Whether it's a boy gone missing after his parents took away his Xbox or a school shooting in Germany, videogames are often found in the company of tragedy. What begins as an off-hand quote about the victim or perpetrator's gaming habits quickly spirals into a media-fueled crusade against the "true" cause of the misfortune. Letter-writers, opinion columnists, politicians and activists on all sides are quick to cite research to support their claims, but their arguments may be built on a shaky foundation if their information comes from newspaper reports.
Many people, including the researchers themselves, have doubts about whether the analysis presented in newspapers facing huge budget cutbacks, shrinking readership and declining standards is still reliable.
"I think they're kind of giving people, their audience, what the audience wants," says psychologist Dr. Christopher Ferguson. "Probably the majority of newspapers are sold to people who don't play videogames, who don't see the value in them and may be suspicious of them already. So newspapers have to kind of market to the audience they're trying to sell to."
Ferguson has been studying the effects of videogames on human behavior as an assistant professor at Texas A&M International University, arguing there is little or no evidence that gaming causes real-world violence. He says his research doesn't get the same attention from newspapers as studies suggesting games have negative effects.
"Fear kind of sells," he says. "Negative messages tend to get a lot more attention than the positive messages do."
But psychologist Dr. Douglas Gentile, who studies videogames as an assistant professor at Iowa State University and as Director of Research for the National Institute on Media and the Family, says newspaper reporters are too worried about presenting both sides of a debate that he says the "videogames cause violence" side has conclusively won.
"We haven't trained reporters very well how to tell quality science from junk science," Gentile says. "Where this matters is in the 'get both sides of every story' rule that reporters do seem to follow pretty darn well. ... The joy of science is that at a certain point there aren't two sides. The world isn't both flat and round. We now know the right answer."
Despite their opposing viewpoints on whether videogames cause violence, Ferguson and Gentile agree that reporters often lack the necessary scientific knowledge to properly evaluate research, ask good questions and write stories that are comprehensive. Ferguson points out that reporters don't typically explain the procedures researchers use to measure behavior in videogames studies. "What people hear in the research is, 'Videogames cause aggression,' and they immediately start to think of little kids kicking each other or punching each other or shooting each other. You know, they think of all these horrible, violent acts, and what they don't realize is that 99 percent of the time that's not what the studies are looking at. They're having people filling in the missing letters of words. They're having people give little noise bursts to each other that are not painful, and it's not anything that the majority of us would consider to be violent behavior."