The Post-Mortem on the APA's Dead-On-Arrival Policy Statement On Video Games

ack in August the American Psychological Association (APA) released a new policy statement on video games in which they acknowledged video game violence can't be linked to violent crimes, but asserted that such games provoke milder acts of aggression.
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Back in August the American Psychological Association (APA) released a new policy statement on video games in which they acknowledged video game violence can't be linked to violent crimes, but asserted that such games provoke milder acts of aggression. I held off commenting on this policy statement, curious to see what reaction it would get from the press.

Initially, the policy statement got picked up by the gamer press which, predictably, was rather skeptical. Then followed a small flurry of page-6 regurgitations of the APA's press release in newspapers. Very soon after, however, news organizations such as BBC, CNN, SkyNews and Newsweek that took a deeper look at the policy statement largely turned negative against the APA. There were concerns that many members of the task force that produced the policy report had potential conflicts of interest. And there were considerable methodological flaws with the meta-analysis (a statistical summary of previous studies) the task force had conducted.

Indeed the narrative soon became less to do with problems with video games and more to do with problems with the APA itself. Arguably, this was not the kind of press the APA needed for an organization recently identified as having colluded in torturous interrogations of detainees in the war on terror. What went wrong?

First, the APA created the appearance that they had "stacked" the task force with members with strong anti-game opinions. Two of the members had signed an anti-game amicus brief supporting the regulation of violent video games during a Supreme Court case back in 2010. One member had signed another public statement linking games to societal violence, and a fourth had published research articles linking violent games to negative outcomes up to and including mass shootings. So four of seven members were clearly anti-game; by contrast none of the members had any history of skepticism about linking games to violence.

In the Newsweek article on the task force, various task force members appeared defensive about this. Several implied that it was no big deal they'd signed an amicus brief or other statements. Task force member Kenneth Dodge told Newsweek "Signing an amicus or authoring a conclusion at one point in time does not, by itself, place that individual in conflict of interest, certainly not in perpetuity." However, this is conflicted by the APA's own report which implied a conflict of interest could arise through "commitment to a fixed position through public statement." Particularly given that the Supreme Court, in its majority opinion, ultimately decided that violent games didn't pose a public health risk, it's possible that task force members who signed the failed amicus brief might want the opportunity to strike back against the Supreme Court decision and prove them wrong.

Yet the larger issue is whether the APA specifically selected these individuals for their public stances which would predictably lead to anti-game conclusions. Regarding the anti-game amicus brief there was also a competing amicus brief of scholars who were skeptical of linking games to public health concerns. None of these scholars were chosen for the APA task force. How statistically probable, among membership in the tens of thousands with clearly mixed views about the impact of violent games, was it for the APA to develop a task force on video games comprising of 4 out of 7 members with pronounced public anti-game views, without finding a single skeptic?

I doubt the odds the APA developed such a lineup randomly are very high. Some post-hoc evidence suggests that the other three members may have held pronounced anti-game views as well, if not quite so publically. For instance, in defending the task force, chair Mark Appelbaum compared the effects of video games on aggression to the impact of aspirin in preventing heart attacks, a statement both statistically incorrect, and nonsensical on the basis of an "apples to oranges" comparison.

Despite claims that the task force took conflicts of interest seriously, the task force chair also didn't seem aware of the presence of conflicts of interest. In the Newsweek article Dr. Appelbaum commented that "If someone had a paper that directly looked at the relationship between playing violent media and this class of behaviors that are the outcome, they were not even eligible to be on the task force." But, as the Newsweek article subsequently pointed out, one member Sandra Calvert, did indeed have just such articles.

The task force members were also all older adults. Examining their CVs and the years in which they graduated undergraduate university, I estimate the average age of the task force members to be around 62 with none under 50. This is important as research evidence has made clear that negative opinions about violent game risks are strongly predicted by age. This also creates the impression, familiar to past media moral panics, that older adults are negatively judging media used by youth which they themselves don't use or understand.

Concerns with the task force and the non-transparent means by which it was developed lead to over 230 scholars writing an open letter to the APA asking them to retire their policy statements on video games and media, and refrain from future policy statements. This letter was delivered to both the task force chair and APA in September, 2013. Yet the APA made no effort to communicate with this large body of scholars or learn of their concerns. Nor was the letter acknowledged in the final task force report. This is a remarkable failure of the APA not to heed the scientific community, and harkens to similar problematic behaviors the APA engaged in when alleged stacking ethics task forces to allow for the involvement of psychologists in torturous interrogations.

Second, concerns also emerged regarding the meta-analysis, or statistical summary of past research. Although the task force used some basic inclusion criteria for studies, they acknowledge (page 8-9 of the report) essentially voting on studies they liked and didn't like and excluding studies they didn't like. This kind of procedure is an excellent one for ensuring bias in a meta-analysis, and that appears to have been what happened here. Doing so managed to whittle down the number of studies they looked at considerably, and further seemed to result in the selective exclusion from their meta-analysis of a great number of studies finding little to no effect for violent video games that should have been included.

Ultimately the meta-analysis included only 18 studies, missing the vast majority of the field. Adding to the perception that this meta-analysis was wildly unreliable was the inclusion, among the 18 studies, of at least one (by Mike Schmierbach) that didn't include any comparison between non-violent and violent video games at all, and thus has nothing to add to the research question the task force was meant to address (in personal correspondence with Dr. Schierbach, he has confirmed he has no idea why his study was included). The meta-analysis also didn't consider data after 2013, thus missing further evidence that violent video games have little impact on aggression.

I do not say this lightly, but this meta-analysis looks to be one of the clumsiest and least reliable meta-analyses I have seen, and that's saying something! Too many studies were excluded that should have been included, and of the few studies remaining, at least one had no business being included at all. To say this meta-analysis represents the state of video game violence research while excluding so much of it is, to be frank, silly.

So this policy statement does, indeed, say more about the APA than it does video games. They created the appearance of stacking a committee with anti-game members in order to reach a pseudo-scientific a-priori conclusion that would be of advantage to the APA. We have to remember that groups like the APA are not objective scientific organizations dispensing cold truths. Rather they are guilds that represent a profession (and I am an APA member for the record). It is to their advantage to find problems their members can "fix", getting grant money, political influence, newspaper headlines and professional prestige in the process. Unfortunately the APA's DOA policy statement on video games is of a kind with the cynical decisions that led the APA to change their own ethics code to permit psychologists' involvement in torturous interrogations. I feel that the APA has developed into an organization of dubious ethics that has severely corrupted its core integrity.

The one thing good to come out of the APA's policy statement is that there are the first of the professional guilds to acknowledge violent games can't be linked to violent crime. I suspect they had little choice given the precipitous declines in youth violence that occurred during the era in which violent games soared in popularity. Nonetheless, even on this issue the APA amazingly missed a considerable number of studies finding no link between violent games and societal violence.

We should be skeptical of statements coming from media industry, but we need to realize that groups like the APA (and American Academy of Pediatrics who are just as bad) also represent industries and their statements should be considered with similar appropriate skepticism. Such groups create the impression of one industry (psychology or pediatrics) trying to raise its own profile by besmirching another. Unfortunately professional guilds rarely retract policy statements (the American Academy of Pediatrics' nonsensical 2011 statement about 'Facebook Depression' remains on the record despite thorough debunking.) But we need not mistake the APA for science. At the moment it is difficult to think of two things further apart.

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