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Blaming Video Games for School Shootings Is Misguided, Dangerous

Politicians, are once again, wasting no time blaming video games for the Valentine’s Day shootings in Florida which left 17 dead at a high school near Boca Raton.

During a radio interview, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin blamed video games for creating a “culture of death” and argued that these games are “. . . garbage. It’s the same as pornography. They have desensitized people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency. We’re reaping what we’ve sown here.” This politician is mimicking the rhetoric of a small vocal minority of video game researchers who have been blaming video games for school shootings and other horrific acts of violence for decades. With little to no evidence they have testified before congress claiming “. . . an estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of violence in society can be attributed to the impact of violent media.” Published op-eds declaring “Controlling the use of violent video games is one step we can take to protect our society from violence.” And even claiming that the public health risk of violent video games is comparable to that of smoking and lung cancer. The problem is such fear mongering provides politicians with a red herring to hide behind while avoiding addressing the real issues related to violence.

Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence to support claims that video games cause societal aggression or violence. Most studies of violent video games consider mundane forms of aggression such as whether players are more likely to expose others to loud, irritating noises, or give hot sauce to people who do not like spicy food. Data from these studies is mixed, some finding effects, some not. And, while these outcomes might be related to unfriendly thoughts or even just competitiveness, it is a leap to imply hot sauce or loud noise translates to a propensity to commit mass homicide. Discounting the absurdity of linking these outcomes to school shootings, given the dire concerns expressed by politicians you might guess that playing violent video games increase these minor forms of aggression by around 40 or 50 percent. Even if you are a bit skeptical you might guess at least a 10 percent effect. It turns out – you are wrong. On average, this type of research finds that, at best, only 0.4 percent of the variation in minor forms of aggression can be explained by video games with more recent studies suggesting the number might be closer to zero.

When scholars have examined real-world violence – school shootings, homicide, and aggregated assault – any tiny links between video games and mundane acts of aggression completely disappears. Research done by the US Secret Service and our laboratories have both found that less than 20 percent of school shooters played violent video games with any amount of regularity. Not only is interest in violent video games rare among school shooters, these perpetrators express much less interest in this violent medium than most other individuals. If you were to enter any school in America you would find that about 70 percent of the male students habitually play violent video games. If there is any link between violent video games and school shootings it is in the opposite direction expressed by politicians and researchers examining irritating loud noise exposure – those who perpetrate acts of violence in schools are more than three times less likely to play violent video games than an average high school student.

Consistent with this research it has also been found that countries that consume more video games have lower levels of violent crime than those devoid of this media. Months when people are playing violent video games tend to be safer than months people are not home playing video games. Even when violent video games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto are first released there tends to be a decrease in homicides. Such findings have been replicated by psychologists, economists, and sociologist at various universities while taking into account numerous potential other variables.

At present we know that the majority of scholars who study video games are skeptical of links with violence in society.  Only about 10 to 15 percent of scholars believe in such links, indicating this is clearly the minority opinion. What is more interesting is that age is a strong predictor of attitudes among scholars. Older scholars and those who don’t like kids are more likely to believe violent games are bad. In 2013 a group of over 230 scholars wrote to the American Psychological Association expressing concern that the APA should no longer release statements implying links between violent games and societal aggression. And in 2017 the APA’s own Media Psychology division released a policy statement requesting that politicians like Bevin refrain from making these kinds of claims.

Why do politicians like Bevin make such false claims then? We suspect that this is a defensive reaction to distract society from considering gun control. We note that the NRA have, in the past, sought to shift debates from gun control to video games, which we regard as a cynical and immoral tactic. Unfortunately, a vocal minority of scholars, including professional guilds like the American Academy of Pediatrics have given ammunition to these society-harming efforts. By manufacturing a fear, these scholars have given license to politicians and others to distract us from the more pressing causes of school shootings. By promoting moral panic, these scholars have done more harm than good for the safety of our children. By failing to honestly inform the public about violent video game research, these scholars have guaranteed that the response to Florida will be the same response we witnessed following Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine. We will blame video games and nothing will be done.

Patrick M. Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University, and Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University, are the authors of “Moral Combat: Why the War on Video Games Is Wrong.”

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