Dispute over shooter video games may kill recent paper

Can playing first-person shooter video games train players to become better marksmen?

A 2012 paper — titled “Boom, Headshot!” — presented evidence to suggest that was, in fact, true. But after enduring heavy fire from critics (one of whom has long argued video games have little lasting impact on users), the authors are planning to retract the paper, citing some irregularities with the data. Although the journal has apparently agreed to publish a revised version of the paper, last year the researchers’ institution decided to launch a misconduct investigation against one of the two co-authors.

Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University, headed the research along with then-postdoc Jodi Whitaker, now an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

According to a recent email from the editor of Communication Research to two critics of the paper, the retraction notice will look something like this: 

The editors of Communication Research, Drs. Gibbs and Knobloch-Westerwick, wish to issue a retraction of the article entitled “‘Boom, Headshot!’: Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy by Jodi L. Whitaker and Brad J. Bushman, published in the October 2014 issue of Communication Research. We have retracted this article at the request of Drs. Markey (Villanova U) and Elson (Ruhr U Bochum), in agreement with the corresponding author Dr. Bushman. A Committee of Initial Inquiry at Ohio State University recommended retracting this article after being alerted to irregularities in some variables of the data set by Drs. Markey and Elson in January 2015. Unfortunately, the values of the questioned variables could not be confirmed because the original research records were unavailable. In 2016, they sent their report to Dr. Gibbs, one of the editors of Communication Research, who decided that a retraction was warranted. A replication of the study by Dr. Bushman is forthcoming.

However, the journal wouldn’t confirm the retraction is taking place. Editor Jennifer Gibbs, communications professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told us:

This fall, I received a detailed report that documented data irregularities in the study, and presented re-analyses of the data that showed that the main findings would not have held up without these irregularities. With this information, the co-editors and I are currently in the process of determining what our formal response to the study will be in strict compliance with COPE guidelines.

Those two mentioned outside researchers– Patrick Markey, psychology professor at Villanova University and Malte Elson, a behavioral psychology postdoc at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany — started questioning the results when Markey noticed statistical inconsistencies that suggested the data were positively skewed. The duo recently posted a timeline of their communications with the authors, journal, and OSU over the last few years.

Markey told us:

The reason why I asked about this statistical issue was not that I was skeptical, but because the reported findings seemed so important.

Where Bushman has found video games and violent media can lead to increases in aggression and violence, Markey is the opposite: He argues that studies suggest violent video games have little lasting effect. Indeed, Markey has co-authored a book about research into violent video games to be published next year. The title: Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.

Bushman has claimed that the push to retract the paper was a smear campaign. In a  Feb. 22, 2015  email to Jennifer Yucel, director of the Office of Research Compliance at OSU, Bushman wrote:

…I believe Dr. Markey has an ulterior motive for going after me and my former Ph.D. student Jodi Whitaker — he wants to discredit my research and ruin my reputation.

After Markey and Elson raised allegations to OSU, a panel concluded on Oct. 15, 2015 that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a misconduct investigation into Whitaker, but not Bushman. Co-author Whitaker did not respond to an email request from Retraction Watch.

When we reached out to Bushman, we received a response from Jeff Grabmeier, senior director of research communications at OSU, who wouldn’t confirm whether or not an investigation was ongoing, citing federal confidentiality laws:

However, we can report that Dr. Bushman has completed a replication of the “Boom, Headshot” study with a new and larger sample. This paper has received a “revise and resubmit” decision from Communication Research, the same journal that published the original study.

Another one of Bushman’s papers — “Effects of Violent Media on Verbal Task Performance in Gifted and General Cohort Children” — has generated a long discussion on PubPeer, during which a commenter who signs off as Bushman posts he’s shared the original dataset.

However, the original data appeared to raise more questions. A commenter marked “author” says he is trying to reach his colleagues in Turkey based at Fatih University, which was closed this year by the government — then finally notes he plans to retract the paper, with this notice:

Questions have been raised about the pattern of results in the Cetin, Wai, Altay, and Bushman (2016) article. Unfortunately, the data collection procedures could not be verified because the author who collected the data (Cengiz Altay) could not be contacted following the attempted coup in Turkey. Therefore, as the integrity of the data could not be confirmed, we are retracting the study.

Bushman also published a correction in July 14, 2016, to his 2010 Psychological Science paper entitled “Like a Magnet: Catharsis Beliefs Attract Angry People to Violent Video Games,” citing some data inconsistencies.

OSU spokesman Grabmeier explained the correction in an email:

Of the four data points where the published data did not exactly match the calculated result, three of the discrepancies are due to completely valid rounding of the reported value. The fourth instance was a simple and relatively minor error and it did not demonstrably change the reported findings.

Markey and Elson — now a member of the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science, which aims to improve the quality of the literature in the field — were initially disappointed by the journal’s response to their concerns, but they told us in a joint statement that new editor Gibbs:

…responded promptly, and immediately took action when we informed her of our findings. This was indeed a very uplifting experience for us.

Still, it’s been a long process, they added:

We definitely had our ups and downs during the whole process, to a point where we considered just dropping it.

Update 1/12/17 10:06 a.m. eastern: The Conversation has retracted an article based on the research, after learning the paper had been retracted.

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3 thoughts on “Dispute over shooter video games may kill recent paper”

  1. In fact communication at all levels is “double edged weapon” that needs careful use to avoid its undesirable effects on the society. Bad communication could evolve negative thinking and misconception of intended goal, whilst well constructed and directed communication has the ability to create positive awareness.

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