Violent Video Games Don’t Kill People—People with Guns kill People

First off, there are no such things as “violent video games.” That construction is either a propaganda term or an instance of linguistic shorthand (and sloppiness). There are video games that depict or simulate violence, or VGSVs. We can also identify art, literature, photography, and film that depict or simulate violence. Depictions of and simulated violence are not violence. Violence is behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. The surest way to undermine freedom of expression and speech is to forget the difference between depictions of violence and violence itself or to pretend that the difference is insignificant.

It’s not VGSVs that inspire gun violence. True, research finds that levels of aggression are raised among college students playing VGSVs. (Research also shows that video games reduce motivation to act.) However, if VGSV-induced aggression were a source of gun violence, then rates of gun violence would have exploded in the United States and elsewhere in the world over the past several decades with the spread of VGSVs and other analogous media content. Yet the opposite has occurred: violent crime rates have been going down in North America, Europe, and Japan—indeed, they are at historic lows.

What brings VGSVs to our attention is the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut December 16. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 27 people, 26 of them inside the school building. Twenty of his victims were children between the ages of six and seven years old. Lanza was an avid video game player. Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, blamed video games for the shooting, singling out the free online game Kindergarten Killers. LaPierre said that video games are “selling violence” to children. Let that claim sink in for a moment while I detail why the larger claim of video game effects is so wrong.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the NRA

What is the reason for the recent rise in mass shootings? This begs the question: Have mass shootings increased? The evidence used by James Alan Fox of Northeastern University does not support the claim that mass shootings have increased over the near term. Using the FBI definition of mass shooting (four or more people in a single incident), there were more mass shootings in previous years. However, a longer view does indicate more mass shootings in the last decade than America experienced in past decades. So, even while overall gun violence is down sharply, mass shootings are the exception. They have been the exception long before the mass availability of VGSVs. The long-term trend is explained by aggressive marketing by gun manufacturers, as well as laws and policies making firearms easily accessible. Perhaps there are other factors, but they are not obvious. 

At the same time, the relationship between video game sales and rates of violence is well known and the correlation is negative. If VGSVs and similar media content are a source of violence, then why is there no associated rise in mass shootings with the emergence and widespread distribution of video games and movies that simulate violence? Why has violence generally experienced a forty-year decline to historic lows in civilized countries? Given the astonishing growth in the amount and intensity of simulated violent content in movies, games, and music, one would expect to see a robust effect on real violence if there were a causal relation. 

Why would these games be associated with a decline in violence? We’re not exactly sure, but perhaps VGSVs drain off aggression. If so, society would much rather people get out their frustrations by virtually killing people than by venting in a less virtual manner. Rather than act violently in the real world, video games may provide a zone to act out simulated violence in a manner that doesn’t harm anybody. I have good reasons to make this claim.

Psychologists typically define violence as an extreme manifestation of aggression. The American Psychological Association (APA) uses these examples: assault, rape, or murder. I know of no scientific study that links video gaming to assault, rape, or murder (on this point, the APA asserts a relationship without evidence, as pointed out by clinical psychologist Christopher Ferguson, an expert in this area). Aggression manifests in many ways: anger, competition, hostility, intimidation, violence, and so on. Exhibiting more forceful action in conduct as a result of competition, for example, whether video gaming or contact sports, does not necessarily, indeed very rarely leads to violent conduct. 

Playing tennis involves aggression. But tennis isn’t violence. However, if two tennis players have a fist fight, then there’s violence. How often does this happen? Not unheard of. But a reason to encourage children not to play tennis? Is forceful action in a tennis game a consistent predictor of violence? I haven’t seen any studies to that effect. I would posit that, overall, competitive sports is associated with less violence, since persons are occupied in a constructive activity. Many a wayward youth has been steered into pro-social activities through the vehicle of competitive sports. It’s one of the reasons why there are YMCAs.

What gamers will tell you is that gaming doesn’t arouse the level of aggression that contact sports do. Physical competition—football, basketball, etc.—is much more aggression-arousing than video gaming, just as having an Internet argument is much less arousing than having a face-to-face argument. Should we steer kids away from contact sports because it’s aggression-arousing? Should we steer them from debate? 

I submit that when you have millions of adolescents and young men in their bedrooms playing video games for hours on end you have millions of adolescents and young men who are not out on the streets perpetrating actual violence. A basic tenet of control theory, which is supported by decades of research, is that involvement in pro-social or socially-neutral activities—sports, etc.—keeps boys and young men away from antisocial activities. If this is true, then we might fear the levels of violence we would see today if it were not for the hordes of unemployed young men living at home playing video games. 

While there is a downside to this generation’s lack of actual physical contact with their peers, increased interpersonal violence isn’t one of them. So, aside from the effects of the social democratic reforms (New Deal and Great Society programs) on reducing crime and violence (a trend that began in the 1970s), at least some of the decrease in violence is explained by vicarious participation in sports and activities that provide redirection and release of frustration and aggressive while involving millions in nonviolent activities. Indeed, the drop in violence sharply evidence after the widespread distribution of VGSVs.

It simply doesn’t follow from studies showing aggression following gaming—and many studies don’t even find this, as documented the last time we went through the literature—that violence is a predictable consequence of competition. And there is plenty of convincing evidence that involvement in pro-social activity (and competitive gaming has become fused with social media and is more often a team effort with single-player gaming waning) makes involvement in antisocial activities much less likely. I don’t find the existence of studies showing increases in aggression following video gaming to be compelling. I agree with Ferguson that the touted consensus in psychology has misread and gone far beyond what the evidence shows, hence the growing consensus of doubt over the alleged relationship within psychology itself. 

I can think of a lot of social problems surrounding the addicting nature of the various sorts electronic media of our day, but causing violence is not one of them. The very fact that they’re occupied with electronic media—or engrossed in fantasy novels—means they’re not doing other things. Getting kids to just go outside is hard enough. The alternative is to worry about what they’re doing when they’re not at home. It seems to have escaped people this fact that when kids are playing video games they are by definition not participating in violent conduct. “Killing” somebody’s avatar is no more killing somebody than imagining killing somebody or reading a book about killing somebody. It seems those who are worried about the blurred lines between fantasy and reality are those most guilty of blurring the lines. I never once thought that because a character in Edgar Allen Poe story drives an ax into his wife’s skull that it would be something to consider in real life. And I’m guessing that anybody who does that isn’t thinking about Edgar Allen Poe when he does it. There just isn’t a connection here. 

Do this: Strike the words “playing” and “a video game” and replace them with “reading” and “a book” or “listening” and “to music.” What’s the difference? They are literary or art forms that produce enjoyment for the persons consuming them. Besides, even if we supposed that simulated violence has something to do with forming motives to kill, without access to military-style weaponry such motives are less likely to materialize in murder. Guns enable mass death. Without guns, actual violence would claim far fewer victims. Shootings would be less common.

What ought to shock us are the death tolls from mass shootings. Shootings are becoming deadlier. That’s a function of easy access to high-powered weaponry. And you can thank the NRA for that. Semiautomatic weapons are associated with higher body counts. It’s hard for a man to kill a lot of people with the types of weapons citizens possessed when the Second Amendment was written. We therefore need to deal immediately with the primary causes of lethal gun violence in our society: advanced weapons technology and its associated culture, a creation of the for-profit weapons industry. The shared factor in most these killings is a fetish for the type of guns that have only one purpose: killing humans.

Calls to censor video game content sacrifices the First Amendment for a warped interpretation of the Second Amendment. It will have no effect on violence in our society. Let’s focus our attention on the actual problem: easy access to military-grade weaponry.

Update: 1.15.2013

NRA’s Wayne La Pierre comes on television to denounce violent video games in the wake of Sandy Hook. Then the NRA releases a first-person shooter game, NRA: Practice Range, for persons four years of age and up on the iPad and iPhone. The shooter in the game—that’s you—can take up an AR 15 and shoot at human shaped targets. You know, practice your aim so you won’t miss the target the next time you go on a killing spree. Apple changed the age recommendation to 12 and up. Whatever. Apple can’t change the hypocrisy.

NRA releases a first-person shooter game, NRA: Practice Range

LaPierre is a paranoid authoritarian, an expression of what used to be the lunatic fringe in America. He supports gun ownership because he knows which types of persons are most likely to buy large amounts of high-powered weaponry, the same types Erich Fromm identified in Escape from Freedom. LaPierre desires a repressive society in which right wingers have the tools to intimidate the rest of the population and, hopefully, in his way of thinking, establish a garrison state based on his political beliefs. Why should our children have to live in armed fortresses for the sake of somebody’s gun fetish? Wayne LaPierre doesn’t support gun ownership as an expression of liberty. He’s calling for censorship of media and putting police officers in our schools. His answer to gun violence is to restrict our liberty.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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