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‘No causal evidence’ that video games — even ‘gruesome and grisly’ ones — lead to violence

“There’s absolutely no causal evidence that violent video game play leads to aggression in the real world,” said Andrew Przbylski, one of the authors of an Oxford University study.

video game player
Oxford University concluded in a study this year that no correlation exists between the amount of time someone spends playing video games and their predilection towards committing violent acts.
Fredrick Tendong via unsplash

In 2017, a group of experts from the American Psychological Association’s division for media psychology and technology warned journalists and policymakers not to link acts of real-world violence “with the perpetrators’ exposure to violent video games or other violent media.”

“There’s little scientific evidence to support the connection,” the experts stated.

They also noted that placing the blame on video games only serves to “distract us from addressing those issues that we know contribute to real-world violence,” such as “poverty, lack of treatment options for mental health as well as crime victimization among the mentally ill, and educational and employment disparities.”

Yet, in recent days we’ve seen politicians and media pundits, including President Trump, suggest that  “gruesome and grisly video games” (in Trump’s words) were somehow complicit in the horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

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‘No causal evidence’

They offer no good scientific evidence to support that claim. Nor can they. In fact, research on the topic would lead most people to the opposite conclusion, as was pointed out repeatedly on Monday in quite a few publications.

Forbes reporter Lisette Voytko noted, for example, the following:

  • A 2004 report by the Secret Service and Department of Education found that, out of dozens of mass shootings, only 12% of perpetrators showed interest in violent video games.
  • Oxford University concluded in a study this year that no correlation exists between the amount of time someone spends playing video games and their predilection towards committing violent acts.
  • Even the Trump administration released a report in 2018 showing little support for linking video games with mass shootings.

As Andrew Przybylski, one of the authors of the Oxford study, told NBC reporter Jane Timm, “There’s absolutely no causal evidence that violent video game play leads to aggression in the real world.”

Przybylski has been researching the psychological effects of video games for more than a decade. In the study published earlier this year, he and his colleagues studied approximately 1,000 British teenage gamers and found no link between playing video games and more aggressive behavior — or, for that matter, less social behavior.

“We found a whole lot of nothing,” he told Timm.

‘The issue is guns’

Vox reporter Matthew Yglesias  — along with many other people — also pointed out on Monday that blaming mass shootings and other violent acts on video games “flies in the face of the basic reality that the United States has a much higher murder rate than any other rich country, even though video games are widely available in Europe and Japan.”

“Indeed, America’s overall crime rate is only a bit above average but our homicide rate is sky-high because assaults featuring guns are much more likely to turn lethal than assaults committed with knives, bludgeons, or fists,” wrote Yglesias.

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“The issue is guns,” he stressed.

Yglesias also noted that the crime rate has been found to go down, not up, immediately after violent video games are released to the public:

The researchers believe the method is what criminal justice scholars call “incapacitation” — if you are sitting on your couch playing video games you are, by definition, not out on the street making trouble. When it comes to ways to spend time that mainstream society finds uncontroversially wholesome, this mechanism is widely accepted. If you have teenagers doing summer jobs, attending after-school classes, or participating in recreational sports leagues, that keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. It happens to be the case that video games are a more stigmatized pastime than playing sports, but the basic mechanism is exactly the same. If you’re busy gaming, you’re not committing crimes.

Biases and distortions

Writing for the academic website The Conversation, Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist from Stetson University and one of the authors of the 2017 statement from the APA’s division on media psychology and technology, reiterated on Monday that people need to stop blaming video games for mass shootings.

“My own research has examined the degree to which violent video games can — or can’t — predict youth aggression and violence,” he wrote. “In a 2015 meta-analysis, I examined 101 studies on the subject and found that violent video games had little impact on kids’ aggression, mood, helping behavior or grades.”

“Two years later, I found evidence that scholarly journals’ editorial biases had distorted the scientific record on violent video games,” he added. “Experimental studies that found effects were more likely to be published than studies that had found none. This was consistent with others’ findings. As the Supreme Court noted [in a 2011 ruling that struck down a California law banning the sales of certain violent video games to children without parental consent], any impacts due to video games are nearly impossible to distinguish from the effects of other media, like cartoons and movies.”

“Any claims that there is consistent evidence that violent video games encourage aggression are simply false,” he said.

FMI: In addition to the articles cited and linked to above, The Atlantic published an article Monday that describes the history of how video-game violence has become a political and partisan issue. It was written by contributing editor Ian Bogost, who is a professor of media studies at Georgia Tech and a video-game designer.