and found to be useless. Tetris has not been studied as often, I will admit. But your skepticism seems one sided if you’re pretending there aren’t unusual things about Tetris which make it worth looking into. Feigning indifference between Brain Age and Tetris is somewhat like giving creationists and evolutionists equal speaking time in news.

          • Anonymous says:

            Name one unusual thing about Tetris which make it worth looking into. A study which says it is good doesn’t retroactively justify itself.

            It is important that the two games are compared by the same methodology, and really that means by the same group. Making deductions by combing two psychology studies is almost always a mistake.

    • The Tetris effect is honestly kind of creepy. I never spent much very much time playing Tetris, but there were three video games that I spent a large amount of time playing as a young child, and a sort of amalgamation of the three of them got permanently burned into my brain. I’ve hardly played any of those games at all in many years, but even now I still see certain visual elements of them, interacting in ways inspired by those games’ physics, going through my brain. I suspect this will continue to be the case for the rest of my life.

      On the other hand, this could just be a symptom of non-neurotypicality. (I should also note that I consider my visual-spatial abilities to be not very good.)

      • 27chaos says:

        Which games?

        • Nornagest says:

          I got the Tetris effect playing Command and Conquer: Red Alert when I was much younger (probably dating myself here), although I’d attribute that partly to the excellent soundtrack.

        • Randy M says:

          Anyone else still see Mario jumping on wall paper patterns?

          • Karmakin says:

            Yup! Still get that at times.

            The two games that gave me the effect the strongest were Puyo Puyo games (a Tetris-y style game).

            And Tony Hawk.

            I turned every place I saw into a Tony Hawk level for a while there.

        • The games in question were The Incredible Machine, which I suspect is fondly remembered by many geek-inclined people of a certain age bracket, and the Game Boy Advance games Metroid: Zero Mission and Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, which I really just played because they happened to be available.

          I played the Pokémon series even more heavily, but it didn’t have this effect due to being an RPG without any physics elements.

      • Army1987 says:

        Hell, even when I was playing chess I got effects like that (but they waned a couple weeks after I stopped playing).

        • Cauê says:

          Yeah, I had this bad from MtG for a while. Kind of scary trying to figure out which card to use to silence the alarm clock, instead of just extending my arm and pushing the button.

          But it didn’t last long.

          • Really? I find that very strange, because I can’t imagine this happening to me with a game that didn’t have some kind of physics; it’s a visual thing. (And I was pretty obsessed with Magic for many years; I’m pretty sure it would have hijacked my brain like that if it had ever had the potential to.)

            Also, I’m reminded of the famous comic My Obsession with Chess by Scott McCloud. It seems highly applicable.

          • Cauê says:

            It’s a bit hard to explain, and it almost always happened when waking up/before sleep. I’d say that when my mind was required to act it would approach the task in a similar way as it approached tactics and strategy in the game. “Using cards” was the way to act upon the world, so “which card” was the response to the alarm clock.

            Deckbuilding and strategy patterns of thought also mixed with real world elements in these moments, but I don’t think I can explain how that felt, sorry.

        • Matthew says:

          Back when I was playing Go online on a daily basis, I’d have it running through my head while waiting to fall asleep every night.

    • Am I the only person who hates Tetris and will only play it if it’s literally the only amusement available?

  7. nemryn says:

    And do you remember that thing that happened in Final Fantasy VII, with that one character (no spoilers)? Really sad.

    Man, don’t remind me. I spent forever leveling up Cait Sith. ;_;

    • Christopher says:

      Jokes; everyone knows that the saddest moment by miles was when Nanaki found out the truth about his father. But hey, no spoilers guys.

      • Clockwork Marx says:

        The first scene in the ruined world in VI was bleaker then anything in VII, although things pick up quickly afterwards.

        • Error says:

          I think I agree.

          When I got my partner to play VI, I insisted on playing that part for her just to evade the event in question. Because holy shit it’s depressing if you fail.

  8. Cold doesn’t permanently change children’s thermoregulation and cause them to be more likely to wear a sweater twenty years later, it just causes an immediate reaction… Remove stimulus, remove response.

    This reminds me of research on subjective well-being suggesting that people have a happiness “set point” that they generally tend to return to over time. That is, life events tend to increase or decrease happiness in the short-term, but more often than not people will return to a baseline level of happiness that they maintain over the long-term. For example, as I recall, a study on lottery winners found that immediately after winning the lottery people experienced an intense increase in happiness, as one would expect. However, a year after winning they reported being about as happy in general as they were before winning. Negative life events tend to have a converse effect, i.e. initial decrease in happiness, followed by recovery of baseline levels in the long-term. (Although there do appear to be important exceptions, e.g. people who have been widowed tend to experience a recovery in their subjective well-being with time after the initial period of grieving, but may not return to baseline levels even after a few years.) This has been referred to as the “hedonic treadmill” and one explanation is that people become habituated to their circumstances over time. That is, after a while they take good things for granted, and learn to tolerate bad things. A similar principle might apply to aggression. People might have a baseline level of aggressiveness which may be perturbed in the short-term, e.g. by playing a violent video game, but in the long-term they experience habituation to the aggressive stimulus and return to their baseline. Aggressiveness, like subjective well-being, is probably influenced to a large extent by one’s personality traits, which in turn seem to be influenced by genetic factors. Some researchers think that people might be able to achieve a long-term increase in their subjective well-being above baseline levels by making a conscious effort to engage in activities that increase happiness. Similarly, it might be possible for a person to effect long-term changes in their aggressiveness (preferably to make them less so!) but I suspect it would take effort to prevent habituation. I admit that I am speculating to an extent here.

    • Liskantope says:

      This reminds me of research on subjective well-being suggesting that people have a happiness “set point” that they generally tend to return to over time. That is, life events tend to increase or decrease happiness in the short-term, but more often than not people will return to a baseline level of happiness that they maintain over the long-term.

      I haven’t looked into any studies on this, but I’ve found that it applies to my own life and have often remarked upon it to friends. I am of course also being very speculative in suggesting this, but I think it’s a probably a built-in coping mechanism for many people. Actually, it serves the purpose of not only making it easier to cope during harder times, but giving one more motivation to keep climbing rather than rest on one’s laurels during easier times. (Although, of course from an altruistic point of view it’s also important not to take one’s good fortune for granted during easier times.)

  9. Shmi Nux says:

    You would fit right in at the FESTIVAL of BAD AD HOC HYPOTHESES http://bahfest.com/

    In fact you could be a keynote speaker… Though it is hard to beat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94_omZ2RnfI#t=36

  10. Tracy W says:

    I think Judith Harris’s point was that the kid’s behaviour might be causing the parent to yell.

    Though she gives the more mild example of a mother and her two kids walking past Harris’s house and thus Harris’s dog. Harris’s dog ran up and barked at them through the fence. The mother’s daughter said something like “Mummy, I want to pet the doggy”, the mother’s (presumed) son was nervous and tried to hide behind her. The mother said to the daughter “I don’t think the doggy wants you to pet it” and to the son “It’s okay dear, the doggy won’t hurt you.” So she was suppressing the daughter’s bravery and encouraging the son’s bravery. She was treating the two kids differently.

    (Obviously none of this justifies emotional abuse of children.)

    • Abby says:

      Err no. She was “suppressing the daughter’s bravery” by encouraging her to consider the feelings of another being rather than charging ahead at a whim and “encouraging the son’s bravery” by comforting him when he was afraid.

      The anecdote does not give us any reason to believe that she wasn’t also “suppressing the son’s bravery” and “encouraging the daughter’s bravery” in the same way.

      Neither approaching nor showing fear is the reasonable behavior towards strange dogs, and she encouraged both kids to be reasonable.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Yes, so they’re both reasonable when they’re around her, but when removed from her influence the daughter will revert to unchecked bravery and the son to unchecked cowardice. I think that was the point.

      • Tracy W says:

        Well, if you like. The main point was that she was treating her children differently in response to their behaviours.

        • Randy M says:

          Right, which is a valid point, but a quick reading of you comment makes it sound as if your are making a charge of sexism in the mother (look how she is encouraging the boy and suppressing the girl!) when in reality both behaviors needed to be nudged towards a more reasonable median. I think that’s what Abby was responding to.

          • Tracy W says:

            I don’t really see the sexism. Both kids were acting against gender stereotypes. And I find it hard to imagine that many mothers, no matter how sexist, would want their sons to be bitten by a dog. Who needs an extra trip to A&E?

            Out of curiousity, what do you think a non-sexist mother would do in this situation?

          • Randy M says:

            I think the mother did the right thing, and in recounting it to her friends latter they would tell her not to inhibit her daughter and her son doesn’t need anymore encouragement to be aggressive, he is male after all. That is, if they were of a certain sort rather concerned with making sure people act against gender stereotypes.

  11. Darcey Riley says:

    Yay, thank you for writing about this! These kinds of studies have bothered me for ages.

    Also, it’s really, really interesting that you can replace “anger” with “sadness” and all of a sudden the video game example seems really dumb. Why do we as a culture have such different intuitions about sadness and anger? Why do we understand that sadness is a temporary, contextualized state, but we don’t think about anger and aggression in the same way? Is it because of cultural models of how emotions work? Experiences of these emotions in our own lives?

    • Oscar_Cunningham says:

      I think Scott’s analogy is flawed.
      Anger -> Aggressive personality
      isn’t the same as
      Sadness -> Depression.
      Depression feels more like hopelessness or lack of energy than it feels like my-goldfish-just-died sadness.

      So I think the “repeated sadness causes depression” hypothesis sounds stupid just because sadness and depression don’t really correspond to each other.

      Suppose instead the hypothesis was that watching sad movies caused people to become upset more easily. I think this hypothesis sounds about as plausible as the corresponding anger hypothesis.

      EDIT: On the other hand, Scott is a legit doctor who knows more about depression than I do. So maybe I’m wrong about the difference between depression and sadness.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        You’re mostly right, although there are different kinds of depression (eg melancholic vs. atypical) and some of them can present more like normal sadness.

        I wasn’t praising this as a good hypothesis, I was just trying to come up with an appropriate contrast to the violence -> aggression claim.

    • Not sure if it’s actually the case that we see anger as more permanent than sadness, but if it were, I think it would be due to risk-aversion.

      We model other people has having particular emotions or dispositions in order to predict their behavior, but we care most about predicting the behavior that will directly affect us. Someone else being sad is much less likely to directly impact you than someone else being angry. As such, anger is weighted heavier in our model of the other person, and thus feels more “permanent.”

      (Epistemic status: total conjecture :P)

  12. Brian Potter says:

    Judith Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption makes the bold claim that most differences in how parents bring up their children don’t really change the children’s long-term outcomes that much. This obviously contradicts a wide body of research, and she goes at length into why she thinks the wide body of research is wrong.

    Is this true? I was under the impression that the wide body of research in fact showed the same thing, that parents’ choices don’t change child outcomes appreciably.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, it really is a bold claim. The conventional wisdom is that parenting matters and there is a tremendous literature on correlates of parenting. While there is a small literature that attempts to control for parental genetics, she was the first person to tell the public about it (other than IQ), and the first to point out that it contradicts the large literature, rather than just ignoring it. The ultimate source of your impression is probably her 1998 book.

      Also, she performed a lot of meta-analysis and found that many of the correlates aren’t even true as correlations.

    • JayMan says:

      @Brian Potter:

      Yes it is true. See my comment below.

    • Mary says:

      If I recall correctly, she said that adoption showed that the children, not being genetically related, had no correlation at all with the parents. Which proves that their peers were the influence.

      To which I say, if your parents have no influence on whom you choose as your peers, it’s more likely that your peers are a consequence of your character than vice versa.

      • Tracy W says:

        She didn’t. She said two things: 1) that parenting didn’t have much influence, leaving aside the extremes, once you controlled for genetics.
        2) She speculated that peers were more important, and provided some suggestive evidence that they might be. Eg kids acquire their peers’ accents and language, not their parents, the development of sign language in Deaf schools, a few studies of cultural changes when kids shift peer groups. But she was quite clear this was tentative, mostly because not much research has been done on the peer hypothesis.

        And she does explicitly include that a kid has a certain amount of power to choose their peer group.

      • JayMan says:

        @Mary:

        Which proves that their peers were the influence.

        To which I say, if your parents have no influence on whom you choose as your peers, it’s more likely that your peers are a consequence of your character than vice versa.

        No, it just proves parents have no influence. It doesn’t prove peer influence, and indeed, evidence is indicating that peers have none.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      As always, there are wide bodies of research on both sides.

      • JayMan says:

        @Scott Alexander:

        When it comes to research, quantity takes a backseat to quality my friend.

        Indeed, this very post is about that fact.

        I have to be frank here, in this context, that was a really silly thing to say (this is considering that it is technically true; it is nonetheless meaningless by itself).

  13. Wes says:

    I think that’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

  14. JayMan says:

    Judith Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption makes the bold claim that most differences in how parents bring up their children don’t really change the children’s long-term outcomes that much. This obviously contradicts a wide body of research, and she goes at length into why she thinks the wide body of research is wrong.

    And, for the record, she is correct:

    The Son Becomes The Father | JayMan’s Blog

    More Behavioral Genetic Facts | JayMan’s Blog

    I don’t have the book here, so I’m working from memory and it’s going to be more a general form than a specific example, but – suppose that some scientists find mothers who yell at their kids, and mothers who don’t yell at their kids, and find that the children of the yellers act out more and cause more trouble. You can conclude – and a lot of psychologists did – that yelling changes kids’ personalities and makes them more aggressive or rebellious or have some other trait desire to act out.

    Well, there’s two effects operating here. One of course is heredity: short-tempered, antagonistic parents are going to have troublesome kids.

    And that leads to the second effect: child-to-parent effects. A badly behaved kid is going to illicit more discipline.

    Only behavioral genetic methods can decompose those effects. See above for the results.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I think this a very incorrect reading of the Arab study you’ve given

    >Here’s an article called Arabs as terrorists: Effects of stereotypes within violent contexts on attitudes, perceptions, and affect. Participants consume some media with depictions of terrorist Arabs in it. Then they are asked what they think of Arabs. They are more likely than the control group to say they think of Arabs as terrorists. Therefore, media with stereotypical portrayals causes people to stereotype groups in various ways.

    …but in the actual abstract, we see that they are saying something much less stupid and more important than that.

    Terrorist games *without arabs* primed people against Arabs. *Non-violent* games containing peaceful Arab characters primed people for anti-arab sentiment. That’s pretty clear evidence of long-term Arab-terrorism associations in people’s minds – violence primes Arab, and Arab primes violence.

    The bit about games containing both terrorist AND arabs priming anti-arab sentiment is just showing cumulative effects. It’s not particularly important to the study.

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s a more complicated priming that Scott said, but so what? The paper is still studying short-term priming because that is easy, and it is still in the actual abstract asserting that it tells us about long term priming.

      The abstract also says that this shows “the presence of a strong associative link,” but there are easier ways to test that. The paper is quite explicit that the motivation is the shaping of beliefs, not their mere presence.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thank you for pointing that out. You’re right that I missed that subtlety. But I think your describing my reading as “very incorrect” is wrong.

      Experiment I included both an Arab-terrorist game and a Russian-terrorist game. The Arab terrorist game made people’s depictions of Arabs significantly more prejudiced than the control (mini golf) game. The Russian terrorist game did not. Their finding was complicated, in that the results of the Russian game were “not significantly different” from either the Arab game or the golf game condition, but the Arab game condition was different from the golf game condition, but if we’re going solely on significant differences, the claim that Arab game worked and Russian game didn’t is supportable. In any case, the Arab game raised prejudice more than the Russian game and this was the first and most discussed experiment they did, not “not particularly important to the study”.

      I think your description of the second experiment is wrong as well; to quote the article, “The nonviolent Arab game did not differ from the golf game, suggesting that it is the portrayal of Arabs as enemy/terrorist targets that caused an increase in implicit anti-Arab attitude, not merely the portrayal of stereotypical Arab characters and setting.”

      • Raoul says:

        If the Arab game was barely significant and the Russian one was barely non-significant then they could have had essentially identical results.

        See Erroneous analyses of interactions in neuroscience: a problem of significance for discussion of this sort of comparison.

      • Anonymous says:

        (same anon)

        I’m now confused. Quoting directly from the abstract:

        >… inclusion of
        Arab characters in a nonviolent game was sufficient to increase anti-Arab attitudes…

        and

        >…Third, playing a terrorism
        themed game even without Arab characters led to higher anti-Arab attitudes…

        I don’t have time to read beyond the abstract, but that’s a direct contradiction to the portions of the passage you quoted. What’s going on? How did this pass review?

        EDIT: Oh, I get it. There are 3 experiments. You’re quoting from passages which describe individual experiments, whereas I’m quoting from the abstract, and if any one of three experiments found a positive result they put it in the abstract.

        I guess how you feel about this study depends on how you think multiple comparisons should be reported.

        Just eyeballing the figures though, I think (assuming the non-displayed error bars are tiny, which might be a bad assumption) it does suggest that that people ARE primed towards “Arabs are terrorists” via contexts which are only about Arabs or only about Terrorists (rather than about both Arabs and Terrorists), which does indicate a long term problem rather than just a short term priming effect.

  16. a person says:

    It seems mindblowing to me that violent video games might not cause real-world violence. The majority of popular video games are pretty much just murder simulators devoid of artistic merit – the thrill of the game comes largely from the thrill of the kill. Not only is violence normalized but it’s explicitly rewarded in most instances. Grand Theft Auto is one of the most popular games out there and most people who pick it up initially play it for the thrill of pretending to drive around a city indiscriminately killing innocent people and causing mayhem. The actual plot is only a little tamer. And most young boys are exposed to these games in early adolescence.

    If it really is true that violent video games don’t cause real-world violence, I feel like that is a massive piece of evidence in favor of “social interventions matter much less than we think”, as previously discussed on this blog.

    • The majority of violent video games provide a thrill in the form of fast-paced action, skill-testing competition, and immersive environments. They aren’t remotely murder simulators, and an actual realistic murder simulator, of the kind that could desensitize someone to actual murder, has never been made AFAIK, would be extremely disturbing, and probably wouldn’t sell very well.

      • a person says:

        Grand Theft Auto V was the fastest selling entertainment product in history – it earned a billion dollars in the first three days. In my experience, most people who play this game for the first time immediately take the opportunity to go around and slaughter civilians, something that takes no skill – they don’t fight back. The only thrill is the thrill of the kill.

        Other popular shooters like CoD or Halo obviously involve skill and competition, but still, the best part of the game is the kill. Right now hundreds of twelve year old boys are probably cackling “headshot, bitch!” into their headsets, reveling in glee. “Double kill! Triple kill! KILLING SPREE!” the announcer in Halo exclaims with increasing vigor as the kill count ratches upwards. These games would have very little appeal if they took out the violence and replaced it with something isomorphic like squirt guns or something.

        Even in the fanatically praised Bioshock Infinite all the player does is violently and bloodily slash their way through hordes and hordes of bad guys. But because there’s an admittedly pretty cool environment and an incredibly pointless “mindblowing” plot twist at the end, gamers extoll the game as art of the highest caliber. In reality it’s just another murder simulator with a thin veneer of sophistication.

        To me, saying that these games don’t increase violent tendecies in people is tantamount to saying that the media never affects anyone, ever.

        (Sorry for the polemic.)

        EDIT: Also, this is probably a much more direct response to your point. The Manhunt series of games, which I have never played myself, apparently are extremely graphic execution simulators and nothing more, and the games have sold 1.7 million copies worldwide. These games were developed by the same companies that made Grand Theft Auto.

        • Nornagest says:

          These games would have very little appeal if they took out the violence and replaced it with something isomorphic like squirt guns or something.

          Death and the use of weapons probably have something to do with the power fantasy inherent in violent games, so I’m not saying they have no effect, but I still think you’re putting this far too strongly. Concretely, I’m willing to bet reasonable sums at even odds that Splatoon will be a commercial success at least on par with midrange traditional shooters.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          These games would have very little appeal if they took out the violence and replaced it with something isomorphic like squirt guns or something.

          Consider that the bloodless Bloons TD 5 is currently the most popular game on Kongregate, beating out similar but more violent tower defense games like Kingdom Rush and Cursed Treasure.

          • Nornagest says:

            To be fair, tower-defense games tend to target massively different demographics than traditional shooters.

        • suntzuanime says:

          People cackle with glee when they get headshots because they’ve succeeded in a difficult competitive test of skill. If you watch people play difficult platformers (e.g. I Wanna Be The Guy) there is a similar exultation in success at a difficult jumping section, even though the only gruesome death that occurs is if you fail.

          I think you’re not being fair to these games, you seem to have a strong emotional reaction to them. Have you been playing too many cultural censorship simulators?

          • a person says:

            Yeah, I do have a strong emotional reaction to these games, mainly because I believe that the medium has immense potential to be used to create incredible works of art, but instead most video games are incredibly similar to one another and serve primarily as vehicles to indulge in the absolute basest desires of adolescent boys. Of course there is tons of demand for the latter and almost none for the former. The most artistic game I know of (obviously a distinction I don’t expect everyone to agree with), Metal Gear Solid 2, was pretty much hated by its intended demographic.

            I have a ton of ideas about this but unfortunately given how many man-hours are needed to create a video game I can’t really do anything about it. Even making a relatively primitive video game seems like a gargantuan task for one dude.

            So yeah, that’s me. However, I think that most people who defend violent video games are also motivated by extreme emotional reactions. Pretty much anywhere on the internet whenever condemnation of violent games is discussed people absolutely lose their shit and the ability to think logically. (“I’ve played all the GTA games and I’ve never killed anybody, QED.”)

          • blacktrance says:

            Why should these “great works of art” be created if no one wants them? If people enjoy indulging their base desires, what’s wrong with that? It’s fun and it doesn’t hurt anyone. This is like complaining about people going to McDonalds instead of gourmet restaurants – it’s a matter of taste, and taste is subjective.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Not the *absolute* basest desires. (Well ok, there are a few rape simulators in Japan, but they are not very mainstream.)

            Works of art sometimes have violence in them. Guernica, the Illiad, Fate/Stay Night; heck, the 1812 Overture involves firing literal IRL cannons. Violence is an important part of the human experience, and you seem to just dismiss that. (I agree that Bioshock Infinite and GTA V are not good art, but I don’t think their violence is the problem.)

            I forget which Metal Gear games are which, did Metal Gear Solid 2 have the Close-Quarters Combat system where you would press buttons to grapple with a guy to take him hostage and depending on how hard you pressed a button you would slit his throat? That always struck me as more viscerally violent than most so-called “murder simulators”.

          • AR+ says:

            Given the large number of highly-varied “arty” games put out by the indie scene over the past decade, your objection doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like you’re more complaining about the lack of hundred-million dollar arty games than arty games themselves, which, well, yeah? Did you complain about the blue-elf Avatar being derivative when it came out, to?

            Maybe you should try some of the games praised by Errant Signal. He seems like your type.

          • a person says:

            Why should these “great works of art” be created if no one wants them?

            I think it’s a co-ordination problem type thing. Everyone hates Justin Bieber, and yet he’s one of the biggest pop artists alive. Most people want more artistically rich media, and yet the market churns out sludge. Like how on Reddit, everyone is constantly complaining about how terrible the highly upvoted posts on the front page are. In some fields, the sludge completely takes over. In others, it’s held back by people virtuously holding their media consumption to a higher standard. There isn’t massive yearning for more artistic video games because the idea isn’t available to most people, but I believe that the world would be a better place if they existed, just like how most people think the world is a better place with the existence of art museums even though in reality they cater to a small group of people.

            If people enjoy indulging their base desires, what’s wrong with that? It’s fun and it doesn’t hurt anyone.

            [citation needed]

            This is like complaining about people going to McDonalds instead of gourmet restaurants – it’s a matter of taste, and taste is subjective.

            No, it’s like complaining that there’s a McDonalds on every street corner in the city and that gourmet restaurants do not exist.

            suntzuanime: You accuse me in your second paragraph of dismissing the idea that violence has a place in works of art, then in your third paragraph you correctly point out that I praised a work that contains violence, effectively rebutting yourself. :p

          • suntzuanime says:

            I’m just trying to understand you. It sounds like you don’t have a problem with violent games after all, but with shitty games? I’m no fan of shitty games myself.

          • a person says:

            I guess I have two different problems.

            My first problem is with violent video games, which I suspect might cause violence. I am against things that cause violence. If it turned out that it was proven that violent video games did not cause violence, I wouldn’t have a problem with them.

            My second problem is with shitty games, where shitty equals with no or little artistic merit. I only brought this up because you asked if I had a strong emotional reactions to these games. All four games I mentioned (GTA, CoD, Halo, Bioshock Infinite) are in my opinion violent and shitty.

          • blacktrance says:

            I think it’s a co-ordination problem type thing. Everyone hates Justin Bieber, and yet he’s one of the biggest pop artists alive. Most people want more artistically rich media, and yet the market churns out sludge. Like how on Reddit, everyone is constantly complaining about how terrible the highly upvoted posts on the front page are.

            I don’t see the coordination problem there. If everyone hates Justin Bieber, why is he so popular? Yes, there are some people who dislike him, but there are also many people who like him. Something similar goes for Reddit – not everyone complains about front page content. The people who like it usually don’t say anything and express their preferences by upvoting, and there are more upvoters than downvoters. The dissatisfied are a vocal minority. You think that people are secretly yearning for art, but, in addition to previously mentioned artistic indie games, look at movies for contrast. There are plenty of artistic movies, and people are vaguely aware that they exist, but they don’t seek them out because they prefer things like Transformers.

            As for people wanting more artistically rich media, how do you know it’s not social desirability bias? Just like it’d be low-status to say that McDonald’s is your favorite place to eat, it’s high-status to voice a preference for sophisticated media, even if that’s not what you really like.

            [citation needed]

            Playing a violent video game doesn’t hurt any real people. Even if it leads to real-life violent behavior, the act of playing the game itself still doesn’t hurt anyone.

            No, it’s like complaining that there’s a McDonalds on every street corner in the city and that gourmet restaurants do not exist.

            It’s legitimate to complain that your tastes aren’t being met, but if your tastes are uncommon, why should content creators try to appeal to you?

    • Cauê says:

      I think that the coincidence of the rise of videogames with the dramatic fall in violence in the last 15 or 20 years should at the very least have ended worries of a strong pro-violence effect. e.g. http://www.economist.com/node/21541166

      (my personal expectations are opposite to yours – judging by my experience playing violent games it seems ludicrous that they would make people more violent)

      • Scott Alexander says:

        That doesn’t seem right to me. Suppose we would be worried about videogames’ effects if they increased violence by at least 5% (that sounds pretty bad).

        Violent crime fell something like 50% in the past couple of decades. We don’t know for sure what caused it, but how should we know that the real fall wasn’t 55%, but then it also rose 5% because of the effect of violent video games?

        • Cauê says:

          Yes, it’s a good point. I confess I was thinking of a more popular view of the effects of violent games, which appears to expect a difference greater than 5%, and certainly doesn’t take into account a 50% reduction in violent crime, as people apparently don’t realize it declined at all: http://www.thecrimereport.org/news/articles/2013-05-pew-public-unaware-of-gun-violence-decline.

          (the phrasing of “It seems mindblowing to me that violent video games might not cause real-world violence” probably got me thinking in that frame, rather than about precise scholarly research)

          I’ll modify my claim to “this raises the bar enough that it should never be the default position”.

        • Quixote says:

          Well, that’s a more complex theory. If two numbers move in a way that seems very correlated the first most simple theory is that it’s just a coincidence.

          The second most simple theory is that it’s related some way.

          The theory that one number would move 55% and it instead moves 50% because the other number causes a negative 5 effect not directly observable in itself but detectable in another number move if5% less than it otherwise counter factually would have is less simple. So without a really good theoretical reason to expect this we probably shouldn’t prefer it to other theories.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      My unscientific hypothesis is that violent games satisfy an instinct for violent play, which exists in lots of species, and our brains are pretty good at separating play and real violence such that engaging in the former doesn’t particularly incline one towards the latter.

    • J. Quinton says:

      When I play GTA, I don’t feel any empathy for the NPCs. This is markedly different from IRL “NPCs”. As a matter of fact, playing GTA makes think that that is how clinical psychopaths must feel about people in real life.

      • Nornagest says:

        GTA-style sandbox games tend to put some effort into making the NPCs unrelatable; bad to nonexistent AI did the trick back in the Nineties, but these days it’s more fashionable to make everyone outside the protagonist faction an obnoxious asshole living in an unlivable world.

        It doesn’t always work. I couldn’t get more than a quarter of the way into any of the Saints Row games because I was sick of the expectation that I’d blow away (run over, blow up, set on fire, drown in feces…) dozens of bystanders without a thought. This seems to be separate from moral scruples or any issues with gore, though; I like playing intelligent villains and don’t have any trouble with the average shooter or horror game.

    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      Define “artistic merit”.

      No really. People use that term but it seems to be entirely synonymous with “I personally liked it and not in a “guilty pleasure” kind of way”. But then they act as if it is an objective fact and that different tastes are inferior somehow…

      • Nornagest says:

        Well, it’s pretty inarguable that games in most genres are less narratively complex than novels, or even a lot of TV or films, even when they’re written by people with comparable literary chops. That’s just a fact of the format; a game’s writer doesn’t have as much control over the story as someone writing for a non-interactive medium, and putting in the kind of event tracking that you need to fake it is hard and expensive.

        (This is more in the nature of a tradeoff than a fixed rule, though; the more effort you put in and the less interactivity you allow in a certain part of the storyline, the more complicated and nuanced you can make its narrative. There are games that have the complexity of literature, but they tend to play like illustrated novels with a few choices thrown in for flavor.)

        Thematic complexity is a different story, and settings and characterization in games can be as good as you’d find in all but the best novels.

        • Jake says:

          Narrative complexity may well be anticorrelated with artistic merit, at least according to the critical consensus. I’m pretty sure that the typical airplane novel has quite a bit more plot than the typical literary novel, for example. If you compare mainstream movies to art movies the difference is even more pronounced.

      • a person says:

        Way too long for a blog comment, sorry.

        • Susebron says:

          Not necessarily. There are some long comments on here. You could at least try to sum it up, if it’s still too long.

          • a person says:

            The thing is if I try to sum it up in a short way it probably won’t be understandable, and then I’ll probably get comments requesting clarification and elaboration, which I’ll feel compelled to respond to, which is a can of worms I don’t want to open.

            I’ll humor you and do it anyway though. IME art is primarily about two things, 1: the manipulation of forms and attributes and 2: communicating information, which is not always information of a concrete, analytical kind, but oftentimes more of a sub-rational series of impressions. Increasing artistic merit on both attributes can be modeled as increasing information content.

            In general though we shouldn’t need a precise definition of a concept to discuss it. It’s sometimes useful / necessary to discuss things that can’t be concretely pinned down. e.g. debates on LW about what exactly is the meaning of rationality. Most people operate with, believe and value the concept of artistic merit, it’s only when lowbrow works they enjoy are criticized that they call the idea into question.

  17. Princess_Stargirl says:

    Even if the effect was short term one could imagine playing violent video games leading to more violence. Say people are (on average) signifigantly more agressive for the next 20 minutes per hour of violent videogames played. So if a person plays 3 hours they will be more agressive for one hour after stopping.

    Many people play a large amount of videogames (no judging I surf the internet for hours and hours a day) this might mean that they are in a state of elevated agression for 1 hour or more a day. 1 our a day is alot of time to be at a higher risk of committing violent actions. Depending on how strong the (admittedly temporary) effect is playing violent videogames might make a person much more likely to commit a violent action. Though the effect won’t persist if they ever quit the games.

    I am not claiming videogames cause violence (I don’t think they have a big effect anyway). But I do think that showing the effects are temporary isn’t nescessarily enough to show some videogames aren’t causing social damage.

    • Anonymous says:

      Priming studies always produce effects that are small. If the measured effects were all, there would be no point. They are of interest because there might be different primes that are more effective (not relevant to this post), or because they might have a cumulative effect.

    • Null Hypothesis says:

      I understand your qualification at the end – I’m only talking about your argument here; not your conclusions. So with that:

      Your argument relies on two things.

      1) That the temporary effect is cumulative. Ie, that one “stores up” aggressiveness from playing video-games. It is possible that one is aggressive for 20min after 1 hour or 10 hours of playing Grand Theft Auto. It’s possible that one is aggressive for 20minutes after 1 hour of play, which will continue even if they continue playing (they mellow out while continuing to play, leaving little or no after effects.

      2) Let’s take your point as correct though. 3 hours of playtime causes 1 hour of aggressiveness, which can cause significant social damage when it occurs on a large scale.

      If you want to place the onus for that social damage on the videogames, you must also CREDIT the videogames for consuming 3 hours of people’s time, where they are in front of a screen, and the worst they can do is remind me how many times they slept with my mother.

      If you told me that this new drug will render thugs slightly more aggressive for an hour a day, but also render them catatonic for three hours aday, I’d start dumping it into the water supply before you could tell me the proper dosage. Opportunity cost MUST be considered for a fail analysis. There are no solutions; only trade-offs. Rape-rates suggest internet porn is a very good tradeoff, and crime rates suggest videogames are much the-same.

  18. RCF says:

    “Participants consume some media with depictions of terrorist Arabs in it.”

    That sentence gave me an odd mental image.

  19. Null Hypothesis says:

    “TV was found to be responsible for 150% of the current suicide epidemic after 10,000 men were shown the Futurama Episode with Fry’s dog in a lab setting, and then expressed slight, commiserate depression about its ending over the internet.”

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