Press "Enter" to skip to content

Video Games Aren’t Why Shootings Happen. Politicians Still Blame Them.

After two mass shootings over the weekend that killed 31 people and wounded dozens more, powerful Republicans, including the president, blamed an old bogeyman: video games.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” President Trump said on Monday in a White House address on the shootings. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.”

Mr. Trump’s words echoed those of Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader. In an appearance on “Fox & Friends” on Sunday morning, Mr. Patrick implored the federal government to “do something about the video game industry.”

“We’ve watched from studies, shown before, what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others,” added Mr. McCarthy on a different Fox show.

Video“It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence,” Trump said.CreditCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

Armed with little and often unconvincing evidence, politicians have blamed violence on video games for decades. Their rhetoric quickly ramped up in the 1990s, after games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom popularized the genre of violent first-person shooting games. Since then, video games have been blamed for shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, and many others in between.

Researchers have extensively studied whether there is a causal link between video games and violent behavior, and while there isn’t quite a consensus, there is broad agreement that no such link exists.

According to a policy statement from the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association, “Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities.”

Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, led the committee that developed the policy statement. In an interview Monday, he said the evidence was clear that violent video games are not a risk factor for serious acts of aggression. Neither are violent movies, nor other forms of media.

“The data on bananas causing suicide is about as conclusive,” said Dr. Ferguson. “Literally. The numbers work out about the same.”

The Supreme Court has also rejected the idea. In striking down a California law that banned the sale of some violent video games to children in 2011, the court savaged the evidence California mustered in support of its law.

“These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively,” Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion. He added: “They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

Shortly after Mr. Trump’s address, the hashtag #VideogamesAreNotToBlame began trending nationally on Twitter, with most tweets mocking the idea that video games were to blame for either of the shootings.

If video games did indeed cause some mass shootings, one might expect such events to be common in Japan or South Korea. Both countries spend more per capita on video games than the United States, according to Newzoo, and have huge video game communities. Japan is home to video game makers like Nintendo, Sega and Sony, while South Korea has a highly developed competitive video gaming industry.

But Japan and South Korea — both of which have very strict laws limiting gun ownership — have among the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, and mass casualty events are quite rare.


Mr. Trump’s administration studied the issue previously and came to no significant conclusion about connections between mass shootings and violent video games.

After last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Trump administration convened a federal commission on school safety. The commission’s final report downplayed the role of guns in school shootings. Instead, it called for improving mental health services, training school employees in firearm use and rolling back rules developed during the Obama administration that were aimed at ensuring minority children weren’t unfairly disciplined by schools.

The commission’s 180-page report devotes a chapter to what it calls “violent entertainment,” including video games. After hearing from a variety of researchers and other experts, the commission officially recommended that state and local educational agencies have internet safety measures in place, and the enforcers of voluntary ratings systems — such as the Motion Picture Association of America’s practice of assigning ratings like “PG-13” and “R” to movies — should review and improve their policies.

It made no specific recommendation in regards to video games.

In some cases, the perpetrators of mass shootings are quite clear about their motivations. On Saturday, a 2,300-word manifesto appeared online minutes before the shooting in El Paso, Tex., in which 21 people were killed. The second line of the hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto says the attack “is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Law enforcement officials were investigating whether it was written by the shooter. They were interviewing the suspect, Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man who lived about a 10-hour drive from the Walmart where the shooting took place.

Video games are, however, mentioned in the manifesto. “Don’t attack heavily guarded areas to fulfill your super soldier COD fantasy,” it advised, referring to the popular Call of Duty franchise of games in which players usually embody the roles of soldiers.

People who commit mass shootings sometimes identify as video gamers, but James Ivory, who studies media and video games at Virginia Tech, cautioned to be aware of the base rate effect. Of course some mass shooters will have played violent video games, he said — video games are ubiquitous in society, especially among men, who are much more likely to commit mass shootings.

“It is very similar to saying the perpetrator wears shoes,” Dr. Ivory explained. “They do, but so do their peers in the general population.”

ImageCreditMartin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Researchers have some good data on what causes people to commit violent crime, but much less data on what causes them to commit mass shootings, in large part because they happen relatively infrequently.

There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a mass shooting. For a long time, the F.B.I. considered it to be a single shooting in which four or more people were killed. By that definition, a handful occur in the United States each year. Using a definition with fewer victims, or including those injured but not killed, a few hundred occur each year.

Either count pales in comparison to the other one million violent crimes reported each year.

While cautioning that he was hesitant to imply that most mass shooters fit a specific profile, Dr. Ferguson listed some commonalities. They tend to have mental health problems, sometimes undiagnosed, a history of antisocial behavior, have often come to the attention of law enforcement or other authorities and are what criminologists call “injustice collectors,” he said.

“The problem is, you could take that profile and collect 500,000 people that fit,” he said. “There are a lot of angry jerks out there that don’t go on to commit mass shootings.”

Violent video games are much more likely to be trotted out as an excuse, however, in certain situations. For a forthcoming study, Dr. Ivory and his colleagues studied 6,814 news accounts of mass shootings. They found that in coverage of mass school shootings specifically, video games were more than eight times as likely to be brought up when the shooter is white than when the shooter is black.

“We should think about when we are more comfortable looking for something else to blame,” he said, adding, “I haven’t heard any senators talk about video games when an immigrant commits a crime.”


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *