Don’t Believe the Hype: Violence Not Tied to Video Games

By Daniel Richardson, Class of 2015

On September 16, 2013 at approximately 8:16 am, Aaron Alexis opened fire with a Remington shot gun in the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Before the bodies of the victims had even been buried, media outlets had already cast violent video games as the real culprit. The Telegraph, for instance, ran the following headline less than twenty four hours after the shooting: “Aaron Alexis: Washington Navy Yard Gunman ‘Obsessed with violent video games.’” Video games also took a hit after the Aurora Theatre and Newtown shootings of the past year.

Although the media has already chosen its side, not everyone is sold on the evils of violent video games. Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M University, for one, dissents. In his article “The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Relationship or Moral Panic?” Ferguson argues that there is no definitive relationship between violent video games and mass shootings.

Ferguson begins his argument by providing an overview of the current research done regarding violent video games and then breaking that research down into two separate categories: experimental and correlational.3 Experimental research, the most common, typically amounts to taking subjects and exposing them to violent video games, then having them complete a series of tests to evaluate for aggressive behaviors. It is often unreliable and has only yielded mixed results. Correlational research. on the other hand, is even weaker due to the fact that it often does not take into account third party factors such as the subject’s upbringing. Those correlational studies that have tried to account for third party factors have determined that there is no link between violent video games and mass shootings and in some cases that violent video games actually reduce aggressive behavior.

Ferguson then addresses the data on school shootings over the past several years. He focuses primarily on an FBI report put out in 1999 and a Secret Service report completed in 2002. The FBI report concluded that violent video games can have a negative effect, but only if the participant was mentally unstable. Ferguson states that the results of the Secret Service report were even more striking: “Only 59% of perpetrators demonstrated ‘some interest’ in violent media of any kind, including their own writings. For video games, the figure was even lower—only 12%.” These reports are interesting because they are so contrary to the conventional wisdom conveyed by today’s media.

Lastly, Ferguson tackles the issue of why popular news media has turned video games into a scape goat the last few years. He attributes it to a moral panic that has resurfaced many times throughout history. In his own words, Ferguson defines a moral panic as one that occurs “when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole.” For example, media cried foul when the popular board game of the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons was released, with some researchers claiming it would lead to violence and Satanism. The same issue occurred in the early 19th century when journalists and misguided researchers claimed women would suffer from reading novels. Ferguson proceeds to reestablish his thesis that no evidence connects violent video games and school shootings, giving another more evidence showing shows that in the recent years while violent video game numbers have skyrocketed, youth violence has declined dramatically. Ferguson suggests that in a few years once it comes out there is no real evidence supporting claims that video games lead to shootings, they will eventually fade away.

In conclusion, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) 68% of American households own a gaming console, and millions play violent video games every day. Aaron Alexis was one of those millions, but his gaming habits did not cause him to shoot up a government complex any more than playing the Legend of Zelda makes me want to start mixing potions.

One Comment

  • Wade Richardson says:

    Interesting view, and certainly one that a lot of young people would love for their parents to adopt. Unfortunately, the entire premise of the article is based upon the opinion of one psychologist, and very little research. The real issue is whether the overwhelming exposure to violence and other “bad” conduct in media has a desensitizing impact on the observer, not necessarily whether it is the direct cause for a violent act. Of course, it can be argued that the less sensitive you are about a particular act, the more likely you may be to engage in such act because you are not offended by it. History would teach us that this is the case, but “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel). Thus, the question is not whether observing violent acts in and of itself causes you to go out and commit violent acts, but whether it can cause you to be less sensitive about the nature of the act, and the moral consequences of the act. If you are more tolerant of such acts because you watch them occur all the time, then how do you prevent them from slipping into your own conduct, or in the conduct of others with no objection from you? History tells us that observation (looking) can certainly lead to bad decisions and conduct due to the selfish nature of our own hearts, even if we may otherwise be a “good” person. (2 Samuel 11-12). Certainly, there are other sociological factors that contribute to violent aggression and acts. But whether violent first person video games “cause” violent conduct is the wrong question. No other human being has ever lived in an environment such as we have today, with multiple venues of exposure to all sorts of activity that historically few were exposed to. It doesn’t mean they did not occur, but exposure was very limited. The issue is not a new one:
    “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
    As to be hated needs but to be seen;
    Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
    We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
    Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
    An Essay on Man, 1733-1734
    Epistle II, line 217
    So, the article addresses the wrong question. It is not whether observing violent conduct repeatedly over long periods of time “causes” someone to commit violent acts because we know that there are many other factors that may play a role in the commision of a violent act. The real question is whether repeated exposure to violent acts, even if not real, desensitizes the observer such that he/she is more tolerent of such acts when they occur, and more likely to engage in such acts if driven to them by other factors. Our own internal moral compass tells us that this is true, in addition to thousands of years of human experience.

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