After the horrific events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day left 17 people dead, others seriously injured and countless terrified and in grief, it took only a single day for blame to be directed at video games for this act of real-life violence, despite no available evidence. The following week, President Trump also offered violent video games as a contributing factor in violent behavior. And then Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on March 1 that President Trump plans to meet with representatives from the video game industry to discuss what they can do about real-life gun violence.
Although the dates, names and locations are different each time, we have seen this story of blame many times before. Video games were assigned partial blame by authorities after the 2016 Munich shooting, for example. Discussions about the shooter’s interest in video games also appeared following the 2013 Sandy Hook shooting, despite later reports questioning whether violence was present in the shooter’s video games of choice; "Dance, Dance Revolution" was said to be his favorite game. In the case of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, video games were often raised as a talking point in the initial coverage, though later reports indicated that the shooter did not play video games at all (aside from the non-violent Sonic the Hedgehog when he was a child).
But even if a given shooter had played violent games, would that have really been a factor in his actions?
My own research has generally found that video games have no or only trivial effects on behavior.
Before reaching high school, over 90 percent of boys will have played violent video games. If nearly all young men have played violent games, then finding that a shooter played violent video games is not a personality trait that sets them apart from the vast majority of players who do not act violently.
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One could, instead, make a more cultural argument that the prevalence of violent games today leads to a general increase in violence. However, crime statistics do not support that claim either, as the era of violent video games is occurring in the same era of historically low violent crime rates.
My own research has generally found that video games have no or only trivial effects on behavior. Instead, violent acts seem to be more strongly related to the relationship that a child has with their parents, and whether they are experiencing or witnessing violence in real-life.
But it’s not just my own research that finds this lack of an effect from violent video games: More than one meta-analysis of research studies have reached the conclusion that there are no substantively influential effects from playing violent video games on real-life violence. (Although it is true that some early studies found effects, later analyses have rebutted those findings.)
More than one meta-analysis of research studies have reached the conclusion that there are no substantively influential effects from playing violent video games on real-life violence.
The alleged connection between violent games and violent behavior was even investigated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for the majority in the bipartisan 7-2 decision, Justice Scalia stated that the studies that “purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children... 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.”
Some scholarly organizations have nonetheless made statements claiming that there are links between violent video games and “aggression.” These statements, however, have been characterized as a vehicle for self-promotion of the organization rather than as an unbiased empirical assessment. Contrary to claims that there is “broad scientific consensus” that video games have an effect, surveys of scholars indicate far from such an agreement. Overall, only 39.5 percent of clinicians and clinical researchers agree with the idea that violent video games’ effects on real-life violence is a problem. When the same was asked of academic researchers, a mere 15.3 percent agreed that violent video games contribute to real-life violence.
If the evidence is so clear that violent video games do not have an effect on violent behavior, then why, you might ask, do we keep hearing people talk about violent video games being at fault for shootings? With each tragic school shooting, we see a demand from the public for action to be taken to keep the next one from happening.
Criminologists have offered suggestions, based on a century of quality scientific research, only to have policymakers realize that these potential solutions are often expensive.
But such actions are not easy to undertake. Criminologists have offered suggestions based on a century of quality scientific research into the causes of crime, only to have policymakers realize that these potential solutions are often expensive — requiring us to deal with the root causes of social problems, such as poverty.
Even more difficult for policymakers is that the causes of crime cannot easily be rectified on a large scale, such as encouraging youth to develop strong social bonds with their parents and other positive parts of society. Efforts to prevent violence could also include adopting stricter gun laws, which currently has two-thirds majority public support for such changes and decided opposition in the White House and Congress. Investing in more funding for the education system can also serve as a crime-prevention tool, as criminologists have argued for centuries, but the president has proposed a five percent cut to the Department of Education for this year and state and local investment in schools is significantly down from a decade ago.
These more comprehensive approaches to reducing crime take time and funding, and may come with political costs in the short-term. In contrast, passing the blame onto video games is something much easier to do. With young people standing up and keeping the narrative on-point, however, the use of video games as a scapegoat might not be the magic distraction that it once was.
Dr. Whitney DeCamp is an associate professor of sociology at Western Michigan University. His research on video games has appeared in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Personality and Individual Differences, Psychology of Popular Media Culture and other refereed research journals.