Mass Shootings Reignite Video Game Debate Despite Lack of Evidence

“The older generation has these kinds of complaints, and when the audience dies, the moral panic dies,” Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, says

When violence strikes, the role of video games gets called into question.

Like clockwork, following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump called on the nation to stop the glorification of violence, including “gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested video games “dehumanize individuals.” And Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said that while “we’ve always had guns, always had evil,” he now sees “a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”

This has been going on for decades. In 2005,  then-senator Hillary Clinton implored lawmakers “to treat video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol and pornography.”

But more than a dozen years of research have failed to find a link between video games and real-world violence, according to Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University who has authored several studies that look at how video games impact society.

“At this point, the evidence is pretty clear that for something we’re worried about, like mass shootings, no, there’s no relationship whatsoever between violent video games and those sort of outcomes,” Ferguson told TheWrap.

In the 20 years since the Columbine shooting, video games have become more realistic and graphic, while the overall homicide rate in the U.S. has dropped. In 1999, 5.7 people were murdered per 100,000 U.S. citizens, according to the FBI; in 2017, the most recent year data is available for, 5.3 people were murdered per 100,000. Compared to the homicide rate for 1990, that’s a 43% decline. And since 1993, the U.S. violent crime rate has decreased 49%, according to FBI data.

Ferguson’s interest in how video games impact society was sparked two decades ago by the Columbine shooting. He has published several academic papers and studies on the topic. Here’s what he had to say about video games and their influence on violent behavior.

What does the data indicate? Is there any connection between video games and real-world violence?

No, none whatsoever. If you’re looking at real-world [violence] as in criminal violence or even serious aggression like bullying, I think at this point the evidence is pretty clear that violent video games — or other [forms of] entertainment violence like movies or television or books — are not risk factors for anything that people really care about.

Schoolyard fights, bullying, dating violence, everything has been looked at. We’re just not finding anything. Even for kids who already have problems.

Where there’s a little bit of debate is on what we call “prank-level aggression.” So, putting hot sauce in someone’s sandwich when you don’t think they like spicy food.

This is not stuff that society cares about. Nobody is worried about gangs in Chicago running around with Tabasco sauce and making each other thirsty.

With those [aggression studies], they’re mostly experimental studies, since we can’t have people attack each other in the lab. We’re really reliant on these mild aggression paradigms in experiments. And even there, the evidence is inconsistent. Some studies find there’s some small effects from violent video games, some studies find no effects, and some find that violent video games could reduce these prank-level behaviors. So it’s hard to say anything definitive.

If you were sitting across the table, what would you say to politicians and pundits who claim there is a connection?

We’ve done this before with the Trump administration.

Last year, after Parkland, Trump made some statements about video games and got a lot of pushback, so his administration, the Department of Education specifically, convened a school safety commission that was headed by Betsy DeVos. They released the report [later in 2018], and it had chapters on 15-20 topics, one of them being entertainment violence. And they didn’t make a big deal about it, in the end. They kind of said, “Well, we found this agreement amongst scholars that it’s not evidence-based. Parents should make decisions for themselves, and we want the video game ratings system to be valid.” But they didn’t come out and say this is something that’s related to mass shootings or anything else.

So why are we doing it again? It’s strange. It leads to a certain amount of cynicism among scholars — that I don’t think is surprising — that it doesn’t have anything to do with data. This is politics.

These are individuals who are not even reading their own report from last year, so it’s sort of incomprehensible why we’re having this conversation again.

Last year, Dartmouth researchers did a meta-analysis of 24 studies that concluded violent video games are associated with increased aggression over time. What are your thoughts?

The Dartmouth study was an exercise in what I call “death by press release.” They actually found nothing, but they dressed it up to sound more impressive than it was in the press release. The effects they found in magnitude are about the same as the effects of eating potatoes on suicide in terms of effect size. What happens in meta-analysis is really tiny, stupid effects can become quote-unquote statistically signifcant, even though they’re not really meaningful in real life.

I’d say there’s better evidence against a violent video game effect than for it, and it’s just unfortunate that in that case, the scholars chose to make it sound like they had better evidence than I believe they actually did.

Just a month later, Oxford scholars came out with a [new] study. It was a much more rigorous method, and they found nothing. There was no correlation between violent games and aggression.

Is there any downside to playing violent video games? If I spend 3 hours a day playing “Grand Theft Auto” rather than reading a book or trying to learn guitar, will there be a noticeable impact on my mental wellbeing?

Not really. We just published a study of about 3,000 kids from Singapore, and we looked at how much time you’d have to spend on M-rated video games — “Call of Duty,” that kind of stuff — and to even have a slightly noticeable impact on a person’s aggression, it came out to 27 hours a day [of playing time]. You’d have to spend more time playing an M-rated video game than there are hours in a day to have a clinically noticeable effect.

Like anything else, if you overdo something, you’re going to get time-displacement issues. We want to make sure any activity is kept within reasonable balance. Getting enough sleep, enough exercise, making sure your work or academics aren’t compromised by [gaming]. But it’s true for nonviolent games, it’s true for knitting, it’s true for everything.

It has been two decades since Columbine and while games have become more realistic and graphic, the overall murder rate has decreased. Have the complaints about video games evolved along with the games?

The arguments are similar, just fewer and fewer are making them.

It’s a generational thing. [20 years] have passed, so a bunch of old folks have died, and a bunch of people that grew up with the games are middle-aged adults like me.

It’s like rock music in the ’80s, and comic books in the ’50s, and radio in the ’40s. The older generation has these kinds of complaints, and when the audience dies, the moral panic dies. Nobody thinks Ozzy Osbourne causes violence or Satanism anymore.

Sean Burch

Sean Burch

Tech reporter • • @seanb44 


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