Politicians pushed for a crackdown on violent video games after speculation arose that they spurred Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza – who had autism spectrum disorder – to commit one of the deadliest massacres in U.S. history, killing 26 children and educators before taking his own life.
But a new study from the University of Missouri indicates that violent video games do not increase aggression in adults with autism spectrum disorder any more than they do in people without autism.
“We wanted to try to provide some evidence on the issue,” says lead author Christopher Engelhardt, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “We couldn’t specifically study [what triggers violence in individuals] because it’s not ethical to do so. But what we could do is study the willingness to aggress following exposure to violent video games.”
The study – which was recently accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science – is the first of its kind to test the effects of violent video games on aggression in adults with autism spectrum disorder, according to Engelhardt.
Researchers examined 120 young adults – 60 who had autism spectrum disorder, and 60 who showed normal neurological development. Participants played one of two versions of a violent video game. The first, which contained heightened graphic imagery, called for players to shoot aliens on a military base in space. The second game had subdued graphics and a noble mission to help the creatures find their way back to their home planet.
After playing one of the two games, participants engaged in a task for the researchers to measure aggression. They were told they were competing against another person in a trial to test their reaction times. If an individual won that challenge, he or she could “blast” their opponent with a loud noise. Researchers measured aggression levels in participants from both groups by monitoring how long – and how loudly – each participant “blasted” the defeated party.
The results, experts say, were surprising – and not just because they found that short-term exposure to violent video games didn’t amplify aggression in adults with autism.
“The more surprising finding to most researchers in this field will be that the effect of playing violent video games on the immediate aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts and aggressive emotions of normally developing youth was not found to be statistically significant,” says L. Rowell Huesmann, a professor of communication studies and psychology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study.
Experts have long disagreed over whether video games like Grand Theft Auto are responsible for violent behavior among teens and young adults. One defense against this hypothesis, Engelhardt says, is violent video game sales have risen over the years, whereas violent crimes have actually decreased. “The argument is that if violent video games caused increases in violence, then [researchers] should see a different trend,” he notes.
But before this study, there was still speculation about whether violent video games might have a different effect on adults with autism spectrum disorder.
Engelhardt’s study is valuable because “it may help lay to rest these ideas that there’s a vulnerable population of people that are particularly influenced by violent video games,” says Christopher Ferguson, chair of the psychology department at Stetson University in Florida, who was not involved in the study. “After Newtown the case became, ‘What about those kids who are already teetering on the edge of not understanding reality? Would a violent video game put them over the edge and make them do something like Adam Lanza did?”
Experts point out that the study has its limitations. For example, participants were only exposed to the violent or nonviolent video games for 15-minute increments before researchers measured their aggressive behavior. Therefore, the study doesn’t provide answers on the potential long-term effects of violent video game exposure.
“Obviously, most people don’t play video games for 15 minutes,” Ferguson says. “That’s been the general weakness of a lot of the experimental literature; typically, [researchers] put people in front a video game for a very short period of time and then yank the controls from them in a way, sometimes, that can actually create aggression that has nothing to do with the game. That is obviously a concern for a lot of experiments with violent video games, including this one.”
Future research endeavors, Engelhardt says, include collecting longitudinal data to see how long-term exposure to violent video games and other forms of media violence are associated with aggression.
But at the end of the day, the study demonstrates that violent video games do not “cause real world problems,” says Patrick Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University.
“We need to be more careful when horrific events [happen] to not blame health factors, or blame violent video games and so forth,” he says. “We have to make sure facts are in. Not only were we wrong in the case of Sandy Hook, this research shows that we’re probably correct that these violent video games don’t [affect people] with autism spectrum disorder – or perhaps even people in general.”