Guns, violence, video-games, and the media

"Don't blame [GTA San Andreas logo], 'cos it ain't San Andreas' fault"

Within mere minutes of any mass-shooting, the media (and assorted interest groups) are keen to tell you why the shooter(s) did what they did. In the recent shooting at Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut, everyone was keen to explain in detail exactly why Adam Lanza murdered a bunch of people and then killed himself.

Of course, since (at the time) they didn’t even have the right name, the various motivations espoused for Lanza’s killing-spree were nothing more than purest fabrication. Fantasy and lies, basically. If anyone actually has gotten it right (and the truth will probably never be known) then it was only by accident – not by any great feats of journalism, investigation, facts, statistics, or deductive reasoning.

Violent video-games (in fact, just video-games generally) once again take pride-of-place as the culprit for this incident, and that’s demonstrably a load of hooey. I won’t try to tell you why Adam Lanza (or many of these other mass-shooters) did what he did, or what would have made things better – I don’t have authoritative information on that – but I can show you that video-games are not to blame.

Firstly, let’s start with the simplest facts. People, of all ages, play more violent video-games in greater quantities than ever before. More total hours are spent with video-game violence now (ranging from the cartoonish to the realistic) in this last year than in any previous year. Several hundred million children and adults spent at least 10 billion combined hours on violent video-games in the last year. That’s assuming no unusually high levels of usage.

Playing violent video-games is now a societal norm – a significant (and growing) percentage of the population incorporates violent video-games into their daily lives. Millions and millions of people.

Now, here’s the next datum: Spree-shooters are interesting in their video-gaming habits, because they do not generally follow this model. In practically every case that I’m aware of, spree-shooters were less interested in violent video-games and spent less time with them than is the norm for their general age-group and demographic, however initial media reports invariably exaggerated or fabricated the shooters’ involvement with violent video-game titles.

Does this mean that playing violent video-games makes you less likely to commit gun-violence? Unknown. Correlation isn’t causation. I do know that I feel safer around some kid who’d rather spend his off-time playing Modern Warfare than one who obsessively cleans and oils a rifle he calls “Betsy”.

Here’s another datum: Violent crime is at a historic low, having fallen steadily since a peak in 1993 (which is the year that the video-game, Doom was released). Since that time the number of users of violent video-games and the total number of hours spent on violent video-games has increased exponentially, while violent crime has fallen to record lows.

Does that mean that playing violent video-games forms some sort of outlet that diminishes the incidence of violent crime and sublimates aggressive tendencies into less harmful forms? I won’t tell you that either. Correlation/causation, remember? There could be many other factors  at work, but I’ll point out that those violent crime figures don’t include violence taking place in prisons, which continues to increase. Prisoners also don’t get to play violent video-games, as it happens. You can make of that what you will.

In any case, from a purely statistical view, if violent video-games had a significant effect on the tendency to commit violent crimes, then the obvious logical conclusion would that there would be many times more perpetrators than there actually are, considering how many people spend time with these games. Only there aren’t.

Almost all of these players remain ordinary, non-violent individuals.

What about psychological studies into the effects of violent video-games on children? Studies have shown that there are very short-term increases in the tendency to make aggressive choices, but no increase in the short- or long-term tendencies towards violence. That is, kids who play violent video-games don’t become more inclined towards violent acts.

How do violent video-games stack up against other violent media forms? Well, violent movies and television cause more pronounced and prolonged psychological responses, and books apparently are the most powerful influencers of all.

I don’t see Senators rushing to propose laws that restrict the sales of books that contain violent scenes. Heavens, no! In the USA, there’s this thing called the First Amendment, which is a tangled mass of precedent, but allows free speech – especially speech that is unwelcome or repugnant. Books are protected speech, movies are protected speech. Video-games, as it turns out, are protected speech too, though, that is something that is conveniently forgotten in the rush to spend money on proposing and passing a host of ineffectual and unconstitutional laws.

The CEO of the US National Rifle Association (NRA) recently went on-record to blame Lanza’s killing-spree on video-games (though the NRA has produced a video-game of its own – albeit a non-violent E-for-Everyone-rated game, widely considered one of the worst titles ever released for the Playstation 2) – although, the media, movies, music videos, gun-free school-zones (and a variety of other things) also got blame during the speech.

What didn’t get the blame, obviously, was guns. Again, I’m not about to tell you that guns are to blame. I’ll note, though, that as CEO of the NRA, the man is paid to never blame guns, or to do or say anything on behalf of the NRA that might reduce American citizens’ rights to access, own or carry guns. The NRA is the USA’s most influential lobby group, and it takes its support and defence of the Second Amendment very seriously… apparently even if it requires holding down the First Amendment and shooting it in the head, because its stance appears to be that some forms of protected speech are more lethal than a fully-loaded assault-rifle.

Given all of this, you might wonder just how the news fills up with claims that video-games are a direct-cause of mass-shootings.

It happens like this:

Broadcast Journalist: “So do you think video games cause the kind of violence we saw in Connecticut?”
Greg Perreault: “I’m not a media effects scholar but research has not substantiated that video games cause any kind of violence.”
Journalist: “Oh… I really need someone who can say that video games make people violent. So you’re saying they don’t make people violent?”
Greg Perreault: “As a sole factor? No, we haven’t found that.”
Journalist: “Oh, we have a lot of people who say that already. We’re having trouble finding someone who says video games create violence.”
Greg Perreault: “Probably because there’s not much to support that. The most we can say is that some video games can cause some sorts of short-term aggression, but aggression isn’t violence. Video games are a unique storytelling medium and there’s still a lot to learn.”
Journalist: “So can you say that? Or do you know someone who can say that?”
Greg Perreault: “What? About aggression? Or about video games being a storytelling medium?”
Journalist: “That video games cause violence.”

Not exactly the pinnacle of investigative-journalism, that, is it? The journalist has no shortage of experts who can confidently say that there is no established link between video-games and violence, but is calling around because he is “having trouble finding someone who says video games create violence.” I’m sure that after making enough calls, the journalist eventually found someone who was willing to say it, though, and that that would have gone to air.

Unethical? Absolutely! Unlawful? No – because false or true, it too is protected speech. Facts can be recast, exaggerated, or simply made-up to support the thesis.

Who, here, remembers what was getting the blame for all of the mass-shootings before violent video-games were recast as the villain?


Besides, in the 32 years since 1980, there has been no increase in the number of mass-shootings in the USA. While the usage of violent video-games rises exponentially, overall violent crime drops to record lows, and mass-shootings remain unaffected. Do the math.

In any case, it has been proposed that the government formally initiate a thorough investigation into the effects of video-games and violent video-games on people of all ages. I find that very welcome, because I’ve read the research and I know what the outcome of it will be. Alas, I do not think it will be enough to retire video-games as the villain for these cases, unless something else can be falsely-cast in its place.

Perhaps, though, once it is done, we could then start trying to find and treat the real cause, whatever it is, rather than focusing on issues of no relevance.

3 thoughts on “Guns, violence, video-games, and the media”

    1. Hm, no more “edit” functionality? Bummer :/

      Anyway, i was gonna reword my post to ask if you trust them to conduct accurate scientific studies when the results disagree with what they wanted, or were paid (with votes, money or whatever) to find?

  1. The main difference between video games and books or movies is that the game gives you the chance to take decisions. And that could be significant. The figures are compatible with having choices being a good thing, psychologically. Also, some of the stories I’ve heard, American schools sound to be very much about denying choices to the students. (One of my sources now lives with her family in the Netherlands. Her comparisons are not favourable to the USA.)

    If that’s true about schools in the USA, I can see it feeding into that bizarre concept of heavily-armed freedom.

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