In August 2019, 22 people were killed in a mass-shooting that took place in a Walmart at El Paso, Texas. Immediately after, Walmart removed displays of violent videogames and cancelled all promotion events in relation to third-person shooting and combat games. In a speech directly responding to this tragedy, U.S. President Donald Trump was vocal about his condemnation of violent videogames—implying that they are the root cause of the countless mass-shootings that took place in U.S.A. In addition, dozens of politicians echoed Trump in his claim that violent videogames cause mass-shootings. A portion of the public agree with the sentiment; in a survey of 2,000 American adults, 40% agree that those who play violent videogames are more likely to be violent themselves. Undoubtedly, videogames have been the reason behind the concern of many, but is this concern supported by scientific evidence?
A study involving 224 participants had them play either a violent or nonviolent videogame, then read a story where they were asked what the main character would do, say, think, and feel throughout. Results show that participants who played a violent videogame described the character as behaving aggressively and feeling angry, and predicted that the conflict in the story would be handled aggressively. However, participants that played non-violent videogames did not think so.
Aside from correlational studies, like the above, there are hundreds of experiments on the subject. In a meta-analytic study by researchers from all over the world, results suggested a cause-and-effect relationship between violent videogames and aggressive behaviour, as well as cognition and affect. The study analysed over a hundred papers on the link between violent videogames and aggression, rigorously testing the papers for weak evidence, statistical controls, and other flaws; strict quality measures that ensure the conclusion of the final meta-analysis is reliable. The cross-cultural and gender inclusive nature of this study meant that findings are applicable to people from a variety of cultures and sexes, and are more likely to represent the general population’s response to violent videogames.
Therefore, this may provide scientifically strong evidence for the claim that videogames cause aggression. However, a few experts have called out the fact that these studies fail to address other possible mediators/moderators of the effects of aggression that are present in violent videogames. This is especially interesting because studies in the previous meta-analysis often used third-person shooting or combat games, which are violent but also very competitive in nature. This study had 60 participants play one of these four games: “Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe”, a highly competitive, violent fighting game; “Left 4 Dead 2”, a moderately competitive, violent first-person shooter game; “Fuel”, a highly competitive, non-violent race car game; or “Marble Blast Ultra”, a non-competitive, non-violent puzzle game. Afterwards, participants were told to choose one of four hot-sauces, each of different spiciness, for a person that doesn’t like spicy food. Researchers suggested that choosing a spicier hot-sauce would show aggression. Those who played “Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe” and “Fuel”, both highly competitive games, chose spicier hot-sauces compared to those who played the other two games, which are less competitive. Those who played “Fuel”, a non-violent but competitive game, showed more aggression compared to those who played “Left 4 Dead 2”, a violent non-competitive game, which is evidence for competitiveness as a cause for aggression in videogames instead of violence. Consistently, this study show that playing violent videogames that are cooperative reduces aggression. So who’s to say violence in a videogame is the primary contributor to aggressive behaviour?
All of the previous studies mentioned are valid, but they contradict one another; some say aggression is caused by violence in videogames while others say it’s competitiveness. However, both studies agree that the term “Aggression” isn’t interchangeable with “Violence”. Trump implies that violent videogames are one of the root-causes of mass-shooting. Mass-shooting is fundamentally an act of violence, which is defined by the World Health Organization as the use of physical force with the intention of hurting another. On the other hand, a review has shown that the majority of research on social psychology uses the word “Aggression” to refer to “… behaviour that is intended to harm another person who is motivated to avoid that harm.”. Harm, within this definition, varies in form; it can be non-physical (say, the feeling of anger) or physical (hitting the table, for example). Studies that link violent videogames to aggressive behaviour don’t always mean physically aggressive behaviour; many refer to aggressive “affect” and “cognition”—forms of non-physical aggression.
The rest of the researches that do find a link between violent videogames and physical aggression cannot have the same results applied to criminal violence. Why is this? Because criminal violence is a whole different level of aggression. Think of it like this: every act of criminal violence is aggressive, but not all acts of aggression are violent. The American Psychological Association (APA) has released over 3 reports on the matter of violent videogames in the past decade. Their most recent 2020 report states that while “The link between violent videogame exposure and aggressive behaviour is one of the most studied and best established,” there is also “… insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent videogames and violent behaviour.” So while they recommend that children be thoroughly educated about violent videogames, there isn’t actually any concrete proof associating violent videogames with violence, be it criminal or not.
Instead, there is concrete proof showing no correlation between violent videogames and violence. This study uses data from over 6,000 eight-grade students to investigate possible risk-factors of hitting someone and carrying weapons, both acts of violence. Results show that violent videogames are an insignificant risk-factor of the two acts of violence, especially in comparison to other risk-factors such as exposure to violence at home, impulsivity and lack of parental-control.
Another study investigated correlations between homicides and aggravated assaults (examples of real-life violence) in America to rates of videogame sales, Internet keyword searches for violent videogame guides, and the release dates of popular violent videogames. It found that there is no correlation between them. So why does the media denounce violent videogames so much? Many critics blame the media for using videogames as a scapegoat instead of discussing the intricacies of America’s systematic problem of gun-control, that has enabled such a high number of mass-shooting—and the science does support this! To prevent the public from being further misinformed, the media should avoid discussing this myth in a limited, fear-inducing way for the sheer shock-value, as the media should be one of the bridges that close the gap between scientific research and public awareness.
So while there is continuous debate between researchers on whether or not violent videogames causes aggression, it is clear that all agree that in no way existing studies can prove a link between violent videogames and criminal violence. Unfortunately, claims made by Trump and other American politicians, in addition to fearmongering by the media, can easily throw off the public. One thing for sure; violent videogames are NOT to blame for the El Paso shooting, or any other mass-shooting for that matter.