Why Hasn’t the Debate Around Violent Video Games Matured?

Lost in a Good Game by Dr Pete Etchells

After yet another mass shooting in America, yet again a certain group of people are keen to blame this horrific violence on video games. Why hasn’t the debate around this matured?

Read Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar Games

Another week, and another mass shooting in America – the sort of senseless loss of life that is becoming an all too common story filling the pages of the US media. In the wake of any horrendous act of societal violence, it’s completely natural that people would want to try and find the root cause: that single, identifiable thing that, if the shooter hadn’t been exposed to it, would have meant that the tragedy du jour would have never happened. For anyone who lives beyond the bubble of the American obsession with guns, the answer is painfully obvious. But in a society where lawmakers are politically and financially motivated to find another scapegoat, the ire of politicians and invariably falls onto a different sort of industry: video games.

To that end, it was completely unsurprising to see the likes of Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy quickly denounce video games as a driver for mass shootings in the wake of the events in El Paso and Dayton this week. “But the idea of these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals and others – I’ve always felt that is a problem for future generations and others,” said House minority leader McCarthy in a segment on Fox News last Sunday. (McCarthy, according to OpenSecrets.org, has received over $100,000 in funds from the gun rights lobby over the years).

House Minority Leader Kevn McCarthy who definitely doesn’t have any conflicts of issues around guns

The trouble is, there just isn’t any scientific evidence to support the link between playing violent video games and mass shootings. It doesn’t exist. In fact, we tend to see the opposite – various studies have shown that following the release of popular violent games, murder and violent crimes rates tend to drop.  In line with this, the best research evidence that we currently have suggests that the more general association between playing violent video games and aggression is a weak one at best, and probably nothing to worth worrying about. You don’t even really need to look to the scientific literature to see that violent video game play and mass shootings aren’t linked in any meaningful sense. These sorts of games are played by billions of people across the world every day of the year; if they really were the root cause of mass shootings, we wouldn’t see such events restricted to the only country in the world which has relatively unfettered access to guns.

Why are we still here though? After more than twenty years of video games being linked to mass acts of violence, we’re still having the same old conversations and arguments, with the same, tired points being made on both sides of the aisle. Part of the problem is clearly the inability for US lawmakers to make any sort of meaningful headway in terms of gun control. But there are other reasons we’re still stuck in this loop.

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The first is that, as I’ve talked about countless times before, the science of video games effects is incredibly messy, and often communicated poorly. Trying to assess aggression in the lab is a remarkably hard thing to do, and often, scientists have to use proxy measures of anger that can be prone to all sorts of interpretation and analysis problems. Inevitably, it has led to a research literature in which you can find pretty much whatever answer you want – that games definitely do cause aggression, or that they definitely don’t – depending on relatively arbitrary decisions about data analysis, as opposed to any verifiable signal in the data you collect. From a media perspective, it also means that for every expert who claims convincing evidence for a link between the two, you can also find one who claims the opposite. Understandably then, the public discussion around video game effects often isn’t clarified with the insertion of scientific expertise.

The second is that the video game industry itself is largely unwilling to engage in the debate in anything other than a dismissive manner. To a certain extent this is understandable – from a business/pr perspective, of course the industry would want to distance itself from claims that the products it creates are causing harm. But as a number of commentators have pointed out this week, this is a short-sighted approach. The fact of the matter is that although there’s no compelling evidence that playing violent video games drives people to commit mass shootings, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficult questions the games industry needs to address about its relationship with violence and aggression.

Call of Duty: Black Ops from Activision

For instance, back in 2013, the games journalists Simon Parkin highlighted how gun makers frequently sell licenses to games developers so that real-life weapons can be featured in the virtual arenas of games like Call of Duty. It’s a simple form of advertising that turns the young gamers of today into the potential weapons owners of the future – or so the gun industry would hope. To what extent should we be worried about this?

Similarly, although extreme acts of real-world violence find their causes elsewhere, there nevertheless is a toxic culture of racist, misogynistic and abusive behavior in many online video games. We see this crop up everywhere, from cases of high-profile esports stars being suspended for abusive and homophobic remarks, right down to the lowest levels of everyday game play: with developers like Riot Games employing behavioural scientists in an effort to reduce levels of in-game toxic behavior and communication.  And although some developers are coming together to try and tackle these problems head-on, these are relative baby steps for an industry that needs to step up and acknowledge the politicized and polarized lens through which games are increasingly viewed.

Because if games developers aren’t willing to discuss the perceived flaws and problems in their virtual creations, there will always be politicians and media pundits with vested yet woefully uninformed interests who will be all too happy to fill the void with rhetoric and deflection. And ultimately, it will be the players that lose out.

In fact we’re already starting to see these effects. After Walmart CEO Doug McMillon promised to make a “thoughtful and deliberate” response to the shootings earlier in the week, the supermarket opted to carry on selling guns in its stores across the US – and for reasons that defy understanding or evidence, ban displays of violent video games instead.

Because of course it did.

Pete’s first book, ‘Lost in a Good Game : Why we play video games and what they can do for us’ is available now. You can listen to Pete chatting about it with Robin Ince and Bec Hill on this episode of Book Shambles.

Dr Pete Etchells is a senior lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University. His research focuses on vision, eye movements and motion perception, as well as science policy and public communication of science. He was the author of the popular Headquarters blog at The Guardian and his first book Lost in a Good Game is out now. He is on Twitter at @PeteEtchells

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