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Trump rushes to blame video games for mass shootings, but the evidence proves him wrong

Latest research shows weak link between mass shootings and online games addictions, suggesting Trump's response could be sideshow from gun control

Kevin Draper
Tuesday 06 August 2019 13:07 BST
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Ohio governor drowned out at Dayton vigil: 'Do something'

After two mass shootings over the weekend that killed 31 people and wounded dozens more, powerful Republicans, including the president, retorted to a familiar target of blame: video games.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Donald Trump, the US president, said on Monday in a White House address on the shootings. "This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.”

Trump’s words echoed those of Texas governor Dan Patrick and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader. In an appearance on “Fox & Friends” on Sunday morning, Patrick implored the federal government to “do something about the video game industry.”

“We’ve watched from studies, shown before, what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others,” Rep. McCarthy added on a different Fox show.

Armed with little and often unconvincing evidence, politicians have blamed violence on video games for decades. Their rhetoric quickly ramped up in the 1990s, after games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom popularised the genre of violent first-person shooting games.

Since then, video games have been blamed for shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, and many others in between.

Researchers have extensively studied whether there is a causal link between video games and violent behaviour, and while there is not quite a consensus, there is broad agreement that no such link exists.

According to a policy statement from the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association, “Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities.”

Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, led the committee that developed the policy statement. In an interview Monday, he said the evidence was clear that violent video games are not a risk factor for serious acts of aggression. Neither are violent movies, nor other forms of media.

“The data on bananas causing suicide is about as conclusive,” Mr Ferguson said. “Literally. The numbers work out about the same.”

The Supreme Court has also rejected the idea. In 2011, striking down a California law that banned the sale of some violent video games to children, the court savaged the evidence California mustered in support of its law.

“These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

Tearful families gather at the scene of a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, which killed nine (Getty Images)

He added: “They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

If video games did indeed cause some mass shootings, one might expect such events to be common in Japan or South Korea. Both countries spend more per capita on video games than the United States, according to Newzoo, and have huge video game communities.

Japan is home to video game makers like Nintendo, Sega and Sony, while South Korea has a highly developed competitive video gaming industry.

But Japan and South Korea – both of which have very strict laws limiting gun ownership – have among the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, and mass casualty events are quite rare.

Trump’s administration studied the issue previously and came to no significant conclusion about connections between mass shootings and violent video games.

After last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Trump administration convened a federal commission on school safety.

The commission’s final report played down the role of guns in school shootings. Instead, it called for improving mental health services, training school employees in firearm use and rolling back rules developed during the Obama administration that were aimed at ensuring that minority children weren’t unfairly disciplined by schools.

The commission’s 180-page report devotes a chapter to what it calls “violent entertainment,” including video games.

After hearing from a variety of researchers and other experts, the commission recommended that state and local educational agencies have internet safety measures in place and that the enforcers of voluntary ratings systems – such as the Motion Picture Association of America’s practice of assigning ratings like PG-13 or R to movies – review and improve their policies.

The upset turned to anger at lacking gun control legislation as many gathered at vigils to remember those whose lives were lost in two mass shootings in 24 hours (REUTERS)

It made no specific recommendation in regards to video games.

In some cases, the perpetrators of mass shootings are quite clear about their motivations. On Saturday, a 2,300-word manifesto appeared online minutes before the shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 people were killed. The second line of the hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto says the attack “is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Law enforcement officials were investigating whether it was written by the shooter. They were interviewing the suspect, Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man who lived about a 10-hour drive from the Walmart where the shooting took place.

Video games are, however, mentioned in the manifesto. “Don’t attack heavily guarded areas to fulfil your super soldier COD fantasy,” it advised, referring to the popular Call of Duty franchise of games in which players usually embody the roles of soldiers.

People who commit mass shootings sometimes identify as video gamers, but James Ivory, who studies media and video games at Virginia Tech, advised awareness of the base rate effect. Of course some mass shooters will have played violent video games, he said – video games are ubiquitous in society, especially among men, who are much more likely to commit mass shootings.

“It is very similar to saying the perpetrator wears shoes,” Mr Ivory explained. “They do, but so do their peers in the general population.”

Researchers have some good data on what causes people to commit violent crime, but much less data on what causes them to commit mass shootings, in large part because they happen relatively infrequently.

Dayton shooting: CCTV captures moment of attack and gunman's death

There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a mass shooting. For a long time, the FBI considered it to be a single shooting in which four or more people were killed. By that definition, a handful occur in the United States each year. Using a definition with fewer victims, or including those injured but not killed, a few hundred occur each year.

Either count pales in comparison to the 1 million other violent crimes reported each year.

While cautioning that he was hesitant to imply that most mass shooters fit a specific profile, Mr Ferguson listed some commonalities. They tend to have mental health problems, sometimes undiagnosed, and a history of anti-social behaviour, have often come to the attention of law enforcement or other authorities and are what criminologists call “injustice collectors,” he said.

“The problem is, you could take that profile and collect 500,000 people that fit,” he said. “There are a lot of angry jerks out there that don’t go on to commit mass shootings.”

Violent video games are much more likely to be trotted out as an excuse, however, in certain situations. For a forthcoming study, Ivory and his colleagues studied 6,814 news accounts of mass shootings.

They found that in coverage of mass school shootings specifically, video games were more than eight times as likely to be brought up when the shooter was white than when the shooter was black.

“We should think about when we are more comfortable looking for something else to blame,” he said, adding, “I haven’t heard any senators talk about video games when an immigrant commits a crime.”

New York Times

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