It’s a bad take, and it’s been a bad take for longer than most people have been playing games. Enough.
Thirty-two people were murdered this past weekend, as two shooters in two states with different motivations decided it was their right to end the lives of other human beings. As a citizen of the United States, what happened next could basically have been read from a script. Talking heads on television dug into the background of these individuals to figure out what motivated them towards violence, and politicians spent half a breath offering condolences and the other half of that same breath pushing whatever agenda they support.
Because both of these shooters are white men and U.S.-born citizens, instead of shouting about immigration reform or domestic terrorism at the hands of white supremacists, we get to hear about the violence in their media diets, and how being exposed to those movies, TV shows or video games negatively affected their mental states. Instead of blaming the people and ideologies that directly and intentionally led at least one of these monsters to act, we’re once again talking about whether violent video games and movies are to blame.
But there’s no conversation to be had here, and there hasn’t been for the more than twenty years we’ve been debating and researching this. Violent acts don’t come from video games, and anyone trying to have this conversation in 2019 shouldn’t be taken seriously.
We have the data, we know it’s not the games
When I was young, my friends and I loved playing Mortal Kombat. There was an arcade cabinet in the little shop down the street, and all the neighborhood kids would go there on the weekends to hold little tournaments. When we weren’t at that shop, we’d talk about which character we wish we were, and could faithfully recite the attack phrases from every character. It was the first thing that really pulled us together as friends, and we stayed that way for years.
Kids surrounded by hate and violence in their real lives are infinitely more likely to become violent than anyone playing any video game.
One Saturday, as we gathered once again in the shop, someone’s mom was standing in front of the cabinet with a deeply unhappy look on her face. She demanded to know if our parents knew what we were doing, and proceeded to try explaining to each of our parents how evil the game was. She tried for months to get the arcade cabinet removed from the shop, or to have a warning label put on it. A few parents stopped their kids from playing, but largely nothing changed and we kept enjoying Mortal Kombat.
What I was too young to know then was what spurred this woman to action. A research paper titled Seeing the world through Mortal Kombat-colored glasses: Violent video games and the development of a short-term Hostile Attribution Bias had caught the attention of the local news, and was discussed at length the night before she approached us.
For many of us, this was the start of a 21-year conversation about violence in video games and how it impacted young minds. We’ve seen a new study released nearly every year since 1998 on this subject, and in the last couple of years, that number has increased dramatically. The general consensus? Violence in video games does not have a direct connection to violence in the lives of the people playing those games.
Going as far back as the Surgeon General’s report back in 2001 it has been clear that violence in media is not the thing that pushes someone to violence. There have been studies that show it can have a small reduction in empathy, or can increase the chances someone would react aggressively, but alongside each of those reports remains clear data pointing to other environmental factors being significantly greater contributors to viewing violence as a solution. And in some cases, good old fashioned researcher bias has lead to poorly proven conclusions on the subject. Put simply, kids who are surrounded by hate and violence in their real lives are infinitely more likely to become violent than anyone playing any video game.
We’ve been having this conversation for 20 years and there’s as little correlative evidence today as there was then.
As much as the gaming community would like this to be the last word on the subject, there are still plenty of things within the concept of gaming that need to be researched and addressed. A recent example of this is the rise of bullying and aggression in online gaming chats, which is frequently reported to have negative effects on players. The topic is being actively researched and continuously addressed by the chat platform creators, all of which now offer anti-abuse and harassment tools. But in general, the games themselves are being more widely accepted as a positive force in many lives. Which is probably why the guy who published that research paper back in 1998 has pivoted to publishing books on how to raise your kids in a world where the threat of zombies is a real thing. No, I’m not joking.
We all already knew this, right?
Researching the effects of all forms of stimulus on young minds is important, especially considering how much content is shoved in our collective faces is done on a daily basis, which is what makes the resurrection of this talking point so pathetic.
Video games are played all over the world, but the pervasive nature of mass shootings is a U.S.-only phenomenon. Conversations like the ones we’re hearing, connecting video games to mass murder, don’t happen outside of the U.S. because the kinds of mass murders we saw this past weekend don’t often happen elsewhere.
Hundreds of mass shootings a year only happen in one place. Today is day 217 out of 365, and so far we’ve had 297 mass shootings in the U.S. We’re winning the mass shooting race again this year, and second place isn’t even close.
It’s not the video games. It’s not the internet. It’s not gays getting married. It’s not mental illness.
When you raise a child in violence and hatred, teach them to view other human beings as an enemy, and give them easy access to tools designed to kill many people very quickly, this is what you get.
And it’s bullshit.