An image from the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” (Activision/AP)
Tomorrow at the White House, President Trump will sit down with representatives of the video game industry to blame them for America’s endless parade of school shootings. This hastily arranged meeting (we still don’t know whether cameras will be present) will no doubt feature all the thoughtful exploration of empirical research and policy alternatives that has characterized these sorts of events during the Trump administration.
Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng of the Daily Beast have some details:
On Thursday, the White House is planning to meet with envoys of the video game industry to discuss how violent imagery on their platforms may desensitize young people to firearms—and even train them to be more effective killers. Industry sources tell The Daily Beast that they are worried the session will be an ambush—an effort to scapegoat them for shootings in schools. …
Industry leaders were caught off guard by the announcement, with the leading trade group, the Entertainment Software Association, saying in a statement shortly after that it had received no invitation to such an event. Planning since then has been described as haphazard. Industry executives and envoys and lawmakers on Capitol Hill were eventually contacted, but when they tried to get specific details out of the administration, they ran up against roadblocks.
While we don’t yet know how far Trump will go in condemning video games, I thought it would be worthwhile to lay out what we know about the relationship of games to real-world violence, especially since this is a discussion we seem to have after every mass shooting committed by a young man.
As soon as it happens, some people — particularly those seeking to argue that the ubiquity of guns in the United States is not something we should address — begin asking whether the killer played “Grand Theft Auto” and laying blame on the coarsening of our culture. Trump himself said after the Parkland shooting:
I’m hearing more and more people say 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, they’re so violent and yet a kid is able to see a movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved. Maybe they have to put a rating system for that.
It would be a mistake to simply dismiss out of hand the idea that video games and movies can have any effect on real-world violence. It’s certainly possible; after all, every art form is intended to make us feel certain things and perhaps change our perspective on the world. Video games are designed to be engrossing and arousing. But the chain of causality from “This guy killed a bunch of characters playing ‘Call of Duty'” to “This guy killed a bunch of people in real life” is a long and complicated one.
The issue of the effect of games on violence has been the topic of a huge amount of research, and while it’s a complex picture full of ambiguity, there are some things we know. Most importantly, we know that what Trump is likely to assert — that one of the main reasons we have so many school shootings (and mass shootings in general) here in the United States is the influence of violent video games — is completely false.
This isn’t an area where the psychologists, sociologists and media scholars who study the topic are in complete agreement. The hundreds of studies that have been done come to different conclusions and some scholars believe the effects are stronger than others do. There are even competing meta-analyses rounding up dozens or hundreds of studies that reach different conclusions (see here vs. here). But there are many studies showing an association between violent video games and various kinds of aggressive thoughts, reactions or even behaviors. However, it’s important to understand that the farther a particular study is from real-world conditions, the more likely it is to show a problematic effect of violent video games.
That’s due to the nature of this kind of research: Scholars often focus on what they can measure precisely, which may not be the thing we’re actually worried about. So there are a lot of experiments where they have a bunch of college students play a game and measure things like “arousal” (physiological factors like increased heart rate) or “aggressive thoughts” (answers on a survey you give them right after). But if someone is all revved up after playing a violent game, does that mean that a week or a month or a year later that player is going to go out and beat someone up? The answer is, we don’t know. But on the whole the effects seem to be limited in both size and duration.
Then there’s the question of how you translate research into policy. You might look at these studies and say that if there’s even a small relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior, then I don’t want my kids playing them, or I’m going to not let them play until they’re 16, or I’m going to limit them to an hour a week. Which is perfectly appropriate, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether as a society we’d want to limit them in some way, particularly given the high value we place on free speech.
But there’s one more factor that renders the idea of blaming video games for mass shootings completely nonsensical, and it can’t be said often enough:
People play the same video games all over the world, but we’re the only country that has this mass shooting problem.
That’s true of violent movies, too. Culture is global. If violent video games caused mass shootings, there’d be mass shootings everywhere. But there aren’t. To take just one example, in Japan they love violent movies and video games, but the number of people killed by guns there is in the single digits every year. Why? Because it’s extremely hard for private citizens to get guns in Japan.
So why do we keep having this argument? The obvious reason is that people who want to protect unlimited gun rights need to find some other factor to blame for gun violence, so they try to change the focus to movies and video games. But even if we put aside that bad-faith argument, the truth is that if you’re a baby boomer like Trump who has never played a video game, or even if you’re a Gen Xer like me who grew up playing “Space Invaders” and “Asteroids,” the graphic violence in some contemporary games can indeed be shocking. They’re more immersive, more realistic and more arousing than they’ve ever been.
But you don’t have to defend the goriest video games out there to acknowledge that they aren’t what’s causing school shootings. Human beings love violence, and we’ve staged combat for entertainment for as long as we’ve had staged entertainment. Unless you want to believe that Americans are a particularly homicidal people just waiting to be set off like a population of Manchurian murderers by an afternoon of “Resident Evil,” you have to look at the thing that makes the United States different from all our peer countries. And that’s the guns.