I’m hearing more and more people seeing the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And then you go the further step, and that’s the movies. You see these movies, and they’re so violent a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved, and maybe we need to put a rating system for that. The fact is that you are having movies come out, that are so violent, the killing and everything else, and we may have to think about that.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur released a statement on Wednesday suggesting that the best way to combat gun violence was research into violent media:
While I have seen too many wasteful studies in government, we need more scientific research on gun violence and its causes. This is a worthy investment by the government, and can be done by several federal agencies. Any study must also consider the moral and spiritual decay in our society. Hollywood glorifies violence, the media makes its perpetrators famous, and the video game industry creates ever more realistic virtual games, where killing is a form of entertainment. Sick and troubled people feed off of this. I am not suggesting that we outlaw media coverage, movies, or video games, but we need to confront the impact these things have on children. I am willing to lead on, serve or support such a study, which should include diverse perspectives.
Video games have long been blamed for violent tendencies. The theory is that viewing and pretending to do violent things somehow rewires a person’s emotions and neurology and makes them more likely to think it’s OK to do something horrific, like use a rifle to massacre students and unarmed teachers at a school or a mass shooting.
Chris Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University. He has extensively studied how video games affect violence.
“Trump’s claim is nuts,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s long been discredited. This is not a thing.”
Ferguson said he’s seen this sort of talk ebb and flow in the aftermath of what’s sadly become regular mass shooting events in the United States. “We went through this with Sandy Hook [Elementary School],” he said, referring to the December 2012 mass shooting where Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults. Lanza’s behavior was described as anti-social and politicians pounced by blaming this antisociality on his playing video games like Grand Theft Auto. But in the report that came out 11 months after, Lanza’s favorite game based on screen shots and hours played seemed to be the much less violent, seemingly innocent Dance Dance Revolution.
To Ferguson, it goes to show that tying violent video games to behavior is a dangerous misconception. In 2015, Ferguson conducted one of the most thorough meta-analyses to date of the topic in Perspectives in Psychological Science, analyzing 101 studies that explored the effect of video games on children's violent tendencies.
Here’s what he found: Connections to violent video games to increased aggression, reduced prosocial behavior, reduced academic performance, depressive symptoms, and attention deficit issues were minimal to practically nonexistent. “There’s no conclusive evidence that video games impact even mild aggression,” Ferguson said.
In August 2015, the American Psychological Association published a Resolution on Violent Video Games that heavily cited Ferguson’s work in an attempt to put down the myth, once and for all, that violent video games were in any way tied to gun violence. (It’s worth noting that the task force was formed in 2005 to explore the connection between video games and a violent person’s enacting of violence.)
“The link between violent video game exposure and and aggressive behavior is one of the most studied and best established,” the APA taskforce wrote. “Since the earlier meta-analysis, this link continues to be a reliable finding and shows good multi-method consistency across various representations of both violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior.”
“And nothing’s changed since then,” Ferguson repeated.
One major myth that continues about violent video games is that they desensitize children to committing violent acts. While being continuously exposed to something like sex or violence certainly desensitizes one to violence in media, it does not translate to a person becoming empathetically desensitized.
That’s a total leap in logic, Ferguson said. “Sure, you get desensitized to violence if you see it in movies or games,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that you become desensitized to people suffering at large. There’s no evidence that people get less concerned about real people or injurious to others.”
In fact, a paper published in 2014 in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that exposure to violent video games was correlated to a decrease in violent crime. And Ferguson cited both increases in teen volunteering rates and nosedives in overall violence to be indicative of the fact that the link between violent video games and antisociability is basically zero.
The more dangerous aspect to the myth of violent video games and IRL violence is the fact that mental illness has been somehow associated with video games, or at least exacerbated by it. Depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often cited in profiles of shooters, often in the same breath as violent video games.
Again, this is not true. A 2014 study of 377 children in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, co-led by Ferguson, found that there was no such connection, and that delinquency and/or bullying weren’t connected to violent video games either.
In fact, “our results did not support the hypothesis that children with elevated mental health symptoms constitute a ‘vulnerable’ population for video game violence effects”—which means it’s neither that violent video games induce mental illness nor is it that kids who have a tendency towards mental illness (genetic or otherwise) are more easily affected by violent video games.
If anything, violent video games are often a scapegoat in mass violence incidents. As Ferguson points out, the literature proving this link is an outright myth is overwhelming. Gun violence research has shown repeatedly that, more often than not, access to guns plays a strong role in gun violence and mass shootings.
Public health and sociology research has pointed to social networks being the primary reason for spreading what’s been termed as the gun violence “contagion,” according to a study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine. Sixty percent of gun violence happened in “cascades,” which meant that incidences were connected to each other and spread. A 2016 overview of 130 studies across 10 countries in Epidemiological Review found a straightforward drop in gun violence after gun control was instituted, with Australia long-cited as one of the models of this causation.
The point is this: Gun violence research exists, is plentiful and rigorous, and repeatedly shows that it’s not violent video games to blame so much as being able to access a gun.