A long-standing debate over whether violence depicted in video games can trigger real-world violence has taken on renewed vigor in the wake of mass shootings in recent years. The gunman who killed 22 people and injured 24 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 3 made a fleeting reference to video game soldiers, indicating that he was familiar with video violence, and many politicians were quick to blame video games for this and other mass shootings. Yet it seems clear that the El Paso gunman was primarily motivated by ethnic hatred. His manifesto said the attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
The main reason to worry about video games is a slew of studies claiming to find a link between violence in video games and real-world aggression, but countervailing studies have found no persuasive link. The main reason to be skeptical of a causal link is that video games have spread widely around the world without driving other countries to the levels of violence in this country.
Then there is the question of what can be done to sanitize video violence without violating First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, which the Supreme Court has applied to works of art, films, and video games that many might find repugnant. A Supreme Court decision in 2011 struck down a California law that sought to ban the sale or rental of violent video games to minors on the grounds that its vague and ill-defined language violated the First Amendment rights of the entertainment merchants.
I have no personal experience with violent video games but the amount of violence depicted in some current video games is astounding. The gore was graphically described by Justice Samuel Alito in a concurring opinion to the 2011 Supreme Court decision. In obvious disgust, he wrote that victims are killed with every imaginable implement, including machine guns, clubs, hammers, and chainsaws, among others. Victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces. They cry out in agony and beg for mercy. Blood gushes, splatters, and pools. Severed body parts and gobs of human remains are graphically shown.
Some games exploit antisocial themes, he continued. There are games in which a player can re-enact the killings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. The goal of one game is to rape a mother and her daughter, of another game to rape Native-American women. There is an ethnic cleansing game in which players can choose to gun down African-Americans, Latinos, or Jews.
Fortunately, there is no hard evidence yet that such games lead to mass murders or grisly killings. Indeed, most correlation studies show at most a small effect.
The late Justice Antonio Scalia, writing for the majority in the 2011 Supreme Court decision, scoffed at the notion that violent video games cause real-world violence. Most of the research studies suffer from admitted flaws in methodology, he wrote. “They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”
Professional societies have struggled with the issue and waged battles within their ranks without reaching a clear conclusion.
In 2007, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health issued a report likening excessive use of video games to a gambling addiction, although it acknowledged there was insufficient research to be sure it was an addiction. The council urged the AMA to contact the American Psychiatric Association (APA) about including internet and video game addiction in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a text used by psychiatrists around the world. But when the recommendations were put to a vote at the AMA’s annual meeting, the delegates backed away and simply called for more research and a review of a video game ratings system that was set up when in the wake of Senate hearings in 1993 to help parents decide whether to let their children play a video game.
The APA was also split internally. The association’s official position, expressed in a resolution adopted in August 2015, is that the link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior is “one of the most studied and best established.” However, that aggressiveness included insults, threats, hitting, pushing, hair pulling, biting, and other forms of verbal and physical aggression. There was insufficient research on whether violent video games cause lethal violence. Studies have also shown that video game use is associated with a decrease in empathy and other socially desirable behavior.
A component of the association, the APA’s division for media psychology and technology, was much more dismissive of any causal link. In a policy statement on June 22, 2017, it found “scant evidence” of any causal connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities” and “little evidence” that playing such games “produces violent criminal behavior.”
The warring positions on the issue were judged closer to agreement than most think in a recent analysis. A paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science on June 12 used what it called “novel analyses” to determine whether conflicting results of meta-analyses were an artifact of reporting practices that masked an underlying consensus. The paper found that “all of the meta/analyses do in fact point to the conclusion that, in the vast majority of settings, violent video games do increase aggressive behavior but that these effects are almost always quite small.”
That judgement was consistent with views expressed in separate articles by Benedict Carey and Kevin Draper in the New York TImes on August 5, just after the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton Ohio.
One respected organization, the National Center for Health Research, a non-profit non-partisan organization that critiques medical research, leans in the direction of worrying about triggering lethal assaults. It published an article on “Violent Video Games and Aggression” which found that: “Very few studies have looked at whether playing violent video games increases the chance of later delinquency, criminal behavior, or lethal violence. Such studies are difficult to conduct and require very large numbers of children. It makes sense that since playing violent video games tends to increase the level of aggressive behavior it would also result in more lethal violence or other criminal behaviors, but there is no clear evidence to support that assumption.”
That paper and many others stress that video game exposure is only one of many risk factors for aggressive behavior and violence. Various scholars point to such factors as racism and ethnic hatred, certain psychiatric disorders, adverse social environments, and easy access to guns and other lethal weapons, which may be the most critical factor of all.
Focusing on violent video games as the cause of mass shootings almost certainly distracts legislators and government officials from the pressing need to deal with more fundamental causes. It is a moral imperative for federal and state legislators, government officials, and all others concerned with lethal violence to confront the underlying problems and not take symbolic refuge in blaming violent video games.
Phil Boffey is former deputy editor of the New York Times Editorial Board and editorial page writer, primarily focusing on the impacts of science and health on society. He was also editor of Science Times and a member of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by The Dana Foundation.