In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump and fellow conservative lawmakers suggested video games were to blame for the tragedies. "It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence," said the president. "We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately." Yet, after the 2018 Parkland shooting, a report by his own administration's Federal Commission on School Safety did not find evidence that video games are to blame for violent acts.
A recent peer-reviewed study conducted by Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute in England, interviewed 1,000 teens and their parents in relation to gaming, and also found no relation between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior in the real world.
"No studies find a link between video games and mass shootings and, in general, the evidence regarding video games and violent crime, or more serious aggression, is pretty clear: there is no effect," says Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stetson University. "There's a bit more debate on less serious acts of aggression, such as pranks, but many of those studies are not replicable."
On the contrary, in Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, co-authored by Ferguson and Patrick Markey, Ph.D., there are studies suggesting the release of popular video games is associated with an immediate decrease in violent crime. Ferguson attributes this to the activity of gaming keeping young men occupied.
And in Japan and South Korea, two countries with higher video game revenue in 2019, the amount of violent gun deaths are nowhere near the rate in America. Yet the belief that video games are to blame for violent acts, primarily shootings, lingers.
Do mass shooters play video games?
While over 70 percent of high school students play violent video games, research conducted by Dr. Markey found that only 20 percent of mass shooters reportedly play them. School shooters, in general, don't tend to be doing what their peers are doing.
"What we know about mass homicide perpetrators is they tend to be marked by certain characteristics: they are 'injustice collectors' who blame others for their problems, and they have a history of antisocial personality disorder," says Dr. Ferguson.
That being said, only a small percentage of shooters have mental health issues, and those suffering from mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
As James Ivory, Ph.D., the director of research in communication at Virginia Tech points out: "We need to be mindful that while there may be a mental health factor in some violent crimes, mental health challenges are common in society and most people who suffer from mental illness are not committing violent crimes."
It's important to keep in mind, says Dr. Ferguson, that “people tend to try too hard to link mass homicides to whatever moral cause they're advocating, which can be a distraction from other factors."
Those factors often include the need for stronger gun laws, which may have real potential to influence mass shootings. Gun ownership in the U.S. is more than six times higher than in similarly wealthy nations, and a recent study conducted by researchers at Columbia University found that states with more gun ownership and permissive gun laws have higher rates of mass shootings. “A growing divergence is noted in recent years as rates of mass shootings in restrictive states have decreased, and those in permissive states have increased,” says senior author Charles Branas, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at Columbia University. “Better data collection and more studies that test the effects of specific state gun laws are very much needed.”
What should parents be concerned about?
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 70 percent of parents now believe video games have a positive influence on their children's lives. Yet there is always the concern that children and teens are spending too much time in front of the screen to the detriment of academics, sleep, exercise, and other activities.
"Of course some people overdo games, but that's true for a lot of other pleasant activities as well," says Ferguson. "There's little evidence that games are particularly prone to overuse. Heavy use of technology can sometimes be a red flag that a teen is struggling with depression or anxiety. But it doesn't appear to be a significant causal factor."
As for content, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) suggests age appropriateness, from E for Everyone to A for Adults Only 18+, to help guide parents in selecting games. It also includes content descriptors like blood/gore, violence, substances, and nudity.
"I believe that parents can make moral decisions about the content they want to have in their children's lives," says Dr. Ivory. "It's okay for a parent to decide that a video game celebrating or trivializing violence is morally distasteful even if we know that the science suggests it has little chance of turning a child into a criminal. When trying to discourage aggression, avoiding games is low on the list. It may be that the most important parent decision regarding video games is whether you make time to play along with them."