Christopher J. Ferguson is a psychology professor who often appears on TV to defend violent videogames. Having grown up during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, he’s all too aware that adults tend toward hysteria when it comes to youth culture.
“In general, be suspicious of people that are ‘saving children’ by trying to restrict people’s access to fictional media,” Ferguson says in Episode 420 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “In general it doesn’t work out very well, in terms of how the data looks.”
Ferguson says that older researchers have often linked videogames to real-world violence on the basis of shoddy research, and that many of them have been slow to correct their mistakes.
“To their credit, the American Psychological Association has more recently been clear in saying that violent videogames are not linked to actual violent crimes,” he says. “But they’re trying to hold the line on ‘milder aggression,’ which they don’t define, and which I think still confuses a lot of people, because the evidence isn’t really there for mild aggression any more than it is for violent crime.”
Ferguson’s colleagues have not always been grateful to him for pointing out their errors. “I’ll be frank, some of it was pretty nasty,” he says. “You would think that aggression researchers would model collegiality — if they really were concerned about aggression — but unfortunately they really don’t.”
And while it’s increasingly rare for politicians to blame videogames for real-world violence, President Trump did cite videogames as a possible cause of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in 2018.
“President Trump raised this issue of videogames, and then everybody on the left kind of fell into the other boat, which I think says a lot about politics today,” Ferguson says. “For whatever reason, the right wing of politics seems to have made it their issue, which turned off half the population. So I think at least half the population doesn’t worry about this any more.”
Listen to the complete interview with Christopher J. Ferguson in Episode 420 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Christopher J. Ferguson on the Satanic Panic:
“I can really remember going through these media moral panics as a pre-teen and teenager, and having that observation of what it’s like to be a teen, and hearing people say these things about the culture you enjoy that just sound ridiculous. And I think to the extent that I’ve been able to hold on to those memories, that has made me a bit more alert to when people do it today with new media and new technology. For some reason it seems hard for a lot of people to remember back to when they were teenagers, when people used to complain about rock music or Dungeons & Dragons or whatever the moral panic of the day happened to be, and then apply it to, ‘Am I doing the same thing to my kids and the entertainment they enjoy?’”
Christopher J. Ferguson on Mass Effect:
“Back in 2008 there was this panic over Mass Effect, where it had sexual content in it, and people were imagining it was a fully pornographic game. It was on Fox News, and got a lot of press. And if you actually play the game—it took you like 35 hours to get to the scene in question, so in terms of people trying to get a pornographic edge off this, it was really a big investment—you end up seeing a woman’s buttocks, and that’s basically it. A cartoon graphics version of a woman’s backside, and that was the extent of it. That’s a common thing with a lot of moral panics, the actual concern gets hyped up to an unreasonable degree, and if you actually look at the media in question, it’s not as bad as people are claiming.”
Christopher J. Ferguson on visiting the White House:
“Old people tend to think that the youth of today are much worse than they were in their generation. So I think that Joe Biden had gotten some version of that narrative from somebody, and repeated it, and to his chagrin, I actually had a graph with me that I could hand around that showed exactly the opposite. So in that situation I actually stopped him and informed him that he was mistaken. Probably one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I happened to have this graph that beautifully demonstrated this massive decline in youth violence that’s happened since 1993. I hope that was something that was insightful to him, and may have reined in the Obama administration’s focus on videogames in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.”
Christopher J. Ferguson on psychology research:
“We have people come in, and they play a game—either non-violent or a violent video game—and then we have them do what I would really call ‘prank’ level aggression. We’re talking about putting spicy sauce into someone’s sandwich when you know that they don’t like spice. … Many scholars would do these experiments and then start talking about mass shootings, so we went from hot sauce to gun violence very rapidly. It might be sort of interesting to know that people were a bit more mischievous after playing a violent videogame, but that’s different from them engaging in gang violence or something of that sort, and that largely got lost in the way that earlier violent videogame literature was sold to the public.”