Stop Blaming Video Games For Mass Killings

The research doesn’t say what some lawmakers suggest every time there’s a mass shooting. (Image: Fredrick Tendong / Unsplash)

In the wake of the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3 that left 22 dead and dozens injured, a familiar trope has reemerged: Often, when a young man is the shooter, people try to blame the tragedy on violent video games and other forms of media.

This time around, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick placed some of the blame on a video game industry that “teaches young people to kill.” Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California went on to condemn video games that “dehumanise individuals” as a “problem for future generations.” And President Trump pointed to society’s “glorification of violence,” including “gruesome and grisly video games.”

These are the same connections a Florida lawmaker made after the Parkland shooting in February 2018, suggesting that the gunman in that case “was prepared to pick off students like it’s a video game.”

But, as a researcher who has studied violent video games for almost 15 years, I can state that there is no evidence to support these claims that violent media and real-world violence are connected.

As far back as 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that research did not find a clear connection between violent video games and aggressive behavior. Criminologists who study mass shootings specifically refer to those sorts of connections as a “myth.” And in 2017, the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association released a statement I helped craft, suggesting reporters and policymakers cease linking mass shootings to violent media, given the lack of evidence for a link.

A history of a moral panic

So why are so many policymakers inclined to blame violent video games for violence? There are two main reasons.

The first is the psychological research community’s efforts to market itself as strictly scientific. This led to a replication crisis instead, with researchers often unable to repeat the results of their studies. Now, psychology researchers are reassessing their analyses of a wide range of issues – not just violent video games, but implicit racism, power poses and more.

The other part of the answer lies in the troubled history of violent video game research specifically.

Beginning in the early 2000s, some scholars, anti-media advocates and professional groups like the APA began working to connect a methodologically messy and often contradictory set of results to public health concerns about violence. This echoed historical patterns of moral panic, such as 1950s concerns about comic books and Tipper Gore’s efforts to blame pop and rock music in the 1980s for violence, sex and Satanism.

Particularly in the early 2000s, dubious evidence regarding violent video games was uncritically promoted. But over the years, confidence among scholars that violent video games influence aggression or violence has crumbled.

Reviewing all the scholarly literature

My own research has examined the degree to which violent video games can – or can’t – predict youth aggression and violence. In a 2015 meta-analysis, I examined 101 studies on the subject and found that violent video games had little impact on kids’ aggression, mood, helping behavior or grades.

Two years later, I found evidence that scholarly journals’ editorial biases had distorted the scientific record on violent video games. Experimental studies that found effects were more likely to be published than studies that had found none. This was consistent with others’ findings. As the Supreme Court noted, any impacts due to video games are nearly impossible to distinguish from the effects of other media, like cartoons and movies.

Any claims that there is consistent evidence that violent video games encourage aggression are simply false.

Spikes in violent video games’ popularity are well-known to correlate with substantial declines in youth violence – not increases. These correlations are very strong, stronger than most seen in behavioral research. More recent research suggests that the releases of highly popular violent video games are associated with immediate declines in violent crime, hinting that the releases may cause the drop-off.

The role of professional groups

With so little evidence, why are lawmakers still trying to blame violent video games for mass shootings by young men? Can groups like the National Rifle Association seriously blame imaginary guns for gun violence?

A key element of that problem is the willingness of professional guild organizations such as the APA to promote false beliefs about violent video games. (I’m a fellow of the APA.) These groups mainly exist to promote a profession among news media, the public and policymakers, influencing licensing and insurance laws. They also make it easier to get grants and newspaper headlines. Psychologists and psychology researchers like myself pay them yearly dues to increase the public profile of psychology. But there is a risk the general public may mistake promotional positions for objective science.

In 2005 the APA released its first policy statement linking violent video games to aggression. However, my recent analysis of internal APA documents with criminologist Allen Copenhaver found that the APA ignored inconsistencies and methodological problems in the research data.

The APA updated its statement in 2015, but that sparked controversy immediately: More than 230 scholars wrote to the group asking it to stop releasing policy statements altogether. I and others objected to perceived conflicts of interest and lack of transparency tainting the process.

It’s bad enough that these statements misrepresent the actual scholarly research and misinform the public. But it’s worse when those falsehoods give advocacy groups like the NRA cover to shift blame for violence onto non-issues like video games. The resulting misunderstanding hinders efforts to address mental illness and other issues, such as the need for gun control, that are actually related to gun violence.

The Conversation

Christopher J. Ferguson, Professor of Psychology, Stetson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Comments

    I’m 37
    I’ve consumed some of the most violent media available, comic series Crossed, a Serbian Film which was truly disturbing, and even multiplaying Soldier of Fortune 2 in the 2000’s.

    That said I value all life, I’ve not even physically struck someone in anger.

    I truly believe that violent media itself is not a problem, but the individual that consumes it.

    Videogames are a product that are consumed globally and yet only one county has mass shootings on a regular basis.

    Clearly the games are not the issue.

      "No way to stop this, says only country where this regularly happens"

      Correction.. mass shootings happen on a regular basis on most 3rd world countries for a variety of reasons mostly a mix of poverty, corruption and instability.

      There is however ONE first world country where such an occurance has become an endemic issue without the underlying factors that fuel it in a third world country. That in itself is the problem..

    While I agree with the sentiment of the article, posting it here on Kotaku is just preaching to the choir, and isn't getting the message out to anyone that actually *needs* to read it.

      Sometimes it's worth it to reassure your audience that things are actually okay, though.

      As the text at the bottom of the article says - it is a republished from the Conversation web site.

      Posting it anywhere is better than no where, but for example the ABC has published an analysis Article (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-07/do-video-games-cause-violence/11389596) this morning.

      US Journalists should be pushing back on politicians when this topic is bought up in interview, however this rarely (never) happens. Games, Music, Dancing & all forms of entertainment are easy scapegoats and forever will be if we (media) lets it

      My concern is the topic ALWAYS turns to 'how to better regulate the video game industry', 'we need better/clearer ratings & studies show XYZ - which is a good response IF IT RELATED to the actual problem: 2nd amendment

      it does give the choir the information we need and a place to send anyone who has been hoodwinked so that we can correct the record.

    What happened to stop defending video games?

    Seriously though the problem is that video games are an accessible scape goat that you can easily convince someone about the potential negative influence of. The alternative is to start challenging a moral and constitutional system that has been in place for decades/centuries and will make you unpopular with a lot of people who will also resist anything that challenges their beliefs.

    We're talking about a country that has an increasing number of people who are anti-vaccination while their cities and states are gripped by an epidemic of an easily preventable yet deadly disease. The solution is there, obvious as the day but people would rather continue to suffer casualties than change something they feel is their right.

    The US is going to keep suffering under these events until they limit the availability of automatic weapons, and have an extensive public healthcare system with integrated mental health care. In a sense the people saying it isn't the guns are technically right - the guns just enable easy, mass killing. It doesn't stop the unethically abysmal healthcare system that results in mentally unwell people not only going untreated, but also being ostracised and excluded. Add on top some polarised politics (and no, it isn't all Trump), and you've got yourself a disaster waiting to happen.

    But it's easier to blame video games rather than admit your system is fundamentally broken, because the US is ideologically opposed to any form of social support.

      Not saying you're wrong, because you arent, but the simple reality is that its near impossible for the US to do something about it. Simply because the important control isnt at a Federal level, but at a State level. Theres a basic paranoia about federal control in the US, which is why you see every State with their own individual laws in most areas.

      The powers of the States themselves means that the POTUS can decree anything he wants, and the States just make it null and void in the Supreme Court for their patch. Just look at Trump's early attempts to block the borders for a simple example. California and Texas (among others) disagreed, got it blocked, and Trump spent a year trying unsuccessfully to bully his decree through.

      Second example, look at the anti-abortion stuff thats happened in the past 6 months. Every State has their own set of laws on it, some pro-life, some pro-choice, all different. Gun laws are no different.

      To be blunt, I cant see states like Texas giving up gun ownership in ANY way without a major legal battle, which history suggests the State would win. POTUS cant force them, their system doesnt work that way, and with how passionate a whole bunch of states are, it leaves a door open for anyone to get a gun. Just drive to [insert state here] and pick one up. Everyone will be just a couple of hours drive from a state that wants ownership.

      I dont know how you undo that. Just saying "control it at the federal level" isnt a practical option because of that system, and they cant change that system without the states agreeing. Which isnt happening.

      That system is as much a part of the problem as the Second Amendment is.

        Just drive to [insert state here] and pick one up

        might want to check into this my dude i think you will find it's total fiction and you indeed need to complete fairly rigorous background checks to get a gun.

        Something clearly needs to be done about gun control in the US but if the facts are obscured by a false narrative you get nowhere like the above article says with regards to video games.

        I think the straw purchases and "just hop the border and buy one", no background checks etc all of these things you hear about are not true and probably started by the NRA to stop the conversation from even starting because most people know this isn't true they keep everyone arguing about the debate instead of having the debate.

          I have looked, why do you assume I havent? In some states, private sales dont require a background check and those are State laws the Federal Govt has no jurisdiction over. So if Cletus is willing to sell me a gun, I can hop over to his shack in the Louisiana swamps and buy that gun. No onus on him or me to prove I should own it. Or maybe its Billy-Bob in Kansas, or Chuck in Colorado. It doesnt matter who or where, just that its an option.

          Licensed dealers need to do background checks in most places, but thats a different thing. They submit a form through the FBI, though the form itself doesnt have any obligatory unique references. Just an optional Social Security number question. Its easy to fake with someone else's details if you want. It doesnt necessarily invalidate you anyway.

          By the way, to the best of their knowledge that check accounts for about 78% of sales (source: 2015 survey of ~1600 gun owners https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2595892/firearm-acquisition-without-background-checks-results-national-survey), which means 22% had no check. With that 78% representing something like 25 million FBI checks that means there are about 7 million unchecked sales a year. That 25m was probably higher in 2015 (its a 2017 count, 2018 was 27.5m), but that would mean the unchecked total is also higher.

          Link to the form dealers get you to fill out. https://www.atf.gov/file/61446/download Over the course of that system's 20 years there have been 280m checks done with just 1.5m denied. About 0.5%, hardly a deterrent.

          With over 350 million guns in the US though, the private market is easily big enough that anyone motivated to want a gun can get one without proper controls. Not every state is lax, but it only takes one hole for the system to fail.

          My point is that the States wont give up their system just because POTUS tells them to. They dont like being told what to do, and fight it every time. Which means the system is a part of that bigger problem of gun control. Its not just the gun ownership, but also the system that controls it being so fragmented.

            Correction with that background check number. 2016 was 27.5m, not 2018.

            i assumed you hadn't because your original statement said nothing about private sales you seemed to be saying just hop the border to a "red" state and get ur gun on...

            "About 0.5%, hardly a deterrent" yes because short of being a felon they don't have restrictions really it's are you x age and are you a felon basically.

            I'm not arguing against you i'm just concerned your not making your argument properly. We would probably agree on nearly everything to do with gun control, the way i understand it is right now it is impossible to fix the issue because the states won't sign on to one unifying set off rules out of what appears to be purely ideological reasons, and there is absolutely no way that federal gun control legislation leads to anything other than a civil war.

            The feds cannot be responsible for gun control in the US under any circumstances so it falls to states to fix this shitshow but they will never agree to any blanket nationwide set of rules because they all want to be different on ever issue for some fucking stupid reason i just cannot understand. that sums it up for me do you agree?

              Yeah, my response reads a little more aggressive than I meant. My bad. My normal reaction when people assume I havent done any research is an epicly long post with links backing up what I say that I dont bother with originally. I'm an analyst by trade, I research something before voicing an opinion, and it pisses me off when people assume I havent. Thats on me, not you.

              I was mostly considering the commercial sales anyway, with private sales secondary. And with licensed dealers, its so mickey mouse that its a pointless system. If it worked, more people would be denied and perhaps the cultural reasons this happens would start to change.

              The checks that get done are straight up useless in my opinion, you only need to look at how open the form I linked is. There is NOTHING tieing it to the buyer that only the buyer would know. You could fill in the form with anyone's details and nothing would happen. Anecdotally, the stories I've been told are the forms are treated as a pesky formality and little more.

              The impression I get is that the form is more so a police background check can advise they've bought a gun, rather than advise the seller not to sell to you. 0.5% rejection rate is incredibly low, and really just limited to ex-cons silly enough to apply while still in probation.

              Even with what they argue is a proper background check, essentially nobody gets denied. And the shootings are happening regardless. Either the system isnt doing its job, or its being avoided. Or both.

              The feds cannot be responsible for gun control in the US under any circumstances so it falls to states to fix this shitshow Thats pretty much what I'm saying as well - its as much a part of the problem as the Second Amendment that drives it all. And like you, cant see it happening for the reasons you state.

                i liked your response, detailed information is good besides it would be hypocritical of me to complain about lengthy responses considering i do it all the time.

        Yeah I realise that - the US is a special kind of nightmare when it comes to state and federal politics, and is highly polarised even within its states. However the gun ownership/proliferation argument is really only a bandaid on the true problem - inadequate social services. Australia's list of massacres is nothing compared to the US (even including non-firearm related incidents, e.g. multiple stabbings), and NZ (with even more relaxed gun laws) is lower again. Gun control is just an easy way to reduce the number of deaths, but it isn't going to actually stop people who want to hurt and kill. To target that, we need to focus on support services for mental health, and that means a public healthcare system.

        The entire gun control debate is a bandaid on an arterial bleed, and the laceration is only getting larger.

      i'm not well versed in the gun control argument but i'm pretty sure automatic weapons are illegal and have been since like 1840 or something in the US. It's pretty hard to understand because of all the states having different rules your probably allowed to privately own an aircraft carrier in Texas.

      I remember reading that automatic weapons were actually illegal in the US and have been for ages that's all i wanted to say, it might be worth looking into it.

        Sorry should probably be semi-auto assault-style rifles to be more accurate.

          yeh i know it's nitpicking and retarded because let's face it semi vs auto doesn't change the body count much at all, mostly just changes the amount of ammo used but if your going to argue against the staunch gun liberty types you have to make sure you get all the words right otherwise your going to lose.

          that one mistake would totally have obliterated you if you were on the debate stage for example it's one of the reasons democrats don't get anywhere on gun control they make the same mistakes so nobody on the other dies listens to a single word after that.

            Well yeah... but I'm also not a US politician or attempting to convince the US of anything, because I'm an Australian living in Australia.

              well you got me there... ah nope i can't come back from that you pwnd me.

    Lets go back to blaming 80-90s action movies and horror films... no wait, lets go back to the further and blame that deviks music Rock and or Roll.

    I laughed when they tried to introduce a ban on violent video games whike Arnie was governor... it was shot down so quickly cause he heard it all before in his movie career.

    It's the same old thing that been dealing with for many years. This time the cringe has been super high. I even heard one person say, "you see every day of these kids playing for hours that thing the Fortnite. Blowing up peoples heads, graphic violence". That made me laugh, The Fortnite, just like when they go on The Facebook.

    Once again all video games, not the internet or movies or tv shows. Even if they did start blaming those more than games I would be frustrated as still just trying to find the scapegoat and not own up to the problem that it may be them. Anyway, it's become yesterday news until the next one and will be back to rinse and repeat. Need a sign,
    No Mass shootings for 3 days.

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