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Does Video Game Violence Make Kids Into Shooters?

Some scientists think Trump is wasting time and resources by exploring video game violence as a cause for mass shootings. Some experts say the opposite.

Infinity Ward/Activision

In the wake of the horrific El Paso shooting, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy expressed a belief that violence in video games might have inspired an act of domestic terrorism that left 20 dead. In doing so, he echoed remarks made by President Trump in the wake of the shooting at Parkland High School. Fox News now makes a habit of identifying shooters as gamers — doing so recently after a shooting at a video game tournament (the game in question? Madden Football). Though the connection between violent video games and mass shootings was a bipartisan concern after the Columbine murders in 1999, further research on the attitudes of video game players provided little reason to believe in a causal link. That said, despite the fact that the gaming community is diverse and mass shooters are overwhelmingly young white men, there is no scientific consensus on whether video game violence can be linked to real-world violence.

When Republicans who advocate against gun control bring up video games, they are not necessarily lying about gun violence. But they are providing perhaps the least likely answer to what may not be a complicated question at all. Why do Americans die in mass shootings? Well, access to guns is surely part of it.

After Parkland — seeming at least in part to avoid speaking about specific gun control legislation — President Trump convened a panel of people from the video game industry, showing them a supercut of violent graphics. Given the divisive state of American politics, it will come as no surprise that some criticized Trump for trying to distract from the core issue. Though these critics were likely correct about the President’s motives, being entirely dismissive of the connection between video game brutality and acts of hate might be willfully naive.

The American Psychological Association concluded in 2015 that there’s “an association between violent video game use and both increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement.” Those findings held “across multiple methods and multiple samples with multiple types of measurements.” In other words, researchers found that violent video games increased the risk of aggressive behavior and were able to duplicate that finding.

“All existing quantitative reviews of the violent video game literature have found a direct association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes,” APA said in a statement.

One year later the American Academy of Pediatrics hopped on board, citing more than 400 studies linking exposure to violent media with aggression. Games that award points for killing, they write, “teach children to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.” 

Craig A. Anderson, the psychologist behind much of this research, agrees that violent video games are linked to aggression. “Some studies have yielded nonsignificant video game effects,” he said in 2003, responding to the claim that his research was not the final word on video game violence. “Just as some smoking studies failed to find a significant link to lung cancer.” And that’s not even Anderson’s most well-known quote comparing video games to cigarettes. “The 14-year-old boy arguing that he has played violent video games for years and has not ever killed anybody is absolutely correct,” he once wrote. “As is the 45-year-old two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker who notes that he still does not have lung cancer.”

But Anderson, the APA, the AAP, and Trump aren’t the only games in town. One 2008 study involving more than 6,000 eighth graders found no connection between violent video games and violent behavior. And an oft-cited study published in 2016 found that overall societal violence in fact decreased in the weeks following violent video game release dates. One possible reason for the decline is that even violent video games provide potent distractions from acts of violence. “By keeping young males busy with things they like,” Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University told CNN. “You keep them off the streets and out of trouble.”

The most recent study on the subject, published last month in Entertainment Computing, also constituted a win for the video game industry and its supporters. Researchers surveyed 3,000 subjects and found no evidence to support the theory that violent video games make players act violently. “The findings suggest that there is no link between these kinds of realism in games and the kind of effects that video games are commonly thought to have on their players,” said David Zendle of the University of York, in a statement.  

So does this mean Trump is right to lecture video game executives after the Parkland school shooting? Probably not. Science aside, the president almost certainly has no intention of regulating the video game industry (although he wouldn’t be the first politician, Democrat or Republican, to flirt with the idea despite First Amendment implications). It seems more likely that Trump was attempting to apportion an element of blame for an act of madness to the entertainment industry. The fact that this holds with some scientific evidence was likely coincidental. Evidence on this particular issue has never seemed to be the source of political conviction.

Still, that politicians score cheap points by pointing fingers at violent video games does not mean violent video games aren’t part of the problem. For every study that shows no link between violence and video games, there are several others that suggest a strong link. And when the AAP and APA get together to declare something risky, parents should listen. Trump isn’t the best ambassador for evidence-based parenting. But when he suggests we keep our kids away from violent media, for better or for worse, he’s echoing the best available science and the overwhelming expert opinion.