Overview   •   •   •   Diploma thesis   •   PhD thesis   •   Cortex   •   Press

Something is Rotten in the State of Aggression Research: Novel Methodological and Theoretical Approaches to Research on Digital Games and Human Aggression

+ awarded the 2015 Dissertation Award of the Media Psychology Division (American Psychological Association)


This dissertation offers a comprehensive critique of the current state of research on violent game playing and aggressive outcomes. It discusses twenty-five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression, including empirical evidence, theoretical perspectives, and the heated debates in both the public and academia. The main focus here is on methodological issues limiting the conclusiveness of the research, particularly experiments conducted in psychological laboratories. By suggesting methodological advancements in the study of game violence effects, the thesis wants to offer new perspectives on digital games and aggression to move forward the field and the ideological debates that surround it. The thesis comprises a total of 5 peer-reviewed journal articles (of which 3 are published, one is accepted and in press, and one is under review) that include data from one original study and a secondary analyses of 3 further studies.

The first part of the thesis consists of a detailed review of the current scientific literature on violent game effects with a focus on the theories that have been developed to explain the relationship between the use of digital games and aggression. Important theoretical shortcomings and fallacies of social-cognitive perspectives on how aggression is acquired through violent media contents are identified and discussed.

The second part is a methodological critique of laboratory experiments in research on the effect of violent games. First, common problems and pitfalls in the manipulation of violence as an independent variable and improper control of relevant confounding factors are discussed. The modification of game content ("Modding") is suggested as a novel method to meet the requirements of rigorous internal validity and sufficient external validity in psychological laboratory experiments. The advantages of this method are illustrated by the results of an experiment in which it was used. This is followed by an examination of one of the most popular laboratory measures of aggressive behavior (the Competitive Reaction Time Task), providing evidence from three studies that the unstandardized use in the scholarly literature poses a threat to its interpretability and generalizability.

The dissertation concludes with an analysis of the scientific discourse on the game violence-aggression link, and the ways in which it is shaped by ideological convictions that affect both the theoretical assumptions and the methodological procedures. This duality of ideologies present in theory and methods constitutes a threat to violent game effects research, as it causes the field to stagnate. It is argued that this stagnancy can only be resolved through methodological rigor that will, ultimately, advance inadequate theories of media effects.

Cite as

The dissertation consists of a synopsis and the following five articles:
1. Elson, M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Twenty-five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression: Empirical evidence, perspectives, and a debate gone astray. European Psychologist, 19(1), 33-46. doi: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000147

2. Elson, M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Does doing media violence research make one aggressive? The ideological rigidity of social cognitive theories of media violence and response to Bushman and Huesmann (2013), Krahé (2013), and Warburton (2013). European Psychologist, 19(1), 68-75. doi: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000185

3. Kneer, J., Elson, M., & Knapp, F. F. (under review). Fight fire with rainbows: The effects of displayed violence, difficulty, and performance in digital games on affect, aggression, and physiological arousal.

4. Elson, M., & Quandt, T. (2014). Digital games in laboratory experiments: Controlling a complex stimulus through modding. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000033

5. Elson, M., & Mohseni, M. R., Breuer, J., Scharkow, M., & Quandt, T. (2014). Press CRTT to measure aggressive behavior: The unstandardized use of the Competitive Reaction Time Task in aggression research. Psychological Assessment, 26(2), 419-432. doi: 10.1037/a0035569