In the wake of two mass shootings, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the nation to say that “gruesome and grisly video games,” among other things, were to blame for the tragedies.
This is not the first time Trump has made this connection, nor is he the only one to do so. Other U.S. politicians and gun-rights activists have made similar comments connecting video games and real-life violence, going as far back as the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School.
But a fair amount of research shows that video games affect our brains in complex ways. Here are the most important takeaways.
Many kids and adults play video games – they’re not just of interest to young white men
Many of the high-profile shootings in recent news have been perpetrated by young men. But members of plenty of other demographics play video games, and don’t end up committing mass violence.
According to the most recent data from the American Entertainment Software Association: 65 per cent of American adults play video games, and 75 per cent of households have at least one gamer. The average gamer is 33 years old. Of people who play video games in the U.S., 46 per cent are female (up from 41 per cent in 2017).
Some studies link playing violent games to slight increases in aggression, but that’s not the same as violence
One review of research by the American Psychological Association found that people who played violent video games were very slightly more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours, like playing a loud sound that people they were competing against could hear over an audio system.
However, APA said playing games was not enough to cause aggression. In addition, video games were found in some research to be more likely to cause aggression in people who were predisposed to hostility and less considerate of others.
Other studies have found no link between game violence and violent or aggressive thoughts. Some researchers, like APA member Chris Ferguson, have even disputed findings connecting games to aggression, saying many of the studies that drew such conclusions had methodological problems.
Either way, aggressive behaviour is not the same as violence, and there’s no research linking video games to homicide.
According to a 2015 APA resolution on video games, “all violence, including lethal violence, is aggression, but not all aggression is violence … insufficient research has examined whether violent video game use causes lethal violence.”
Many of the people involved in mass shooting incidents seem to be less interested in violent video games than their peers
Psychology professors Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson found that about 20 per cent of school shooters played violent video games, compared to close to 70 per cent of their nonviolent peers.
A 2004 report on school shooters by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education found that only 12 per cent of school shooters displayed an interest in violent video games.
In the time period that violent video games have become popular, youth violence has declined
It’s easy to find video games that depict blood, gore, and violence. Yet studies show that youth violence has consistently declined as these games have become available.
One study out of Boston University found that youth violence rates dropped 29 per cent in the U.S. between 2002 and 2014. Youth violence rates spiked from 1980 to 1994, according to the Urban Institute. But those rates started to plummet in the 1990s, dropping 34 per cent between 1994 and 2000.
This is just a correlation – it does not mean that games cause violence rates to drop. But it also doesn’t support the idea that violent games are “creating monsters,” as Trump put it in 2012.
Video games can’t explain the US’s outlier status in terms of gun violence
Various political figures have blamed school shootings on kids playing violent video games. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said guns were not a problem but that games desensitised players to the value of human life. NRA President Wayne LaPierre said after the Sandy Hook shooting that “Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media, and Obama’s budget kill people.”
But a comparison of the 10 largest video game markets in the world shows that there are far more gun murders in the US than in other countries that spend a lot of money on video games. That’s even true in countries that spend more on games per capita than the U.S. does, including Germany, Australia, the UK, Canada, France, Japan, and South Korea.
If video games were responsible for violence, there should be more violence in those countries.
Playing games can help people relax
People play video games to relax, and research finds games can indeed help with that. Studies have shown that puzzle video games can decrease stress and improve mood. Some of the most popular video games don’t involve shooting at all, but focus on solving puzzles or world-building, like the indie hit Stardew Valley in which players cultivate a farm, take care of animals and befriend their neighbours.
According to research from the American Psychological Association, games can elicit a range of emotions, positive and negative – including satisfaction, relaxation, frustration, and anger. Experiencing these emotions in a gaming context may help people regulate emotions, learn to cope with situations, and challenge themselves, the APA said.
Other studies have shown that kids who play moderate amounts of games (less than an hour per day) have fewer emotional issues and are more likely to help others than kids who don’t play games.
A new generation of games are actively taking on mental health issues, representing topics like depression, anxiety and even PTSD in a way that can help people feel less alone.
Researchers have used video game technologies like virtual reality to help people recover from PTSD, get over phobias, and learn to manage drug addiction
Virtual-reality environments provide safe but real-feeling scenarios in which people can face fears and difficult situations with the support of a therapist. New technology is making these sorts of interventions much more accessible than they used to be.
Researchers have also used VR as an alternative to painkillers, since entering a “new reality” allows someone’s brain to forget the pain they’re dealing with during surgery.
The psychological effects of video games might vary depending on how much you play
One study of 10- to 15-year-old children found that kids who played less than an hour of video games per day were more satisfied than kids who didn’t play games or kids who played one to three hours per day.
The groups of kids that didn’t play or played between one and three hours daily seemed to have the same level life satisfaction. Kids who played more than three hours a day were less satisfied than any of the other groups.
From what we know, there are ways that video games can help people relax, challenge themselves, and even push their cognitive abilities. At the same time, it’s quite possible that excessive time spent playing games – as with any hobby – may be unhealthy or a sign that someone is struggling.
But in general, video games seem to be just another form of entertainment.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider, and features additional reporting by former Business Insider correspondent Kevin Loria.
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