The Argument That Video Games Spur Mass Shootings Is Losing Steam

The Argument That Video Games Spur Mass Shootings Is Losing Steam

On the painful occasion of a mass shooting in the US, it has become customary for some politician or pundit to point an accusatory finger at video games. In late May, after two such attacks — in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, it was Texas Senator Ted Cruz. These tragedies, he said in a speech at a National Rifle Association convention, were a mirror of our culture, and specifically, where our culture is failing.

In addition to “broken families” and “declining church attendance,” he said, “desensitizing the act of murder in video games” has contributed to the epidemic of mass shootings.

What surprised me wasn’t what Cruz said. It was how little traction it received in the mainstream media. A Fox News host asked his guest, Arizona State University criminal justice professor Bernard Zapor, whether violent video games’ heightened realism contributed to an increase in mass homicides. Zapor dodged, instead citing the dissolution of community bonds.

Most coverage of Cruz’s comments (and Fox’s interview) were in the service of invalidating the question itself: Decades of research have shown no connection between playing violent video games and committing violent acts.

For more than 20 years years, the idea that video games like Doom somehow spurred these heinous shootings held sway in popular culture. In the ‘90s, “There was really no pushback,” said Chris Ferguson, Stetson University’s co-chair of psychology, who has studied violent video games’ impact on gamers for about 20 years.

Doom is known for its gore and violence. Source: Bethesda Softworks

Ferguson recalled a time when there was widespread, bipartisan agreement that gory shooters could inspire teens and young adults to commit violent acts. Then, he says, something changed.

“You see half-hearted attempts by Ted Cruz and a few other people bringing up video games, but there’s not much enthusiasm behind it,” Ferguson said. “I don’t think anyone’s biting at the apple anymore.”

Stanley Pierre-Louis, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Entertainment Software Association, agrees. “The frequency of the arguments have lessened,” he said. “When they do arise, policymakers are rebutting those with the evidence that's on the record.”

I asked search analytics firm NewsWhip for data on social media engagement around “video game violence” over time. Then, I cross-referenced that data with mass shooting events. I am not a scientist, but it was interesting to see violent video games brought up less and less often around mass homicides. A glance at Google Trends shows a broader decline in searches on “video game violence” generally since 2004.

Some of the drop is attributable to better research. Studies carried out over many years have repeatedly disproven any connection between playing violent video games and committing acts of violence. “Media has very little impact on behavior generally across the board, including games” said Rachel Kowert, research director for mental health nonprofit TakeThis.

Notably, other countries with similar rates of video game play don’t have similar rates of gun violence. To Kowert, Cruz’s reference after the Uvalde attack was “Nauseating. It’s so tiring and exhausting to see politicians continually draw on that as a reason to justify violent criminal behavior when we know from the research that there’s no evidence to prove it.”

Still, she thinks the public continues to link together video games and violence — including parents who approach her at conventions with concerns about gaming. The argument to make the connection is still "ubiquitous enough," she said, adding that she’s disappointed that rebuttals have "not reached the point of saturation."

The persistent link between violence and video games seems to be political— a mirror to our culture, from the eyes of the beholder. For example, in one 2019 study of more than 200,000 news stories about 204 mass shootings in the US, researchers noted that video games were more than eight times more likely to be referenced if the shooter was White instead of Black.

Ferguson noticed a shift around when Donald Trump was in office. In 2019, Trump made statements associating “gruesome and grisly video games” to a culture of violence after mass homicides in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. His statements received enormous pushback from researchers, journalists and even other politicians.

Hillary Clinton, who had made similar comments in the 2000s herself, spoke out. “People suffer from mental illness in every other country on earth; people play video games in virtually every other country on earth,” she said. “The difference is the guns.”

As video games grow less compelling as an explanation for this senseless violence, perhaps politicians and pundits will turn to factors more provably associated with gun violence. “It's clear that video games are not causing real world violence,” said ESA’s Pierre-Louis. “And I think we're seeing a significant effort among policymakers today, particularly on the federal level, to engage in legislation involving the sale of guns,”
The Argument That Video Games Spur Mass Shootings Is Losing Steam
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