In the wake of the El Paso, Texas mass shooting on 3 August that left 22 dead and dozens injured, a familiar trope has re-emerged: often, when a young man is the shooter, people try to blame the tragedy on violent videogames and other forms of media.
This time, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick placed some of the blame on a videogame industry that “teaches young people to kill”. Republican house minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California went on to condemn videogames that “dehumanise individuals” as a “problem for future generations”. And President Donald Trump pointed to society’s “glorification of violence”, including “gruesome and grisly videogames”.
These are the same connections a Florida lawmaker made after the Parkland shooting in February 2018, suggesting that the gunman in that case “was prepared to pick off students like it’s a videogame”.
But, as a researcher who has studied violent videogames for almost 15 years, I can state that there is no evidence to support the claims that violent media and real-world violence are connected.
As far back as 2011, the US supreme court ruled that research did not find a clear connection between violent videogames and aggressive behaviour. Criminologists who study mass shootings specifically refer to those sorts of connections as a “myth”. And in 2017, the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association released a statement I helped craft, suggesting reporters and policymakers cease linking mass shootings to violent media, given the lack of evidence for a link.
So, why are so many policymakers inclined to blame violent videogames for violence? There are two main reasons.
The first is the psychological research community’s efforts to market itself as strictly scientific. This led to a replication crisis instead, with researchers often unable to repeat the results of their studies. Now, psychology researchers are reassessing their analyses of a wide range of issues — not just violent videogames, but implicit racism, power poses and more.
The other part of the answer lies in the troubled history of violent videogame research specifically.
Beginning in the early 2000s, some scholars, anti-media advocates and professional groups like the APA began working to connect a methodologically messy and often contradictory set of results to public health concerns about violence. This echoed historical patterns of moral panic, such as 1950s concerns about comic books and Tipper Gore’s efforts to blame pop and rock music in the 1980s for violence, sex and satanism.
Particularly in the early 2000s, dubious evidence regarding violent videogames was uncritically promoted. But over the years, confidence among scholars that violent videogames influence aggression or violence has crumbled.
My own research has examined the degree to which violent videogames can — or can’t — predict youth aggression and violence. In a 2015 meta-analysis, I examined 101 studies on the subject and found that violent videogames had little impact on kids’ aggression, mood, helping behaviour or school marks.
Two years later, I found evidence that scholarly journals’ editorial biases had distorted the scientific record on violent videogames. Experimental studies that found effects were more likely to be published than studies that had found none. This was consistent with others’ findings. As the supreme court noted, any impacts due to videogames are nearly impossible to distinguish from the effects of other media, like cartoons and movies.
Any claims that there is consistent evidence that violent videogames encourage aggression are simply false.
Spikes in violent videogames’ popularity are well-known to correlate with substantial declines in youth violence — not increases. These correlations are very strong, stronger than most seen in behavioural research. More recent research suggests that the releases of highly popular violent videogames are associated with immediate declines in violent crime, hinting that the releases may cause the drop-off.
With so little evidence, why are lawmakers still trying to blame violent videogames for mass shootings by young men? Can groups like the National Rifle Association seriously blame imaginary guns for gun violence?
A key element of that problem is the willingness of professional guild organisations such as the APA to promote false beliefs about violent videogames. (I’m a fellow of the APA.) These groups mainly exist to promote a profession among news media, the public and policymakers, influencing licensing and insurance laws. They also make it easier to get grants and newspaper headlines. Psychologists and psychology researchers like myself pay them yearly dues to increase the public profile of psychology. But there is a risk the general public may mistake promotional positions for objective science.
In 2005, the APA released its first policy statement linking violent videogames to aggression. However, my recent analysis of internal APA documents with criminologist Allen Copenhaver found that the APA ignored inconsistencies and methodological problems in the research data.
The APA updated its statement in 2015, but that sparked controversy immediately: More than 230 scholars wrote to the group asking it to stop releasing policy statements altogether. I and others objected to perceived conflicts of interest and lack of transparency tainting the process.
It’s bad enough that these statements misrepresent the actual scholarly research and misinform the public. But it’s worse when those falsehoods give advocacy groups like the NRA cover to shift blame for violence onto non-issues like videogames. The resulting misunderstanding hinders efforts to address mental illness and other issues, such as the need for gun control, that are actually related to gun violence.
- Written by Christopher J Ferguson, professor of psychology, Stetson University
- This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence