Following a pair of back-to-back mass shootings, some American politicians and pundits have once again turned their ire towards video games. The most high-profile of these was President Donald Trump, suggesting that video games contribute to a culture of violence that causes people to feel flippant with the sanctity of human life. However, he was far from the only or even the first politician to cast blame. But where does this reaction come from, and does the scientific evidence support it?
Though the pair of tragic shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio on August 3 and 4 have revived the topic of video game violence, politicians expressing concern over the effect of violent video games on young people is anything but a new phenomenon.
Prompted by games like Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers, Congress held hearings on video game violence in 1993-1994. Led by Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the planned hearings were given extra furor thanks to Bureau of Justice statistics that showed gun-related violence had reached record highs in 1993. Politicians pointed the finger at violent media, especially video games.
“I’d like to ban all the violent video games,” Lieberman said at the time. “It’s hard to control every measure of this, especially in a society that values free speech and First Amendment rights.”
During the hearings, Lieberman argued that the average video game player was 7-12 years old, and so violent games were being marketed to children. Recognizing that an outright ban was impractical, however, Lieberman threw his support behind warning labels for violent video games. Congressional pressure had made clear that the government would take action to regulate the industry if it did not regulate itself. The result was the industry banding together to form and abide by ratings given by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB).
The next significant political challenge to video games came from a California law that eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. Brown v Entertainment Merchant’s Association was a suit concerning a 2005 law restricting violent video game sales to minors without parental supervision. The law, drafted by former California State Sen. Leeland Yee and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, demanded labeling beyond the standard ESRB labels and would fine retailers for selling violent games to minors. It defined violence under an obscenity statute that had previously only been used to restrict the sale of sexually explicit material. The EMA argued that the law unfairly treated video games as fundamentally different from other media, the sale of which is not restricted to minors.
In a rare 7-2 ruling, the famously conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the Court’s opinion that video games are subject to the free speech protections afforded by the First Amendment. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, with Justice Samuel Alito concurring. Only Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas dissented. Significantly, Scalia’s written opinion explicitly rejected California’s argument that a causal link existed between media violence and real-world aggression.
“The State’s evidence is not compelling,” Scalia wrote. “California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason. They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively … They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and some minuscule real-world effects.”
Despite this standing opinion from the highest court, politicians still regularly point fingers at video games, especially in response to acts of real-world violence. This latest example isn’t even the first time we’ve seen it from President Trump. Following the mass shooting in 2018 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the president convened a roundtable with industry groups and critics on the same subject. It similarly used depictions of video game violence to suggest a causal link between exposure to violent games and real-world violence.
So why does this keep happening?
The Renewed Furor
The shootings in El Paso and Dayton took place over the course of less than 24 hours. Though mass shootings have become almost routine in American life, two mass casualty events occurring in such quick succession appeared to shake Americans to their core. Heartbroken citizens looked to leaders for guidance and action.
Almost in unison, conservative leaders rallied against video games as a culprit. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy both appeared on Fox News Channel on the morning of August 4, calling for action against video games and suggesting a causal link between violent games and violent actions. President Trump’s prepared remarks on Monday morning gained the most attention, but he was largely following a narrative already set by other conservative leaders.
“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Trump said. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately.”
Critics of the president have suggested the tendency to blame video games is something of a stalling tactic, to shift the focus away from discussions of gun control that often take place following mass shootings. And to be sure, this would have strategic merit. American interest in gun control legislation waxes and wanes with current events, so muddying the waters and waiting it out could work, if one’s goal was to simply maintain the status quo.
Whatever political maneuvering might be at play, some segment of the broader population does genuinely believe video game violence contributes to real-world violence. Their strong concerns may be based in good faith, but the evidence is inconclusive at best.
What The Evidence Actually Shows
One of the most common arguments against a link between video game violence and real-world is anecdotal and intuitive. It has been stated many times and in many ways: video games are enjoyed the world over, and countries with similar or much higher video game adoption rates have significantly lower levels of gun violence.
The ESA stated this in its initial response to President Trump’s remarks, saying, “Other societies, where video games are played as avidly, do not contend with the tragic levels of violence that occur in the US.”
Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick echoed this sentiment days later, calling Trump’s comments disrespectful to the victims and their families. “The fact is entertainment is consumed world-wide,” he said, “but gun violence is uniquely American. So we need to address the real issues.”
This sentiment isn’t new. The Daily Show host Trevor Noah lampooned the Trump administration along the same lines in a 2018 segment following the roundtable after the Parkland shooting. In the segment, Noah argued that stricter gun regulations are “most effective and realistic way to limit gun violence,” citing lower homicide rates in countries like Japan–despite their fondness for video games.
A more authoritative refutation can be found in a policy statement issued by the American Psychological Association in 2017. It argues, “Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities.” The policy statement goes on to point out that a 2002 analysis from the United States Secret Service “suggested that school shooters tended to consume relatively low amounts of violent media compared to normative levels for same-age peers.” It’s careful to note that this finding does not conclude that increased consumption of violent media would result in less real-world violence, just that a link cannot be established.
The paper concludes that public officials and the media should refrain from suggesting a causal link between media violence and real-world acts of violence. At most, it says, media figures should refer to studies that may link video games to “aggression.” It argues this because, as Justice Scalia noted in his 2011 ruling, the studies linking media violence to actual aggression are disputed, and usually extend to minor acts of aggression such as “the administration of unwanted hot sauce to make food too spicy, making someone put his or her hand in freezing ice water or bursts of white noise in laboratory experiments.” The APA suggests that these findings are not conclusive and the methodology “remains a matter of reasonable debate.”
On the other hand, a 2016 statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics is more sharply critical of media violence. First, it draws a distinction between aggression and violence, to help parse terms.
“For example, a snarling dog is behaving aggressively; once it bites, it has resorted to violence,” the statement says. “A person who verbally abuses another would not be committing an act of violence by this definition. Thus, all violent acts are aggressive, but not all aggressive acts are violent.”
It argues for a “broad scientific consensus that virtual violence increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” and dismisses the landmark Supreme Court ruling as based upon First Amendment grounds rather than scientific merit. It does concede, however, that laboratory aggression as a proxy for real-world aggression has proven to be a research challenge. Though increased aggression in a laboratory setting has been consistently shown and studied, this does not necessarily result in real-world violence. Finally, it states that an experimental, real-world study linking virtual violence with real-world violence has never been conducted, because the rarity of violence precludes a large enough sample size to be accurately studied. On the whole, though, the AAP appears to suspect some link may exist, and recommends more stringent enforcement mechanisms.
While scholars may disagree regarding the weight and emphasis of conclusions offered by laboratory studies, even the sharpest scientific critics of video game violence draw a cautious distinction between findings of heightened aggression and the soundbite-ready conclusion that video games are a primary cause in these ongoing national tragedies. Regardless, politicians have been looking to the medium for more than 20 years, and they likely will again the next time a tragedy hits close to home.