Book Review

by Gloria DeGaetano

Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents:
Theory, Research, and Public Policy

by Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, Katherine E. Buckley
Oxford University Press, 2007.

A Necessary Guide for Parents and Parent Educators

Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents is an indispensable tool for parents and professionals who want to have important knowledge to make wise decisions about video game use in the lives of children and teens. One of the most exasperating challenges about trying to communicate about the negative effects of violent video games is that well-intentioned adults often say, "But the verdict is not in yet on whether violent video game play is all that harmful. Video games are too new to have acquired any compelling data." Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley comprehensively slice through this, and other inaccurate and misleading arguments, that have been used to prevent parents, professionals, and policy-makers to deal productively with this critical issue.

Divided into three parts, the book can be picked up at any juncture to enlighten the reader on the complexities of interpreting the research and in understanding violent video game play in the context of bio-social and developmental factors. Part 1, The Introduction, provides a background on the history of violent video games; a well-documented summary of the effects of exposure to violent media entertainment, with clear definitions of physical, verbal and relational aggression, and important considerations of three types of research methodologies. This section also describes The General Aggression Model—a model developed by Anderson, Bushman, Carnagey, and Huesmann (p. 40) to integrate ideas from earlier models and to help distinguish between variables and processes that operate in immediate contexts and those that operate over a long-term. Part 2 explains and discuses three new studies that "were designed to address knowledge gaps in the video game research literature." (p. 59) Part 3, General Discussion (What Does it All Mean?) provides critical links between theory, practice, and public policy, providing even more reasons for urgent action at both micro and macro levels.

The authors begin with, and consistently keep, a refreshingly honest and clear approach. For instance, Anderson and his colleagues call "a duck a duck" and discuss the c-word—causality—with academic rigor grounded in common sense. Critics of violent media research like to remind us that we can never establish causality. But the authors refute this argument eloquently by helping us understand the probabilistic nature of causality:

"The old Logic 101 principles regarding the establishment of a factor as being necessary and sufficient cause of an effect simply don't apply to most modern science (Anderson & Bushman, 2002c). We know that smoking tobacco causes an increase in the likelihood that one will contract lung cancer, but not everyone who smokes gets cancer, and some who don't smoke get lung cancer. The probabilistic nature of modern science is largely due to the fact that multiple causal factors are involved in most medical, psychological, and behavioral phenomena. And for this reason, the old necessary and sufficient rules simply do not apply. Thus every time people argue that violent video games can't be considered causes of aggression because they have played such games and haven't killed anyone is committing a major reasoning error, applying the 'sufficient' rule to a multiple cause phenomenon. A similarly invalid argument is that the reduction in U. S. homicide rates during the 1990s—while violent video games were becoming more prevalent—proves that violent video games can't cause increases in aggression. This argument assumes either that violence is not caused by multiple factors, or that those factors are unchanging over time. Neither assumption is true (consider, for example, changes in overall incarceration rates, federal gun registration laws, drug use patterns, age distribution of the population, poverty rates, employment patterns, war), rendering the argument so weak as to be embarrassing." (p. 21)

The authors go on to systematically explain aggression in terms of contextual factors over time, heightening this reader's awareness of the profound contribution violent video games are making to increased aggression. Reading about the General Aggression model, in particular, brought me several 'a-has.' The model is based "on the assumption that human memory, thought, and decision processes can be represented as a complex associative network of nodes representing cognitive concepts and emotions." (p. 41)

The General Aggression Model is a powerful tool because, like our work at the PCI, it takes into account multiple environmental factors when attempting to determine causality. I am drawn to the elegance by which it clearly addresses the complexities of living systems. In fact, the authors point out the General Aggression Model can be used to incorporate variables within what we call at the PCI, The Child's and the Parent's Growth Sphere. The authors cite the work of Bronfenbrenner's ecological levels (p.45), providing a comprehensive framework for understanding the impact of violent entertainment that many parent educators, and certainly PCI Certified Parent Coaches(R), will immediately grasp, helping them to better explain to parents the inherent risks of children and teens playing violent video games.

Extreme acts of violence such as the Columbine shootings are never isolated from past and present bio-social interactions. The authors point out, "According to the General Aggression Model, habitual aggressive tendencies are most likely to develop in children who grow up in environments that reinforce aggression, provide aggressive models, frustrate and victimize them, and teach them that aggression is acceptable and successful." (p. 47) As our society becomes more violent, as more children are bullied, as more are victimized, as the news keeps amplifying these incidents, it only stands to reason that increases in aggression will continue as the world "mirrors back" violent mental models. Fortunately there are many ways to intervene so as to disrupt this cycle, but they all require a focused intent and an open willingness to make consistent choices that many parents can't make because they don't have the necessary information and that many professional don't make because it is too difficult to help parents to make choices that are considered "weird" or "different" from the mainstream.

After finishing the Introduction section most readers will sit back and say something like, "What in the world are we doing to our children?" "How can we stop this madness?" Luckily there's more.

The next section discusses three important studies. If the language is too technical, the authors have provided an "in a nutshell" explanation of each study. By reading the one-two page brief, readers can understand what happened and consider the implications. I love the questions that the authors include: "What worries us? What gives us hope?" For instance in one study, what worries us is "that no one is immune to media violence." Yet, what gives us hope is that "Again, parents are in a powerful position. Setting limits on the amount and content of screen media appears to be a protective factor for children." Truly, our work with families can be the most transformative work we do. For every child who grows up not playing violent video games means that the larger social structure is impacted by more peace and sanity and that the next generation will have greater possibilities for bringer even more peace and sanity to the family, the community, and the world.

Reading Section 3 helps to think about important consideration and once again, the urgent need for action. After all, the authors are first and foremost researchers and have at their fingertips it seems ways to connect the dots so that the reader cannot but help to be motivated to do something! For instance, they distinguish between old and new violent media. I did this as well in my book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill. However, since 1999 when that book was published, violent video game entertainment has gotten much more sophisticated and certainly more available to younger children. The questions and points raised by Anderson and his colleagues in considering the differences and issues between older and the newer forms can help the reader understand the processes involved, in the challenges, as well as in the solutions. This entire section, to me, is like taking a retreat and reflecting on important issues in order to determine one's priorities. One can get renewed commitment and feelings of energy for the issue by contemplating the compelling ideas the authors discuss.

I am very grateful that they refute the catharsis argument—that playing violent video games can help youngster "get out" their aggression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Citing brain research—we do know that repeating experiences is one effective way to learn them—the authors squelch this myth. They also point out that aggression is not a drive, but learned behavior, and that violent video games cannot help "vent" because catharsis carries with it feelings of pity and fear. In other words, the player must also identify with the victim and understand the entire narrative. Players are identifying with the murder. With such a reinforcing metacognitive script, there is no catharsis.

It takes a book to explain this issue. It takes long sentences, technical ideas, and complex ideas. It takes well-thought out, impeccably conducted research studies. Therefore, the suggestions given at the end of the book are sound and good ones. But they are the "what" of the situation, not the "how." These suggestions have been given for over fifty years now and so few can make them a part of their lives. For instance, telling parents and grandparents "Don't allow access to violent video games," is absolutely important. Yet, in our work with thousands of parents at the PCI, we know that most parents, grandparents, and care-givers are not doing this even though they are well-intentioned and love the children. The reasons for this are as complex as the effects of violent video games. I would encourage these researchers to begin here with the next research imperative: Since we know violent entertainment is harmful, what works to assist parents, grandparents, and care-givers to make the daily, tough secondary choices that align with their fundamental choice to limit the harmful effective of violent media entertainment?

Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy is available from and other booksellers.