STARKVILLE, Miss.--Do violent media incite aggressive behavior? Or, are media merely illustrating a violent culture already in place?
While recent mass shootings have many people in this and other countries asking this chicken-versus-egg-type question, a media psychology researcher at Mississippi State University continues to explore the relationship between violent media and the public.
Kevin D. Williams, an associate professor in the communication department, had a recent study featured in the January edition of Mass Communication and Society, a top peer-reviewed journal in communication research. Williams' investigation sought to determine whether video gamers' feelings of hostility increased relative to the type of gaming controllers they used.
He found that gamers using motion-based controllers -- the Wii remote or the Wii nunchuck, for example -- have more hostile feelings immediately following gameplay compared to players using classic controllers. Also, gamers using motion-based controllers had higher heart rates and systolic blood pressures after gameplay.
Williams' study, "The Effects of Video Game Controls on Hostility, Identification and Presence," showed gamers reported increased feelings of hostility, but only by a small amount.
"The highest hostility score you could get in this study was a 20, but the difference between the groups was a 1.25-point difference from 5 to 6, and that's on the low end of the scale," he explained.
In other words, a hostility score of 5 or 6 on a 20-point range is quite low. However, study participants gaming with motion-based controllers did experience demonstrably stronger feelings of hostility as opposed to players using traditional controllers.
Williams said he thinks this increase in hostile feelings could well be short-lived, which is why he cautioned people, especially parents, to remember that the study only asked subjects to rate feelings of hostility on a 1-to-5 scale and was not an examination of violent acts.
"People assume that we're measuring behavior, but hostility is an emotional reaction -- an anger response," he said. "This has nothing to do with actual behavior.
"As researchers, we can look at anger, hostility, aggressive thoughts and beliefs, but as for true violent acts, it's almost impossible to get at why people do what they do."
Even after acknowledging the limitations of this study, Williams, a parent himself, maintained that all responsible parents should be concerned about which games their children play, and motion-based controllers may increase hostility, at least in the short term.
"My concern as a parent would be where the industry is heading," he said. "If these controls impact hostility, even in a small sense now, what safeguards or ethical policies will the industry enact to make sure that, as technology advances, smaller impressionable children are protected?"
Williams said family and friends regularly ask him whether they should buy a particular game for a child. He generally answers their question with another question -- Would they let their child watch it in a movie?
If the answer is no, then don't buy the game, he said.
Teens and young adults are going to play games; it's part of their culture, Williams said. Because of this reality, families need to know what games their children are playing. Parents need to be willing to open the conversation about what's appropriate and what's not, and what's real and what's not.
"Just use common sense," he said.