Interview with Professor Christopher J. Ferguson – Media violence, gaming disorder and sexual games

Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Stetson University Professor Christopher J. Ferguson on a variety of topics ranging from game disorder to media violence. Ferguson is a prolific researcher in the field of media effects with a focus on video game violence and it’s effects. Together with our german translation of the interview, which can be found here, we also wanted to provide the original english interview for the sake of transparency. Please enjoy!

Christopher J. Ferguson

Christopher J. Ferguson is an American psychologist at Stetson University in Florida, USA. Together with psychology professor Patrick M. Markey, he published the book »Moral Combat: Why the Violent Video Games is Wrong« last year, which deals critically with the prejudices against video games. He is also the author of the mystery thriller »Suicide Kings«.

Anime2You: Video games as a factor in youth violence has been a popular narrative for a few decades now, just recently being given renewed attention after US President Trump called a White House meeting to talk about this topic in the wake of a high school shooting. But what does the research say: does video game violence translate into real life violence?

Christopher J. Ferguson: No, at this point the evidence is pretty clear that there’s no link between media violence and societal violence. A number of longitudinal studies following kids over time have concluded that exposure to early shooter games is not a risk factor for future violence among youth. Data on mass shooters suggests that they consume less not more violent media than others their age. Cross-nationally, the countries that consume the most video games like the Netherlands and S. Korea are amongst the most peaceful on the planet. And within the United States, increases in the consumption of action games and action movies are associated with declines in youth violence. Youth violence has declined by over 80% over the last 25 years in the US. Actually, though we have obvious problems with gun violence, we actually have relatively low assault rates. Assault rates in the UK and Belgium are actually much higher, with much higher rape rates in Sweden and Finland!

Anime2You: A new strain of criticism of video game content focuses less on direct effects. Instead, such criticism proposes an indirect link: exposure to violent video games influences a person’s attitudes, making them more accepting towards violence or violent solutions. Similar links are proposed for games containing sexual content, where playing games with sexualised female characters promotes sexist attitudes in players. So while such games might not turn us into spree killers or rapists, they nevertheless help create a society that allows such people to thrive. Is there evidence to support this?

Ferguson: Oh goodness, that Begue et al., study is awful. It’s a good example in how research results are miscommunicated to the general public. They had a huge sample and huge samples are known for producing spurious “statistically significant” results that don’t actually mean anything in the real world, what one psychologist (Meehl) called the “crud factor.” The correlation they found between games and sexism was r = .07 with other factors controlled. Anything below .10 is almost certainly noise. Quite literally, the correlation between eating potatoes and suicide is about the same magnitude. It’s telling the same study found no effects for television, but largely ignored this. This is, quite literally, a random finding that got hyped entirely out of any good sense. There have actually been a number of recent students (from Breuer et al., 2015 to Ferguson & Donnellan, 2017, to Beck & Rose, 2017 to Read et al., 2018) that have failed to link “sexist” games to sexism in real life. This is already a hypothesis in serious trouble and it didn’t take long to get there despite the moral grandstanding of some scholars.

Anime2You: Recently Japanese games with Ecchi content have been in the spotlight due to Steam’s decision to first enforce stricter rules against such games before backtracking and outright allowing such content. Even before, Ecchi games have caused controversy in countries such as Australia or Germany. The availability of such games has been criticised because their protagonists and central characters are often underage or due to their drawing style depicted in a way which makes it difficult to accurately estimate the character age. Apart from moral objections, critics believe that such games could contribute to a culture of sexual exploitation of minors, especially children, either by rousing hidden desires in adult players of such games or by suggesting to underage players that such behaviour is normal. Do you share this fear?

Ferguson: Well, I think the anime style has always resulted in characters who were both age and racially (particularly European v Asian) ambiguous. Generally speaking, I’d like to see more games that feature female characters in strong rather than sexualized roles and I think the industry has made some good strides in that sense. Of course, not every game, film or book, needs to conform to that model. I think there’s a difference between saying something is morally objectionable and claiming it has negative effects on society. But people tend to emotionally gravitate from one to the other without waiting for evidence.  

Anime2You: Last year a German politician made headlines by questioning if video games are a good way for children to spend their free time. She instead proposed that young people should look towards hobbies and sports as well as meeting friends outside of the virtual realm as a way to relax. Is there evidence to support the claim that such activities are better for young people compared to playing video games or otherwise engaging with technology?

Ferguson: This is basically the kind of thing that older adults who don’t understand games say. It’s just more “kids today with their music and their hair.” Games are hobbies, and they do relax people. Naturally, any hobby should be balanced with other life responsibilities, but there’s little evidence to suggest that other hobbies are “better” than gaming, per se.

Anime2You: Which are the key factors that influence a person’s development? Where does fictional media fit in? In that sense, is fictional media the key to shaping our culture or is fictional media rather a simple reflection of our society?

Ferguson: That’s been a long-standing debate, quite literally thousands of year. Of course, the causal arrows aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think we’re finally seeing that fictional media is more mirror than cause. Generally, it does not appear that entertainment media play a crucial role in shaping either individual development or the culture more broadly. Entertainment media can be one way in which people express their individuality, but such media are too distal to have much of a direct effect.

Anime2You: The WHO has recently moved to add “Gaming disorder” to the upcoming International Classification of Diseases. You are a vocal critic of this move. Can you explain why you disagree with this move?

Ferguson: In essence, it is not supported by good data. Current data suggest that behavioural overuse issues are typically symptomatic of other underlying mental disorders, not a mental disorder in their own right. They don’t work like substance abuse, contrary to many claims. And there’s little reason to focus on games as the WHO has chosen to do given the myriad of other behaviors that some people overdo…work, exercise, eating, sex,…there are even papers on dance addiction. If the WHO were really concerned about patients, why not have a general “behavioural overuse” disorder? It’s very hard to defend their decision to focus exclusively on games as anything other than moral panic. The WHO also did acknowledge in an email exchange I had with them that political pressure from Asian countries was one factor in their decision. That’s a worrying trend for something that’s supposed to be science.  

Anime2You: Another recent topic of controversy in the gaming space are loot boxes, often also found in Japanese mobile games where those mechanics are called gatcha. Due to the real money element often inherent in such mechanics, critics see this as a dangerous combination of gaming and gambling. Is this something that people should be concerned about?

Ferguson: Possibly. It’s certainly a public relations misstep for the industry, even as the tide of opinion was slowly moving to their side. A lot of gamers don’t like loot boxes either, so I’m not sure this was the best addition to gaming. Are they more likely to cause actual problematic behaviors than traditional gaming? Possibly. We don’t have any data on them yet, unfortunately.

Anime2You: Thank you very much for this interview!