Following recent mass shooting tragedies that killed 31 people in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump condemned the “glorification of violence in our society,” specifically “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.” This claim of a link between the tragedies and the use of video games was repeated by other lawmakers, who claimed that the rise of video game use is directly linked to the rise in gun violence.
But is it true? Does playing violent video games cause violent behavior? Or, maybe more importantly, would removing these types of games from our culture curb the behavior?
The answers are not as straight forward as the questions. While there are studies that show that aggression is increased following the use of violent video game playing, both in the short and long term, there is no data showing a link between this aggression and mass shootings.
It would be hard to rule out every other contributing factor for one thing. Although it seems like mass shootings are becoming more prevalent, they are relatively rare, as far as what would be needed for a valid scientific study.
“Kids who play more video games are more aggressive over time so there is good evidence for an association from longitudinal studies,” said Jay G. Hull, Ph.D, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College.
“But the question is, does that demonstrate any association with the kind of violence we see in mass killings? We have no data on that and it is not clear how to do that [type of study].”
Hull was the lead author on a 2018 meta-analysis of 24 studies from around the world involving more than 17,000 participants. Results showed increased physical aggression among participants who played violent video games, including incidents such as hitting someone or being sent to the school principal’s office for fighting.
Some argue that the “real world” study is proof that violent games do not cause mass shootings. In the past three decades, as video game sales have doubled, the amount of violence committed by young people has gone down by more than half, according to a New York Times article.
“If a causal relationship was there, we would be seeing this all over the world. There are many more kids playing violent video games in other countries, but there are not these mass shootings,” said Randy Kulman, Ph.D, clinical director and president of South County Child and Family Consultants in Wakefield, RI.
He is also president of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills.
“In fact, the best predictors to a mass shooting are access to a gun and hearing about other mass shootings.”
Hull pointed to another study that showed that taking a group of kids who played violent games and removing the games from one group showed a reduction in aggression.
“Ethics prohibit you from randomly assigning kids to play violent games and see who gets in trouble,” said Hull. “But you can do it the other way and take away the games. So, what you see is a causal effect in stopping the kids from playing the games.”
Placing the blame for the increasing tragedies on one single factor is simplistic. But that does not mean, said both Kulman and Hull, that violent video games are not part of a larger problem or that they do not cause any harm.
“We do seem to be getting immune and de-sensitized to the violence,” said Kulman. “And while the data doesn’t suggest that video games are causing these things, I am a big believer in the fact that kids can learn from video games. It would be hypocritical of me to say that kids can’t also learn about violence from games.”
He added that the issue goes beyond video games and the focus is on the wrong things.
We seem to be, as a society, a lot more willing to tolerate behavior that was not considered tolerable before. How are video games helping to erode our moral compass? I don’t know. Maybe try subtracting them and see if it gets better.”
Catherine Robertson Souter is a freelance writer and social media agent based in New Hampshire. A contributor to New England Psychologist since its inception, she previously wrote for Massachusetts Psychologist among other media outlets.