Civil libertarians of every political stripe should be concerned about US President Donald Trump blaming digital art for young Americans’ capacity for mass murder.

Video games and violent behaviour

What’s happened?

In February of 2018, in the wake of the Parkland Florida attack, Mr Trump made several fatuous innuendos connecting video games to violence, while offering no supporting evidence. The facts are that violent crime as a whole has decreased as video game violence has become ever-more explicit and varied (see Why Donald Trump is wrong about video games and gun violence)

Following the latest US shooting by desperate lone gunmen, the highest scrutiny should be of those politicians promising a crackdown on the creative works sector on the grounds of public safety and morality.

Following the shooting at a high school campus in Florida, Trump hosted a meeting at the White House with representatives from the industry, as well as critics and pundits. Attendees included some extreme voices like author Dave Grossman, who previously said that experts who denied the links between games and violence would be “viewed as the moral equivalent of Holocaust deniers”, and pushed for similar legislation to liquor and tobacco, rather than video content.

And while most agree on wanting to stop the all-familiar mass-shootings, some observers argue that violent video games cause aggression, dehumanization and violence.

In an interview on TV talk show Fox & Friends, when asked what may have ‘triggered’ the latest high-profile shooting at El Paso in August 2019, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed video games “dehumanize individuals’ and ‘pose a problem for future generations.” He added: “We’ve seen from studies what it does to individuals,” he followed these comments by suggesting that we should “get all the facts”.

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So, what are the facts?

After studying this relationship for several decades, behavioural scientists have been unable to find any link between video games and real-world violence.

Rather than examining the evidence, the Republican apologists for the gun industry – echoing bipartisan moral panics for heavy metal, Satanism and video games in recent decades – have opted on relying on their gut-instincts and pseudo-science in spite of the evidence, not because of it.

For instance, in January 2018, researchers at the University of York found in a series of experiments with more than 3,000 participants, that “there is no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent”. The team found that video game concepts do not make players behave in certain ways simply through exposure, and increasing the realism of violent video games does not necessarily increase aggression in game players.

In an earlier study, in 2008, researchers investigated 6,500 eighth-graders and studied how many had a propensity to play violent video games, along with factors such as gender and family relations. The researchers found that video games, regardless of how bloody they were, had no predictive power when it came to violent behaviour.

Patrick M Markey, a psychologist at Villanova University, is a specialist in the argument surrounding games and violence. He used a similar methodology typically used to examine predictors of severe violent behaviours, and also analysed associations amongst homicides and aggravated assaults, video game sales and internet searches for violent video game guides and the release of various violent games.

The professor’s studies found that men who commit severe acts of violence actually play violent video games less than the average male and that no evidence was found to suggest that the medium positive correlated with real-world violence. Not only that, but they found the results were suggestive of a decrease in violent crime in response to violent video games.

In his 2017 book, Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, Christopher J Ferguson (of Stetson University) and Markey found that 20% of men who commit severe acts of violence were interested in violent games, compared to 70% of the general population.

Formerly a notable moral critic of video game content in Grand Theft Auto, politician Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the violent video game argument head-on when she tweeted: “People suffer from mental illness in every other country on earth; people play video games in virtually every other country on earth. The difference is the guns.”

Upon examination, this comparison is fair; firearms-related deaths from homicides and accidents in the US greatly exceed those in other developed nations:

What is the threat to free speech?

Video games are increasingly popular, generating billions in revenue and inspiring new technologies and applications, but it still has a social stigma. The gaming industry has earned more creative revenue than movie and music industries combined for the past nine years, and this trend shows no sign of stopping.

As technology progresses, video games have offered increasingly rich, mature and cerebral experiences than ever before, touching on ethical and political issues and asking difficult questions. Protecting the freedoms of the games industry is vital to maintaining this creative output, which is what leads to its beneficial and lucrative consequences. Threatening a crackdown in the wake of another mass shooting won’t address the root causes of such atrocities and will actively harm culture in the name of protecting it.

So why does the idea persist?

The question: what is art and how do we measure its impact on society? is relatively academic to most people and many may take the statements made by elected officials at face value without examining the facts.

Also, unlike other political lobbyists, such as the National Rifle Association, the games industry doesn’t yet have such an influence.
It seems that in the era of fake news, innuendo, ignorance and intuition voiced by political authorities can consistently upstage fact-based analysis. It is easy to convict the video game industry in the trial of public opinion, even if it is exonerated by the facts of the case.

So what should be done?

The media should no longer allow politicians to play armchair psychologist and mislead the public over the current status of scientific research. If opposition to ‘fake news’ is to mean anything, it means that journalists have an ethical duty to expose the political spin that misrepresents scientific facts. Facts must come first. Anything else is just public relations.

Video Games Sector Scorecard – Thematic Research