Game researcher: 90-95% of psych studies flawed

Texas A&M International University professor talks about the problems with tying violent games to aggressive behavior.

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With the flood of gaming legislation in recent years, the battle between the gaming industry and the states that want to outlaw sales of violent games to children has boiled down to one question: Do violent games hurt children? If the states can scientifically prove that they do, the constitutional protection that such games currently enjoy evaporates.

Ferguson says it's difficult to measure the impact games like Grand Theft Auto IV have on children.
Ferguson says it's difficult to measure the impact games like Grand Theft Auto IV have on children.

To answer that question, the states point to studies that show that children who play violent games subsequently engage in aggressive behavior. Meanwhile, the gaming industry and its allies tout studies that show no such link.

Recently, Texas A&M International University's Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson, author of the latter type of study, spoke with GameSpot to discuss some of the background issues that impact not only the battle over gaming legislation, but also all scientific research. Ferguson said that people need to be more skeptical of information presented to them as scientific research. For instance, Ferguson bemoaned the number of times that he's seen studies presented and promoted with conclusions that the research doesn't actually support.

A criminal psychologist himself, Ferguson cast a wary eye to much of the work done by his peers.

"I'll be honest with you, the quality of research in psychology generally is not very good," Ferguson said. "Maybe 90 to 95 percent is very bad. The way that we study questions, the way that we support our hypotheses are not very scientific, quite frankly. And social science is kind of an oxymoron, to some extent."

Regarding the study of violent games and aggression in particular, Ferguson was unconvinced that there was a good way to assess the effect that one has on the other. He noted that existing studies have tested a subject's willingness to annoy others with bursts of noise after gameplay as an example of aggression. As Ferguson emphasized, there is a big difference between such an action and the sort of school shootings or other violent outbursts that concerned groups try to pin on violent games.

"The sad answer is it's really hard to measure aggression in the lab. We really don't have any real good measures of aggression," Ferguson said. "We can't have kids knifing each other or punching or beating each other up, of course. So we have that ethical constraint on one hand, and is it possible to create an aggression measure that functions well and is valid? I haven't seen one yet."

More of the interview with Dr. Ferguson can be heard on the February 3 edition of GameSpot presents The HotSpot.

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