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People — and the media — are more likely to cite video games as a factor in school shootings when shooter is white

“When a violent act is carried out by someone who doesn’t match the racial stereotype of what a violent person looks like, people tend to seek an external explanation for the violent behavior,” explains Patrick Markey, the study’s lead author.

Video games don’t cause mass shootings. They don’t create mass shooters.
Photo by Rohit Choudhari on Unsplash
People are more likely to blame video games for school shootings when the shooter is white than when the shooter is black, according to a study published recently in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

The study also found that media accounts of school shootings are eight times more likely to mention video games when the perpetrator of the shooting was a white male than when the perpetrator was a black male.

“Given the growing body of research failing to find links between video games and real-world acts of horrific violence, it appears that racial stereotyping might be one reason some continue to blame video games for school shootings,” the study’s authors conclude.

“When a violent act is carried out by someone who doesn’t match the racial stereotype of what a violent person looks like, people tend to seek an external explanation for the violent behavior,” explains Patrick Markey, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at Villanova University, in a released statement. “When a white child from the suburbs commits a horrific violent act like a school shooting, then people are more likely to erroneously blame video games than if the child was African American.”

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As Markey and his co-authors note in their paper, media pundits and politicians often mistakenly cite violent video games as potential causes of mass shootings, particularly ones that occur in schools. They do this despite repeated pleadings from scientists — people who have actually done research on the topic — not to make that link.

As one panel of experts from the American Psychological Association (APA) pointed out in 2017, 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.”

A tale of two studies

Markey and his colleagues conducted their study in two parts. For the first part, they recruited 169 undergraduate students. Most (88 percent) were white, and their average age was 19. The students were asked to read a mock newspaper article about a fictional mass shooting involving 18-year-old “David Wilson” at “Adams High School.” The article mentioned that Wilson was an avid fan of violent video games, but it did not speculate on whether that factor had contributed to the shooting.

The article also contained a small black-and-white photo of Wilson. Half of the students were shown a mug shot of a white shooter, while the other half saw a mug shot of a black shooter.

The students were then asked to answer questions about the article, including ones that asked them to rate their agreement (on a scale of 1 to 7) with two statements: “The fact that Wilson played a lot of violent video games was probably a factor in his committing this crime” and “Wilson might not have committed this crime if he were not involved with violent video games.”

An analysis of the answers showed that the students were significantly more likely to blame video games for the shooting when they thought the shooter was white than when they thought he was black.

Interestingly, the analysis also revealed that students who reported that they didn’t play video games were more likely to blame such games for the shooting.

Examining the media

In the second study, Markey and his colleagues identified more than 204,796 news articles on 204 separate mass shootings committed in the United States between 1978 (a year after the release of the Atari 2600 game console) and 2018. Most of the shooters (131) were white, while the rest (73) were black.

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(To be included as a mass shooting in the study, the incident had to have three or more victims — excluding the shooter — and not involve gangs, drugs or organized crime.)

Of those news articles, 6,814 mentioned video games. The researchers then looked to see if the topic of video games came up more often when the shooter was white. It did — but only when the shooting took place in a school.

The articles mentioned video games 6.8 percent of the time when a school shooter was white, but only 0.5 percent of the time when a school shooter was black.

Video games were rarely mentioned in news articles when the shooting occurred somewhere other than a school. And in those cases, the frequency with which the topic came up was roughly the same when a white shooter was involved (1.8 percent of the stories) as when a black shooter was involved (1.7 percent of the stories).

A marker of a broader racial problem

Markey and his co-authors believe racial stereotyping helps explain their study’s results.

“The speculation about video games in the wake of mass shooting tragedies is not only misplaced, as evidenced by this study and previous research, but also the discussion about video games may serve as an indirect marker of a broader racial problem,” the researchers write. “If video games are disproportionately mentioned as a possible culprit for mass shooting with White perpetrators, and if audiences are more likely to interpret White perpetrators’ video game use as a contributor to shootings, then the video game ‘blaming’ can also be viewed as flagging a racial issue.”

“Such ‘blaming’ serves as a symptom of a broader racial problem,” they add. “This problem is one in which media sources and audience are more receptive to alternate causes for mass shootings perpetrated by Whites than by members of minority groups. This disparity may have dire consequences, not only affecting perceptions of video games’ effects but also reflecting disparities in the culpability we assign to criminals depending on their race.”

FMI:  You can read the study at the website for Psychology of Popular Media Culture, which is published by the APA.