Video Games: the Easy Scapegoat for Violent Acts

Why the “Video Game Blame Game” is Still Prevalent

Last Saturday, a young man by the name of Patrick Crusius committed a mass shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas where he murdered 22 people and wounded at least 20 others. Just thirteen hours later, 24-year-old Conner Betts opened fire in a popular nightclub district in Dayton, Ohio killing nine people in the process. So far, no evidence suggests that both incidents are related. Crusius posted a manifesto in 8chan just minutes before his act and the document showed that he was a white nationalist who opposed Hispanic migration to the US. As a result, it is safe to say that he specifically chose El Paso since 80 percent of its inhabitants are Hispanic. Meanwhile, Betts’ twitter feed (which has since been deleted) showed that he had leftist beliefs but police forces have yet to find a reason to believe that his attack was ideologically motivated. As two more mass shootings rocked the United States, the usual reactions and arguments on gun reform soon resurfaced. Meanwhile, President Trump publically blamed video games for glorifying violence to young audiences: "We must stop the glorification of violence in our society, this includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.” To be fair, he did also speak of the dangers of online radicalization, white supremacy and mental health in the broadcast, but his targeting of video games has made the most headlines in the news media and traction on social media platforms.

This is not the first time that Trump has blamed video games over gun violence (he previously did so back in March 2018) nor is this the first time that public discussion has been raised over the negative influences violent games have on youth. The Columbine School shooting in 1999 marked the first time in which video games have been placed under the radar for allegedly inspiring violent acts since both mass murderers happened to be fans of the first-person shooter (fps) game Doom. This debate has only become more frequent as realism in games increased and violence became more horrific, in spite of this most psychological studies thus far have concluded that there is little to no correlation between violent behavior in youth and playing video games.


Screenshot from Doom 1 released in 1993, as the game is over 25 years old it lacks the graphical realism of modern shooters. (SilentChaos68/YouTube)


First-person shooters are one of the most popular video game genres, for instance, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was the second best-selling game for 2018. Many have argued that realistic fps games can serve as training simulators which can teach young gamers how to use firearms, some even think that the genre makes those who play such games desensitized towards violence. Funnily enough, both the US military and the militant group Hezbollah have exploited the popularity of the genre, in 2002 the United States Army developed a tactical shooter game called America’s Army. The game is free to download and serves as a recruitment tool for the military. The fifth game in the series is currently in development. Similarly, back in 2003, Hezbollah developed its own propaganda fps called Special Force in which the player plays as a Hezbollah militant battling against the Israeli Defense Forces. A sequel to the game was released in 2007, this time the plot was based on the 2006 Lebanon War.

The fact that military and paramilitary forces are using games as recruitment tools can be used as an indicator that games can be warfare simulators, however, most academic studies disagree. For instance, a study in Germany published by the Frontiers in Psychology gathered a group of gamers who played violent video games and a control group of non-gamers and both sets of individuals were shown emotionally provocative images while having their brains fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanned. The scans indicated that both gamers and non-gamers showed similar neural responses to the images. Furthermore, Marcus Schulzke a professor from the University of York also has his doubts that violent video games can encourage children to display violent behavior. It should be noted that Schulzke is in fact an International Relations professor and not a psychologist, however, one of his areas of study is how soldiers on the battle line make ethical decisions and he has used such expertize to analyze the influence violent games have on children. With regards to the argument that increased realism in games teaches children to harm others, Schulzke argues that most games, both violent and non-violent, are far removed from the real world practices they simulate. For instance, a high score on Wii Tennis will not make someone a professional tennis player. Similarly, Schulzke says that the only realism first-person shooters present is the graphical representation of guns, rather than accurate simulation of gun shooting. As such, it would be fallacious to argue that a child or a young person will learn how to use a gun just by pressing buttons on a game controller or a keyboard.

A common argument that children lack the capacity to distinguish the fantasy world from the real world has also been disputed. Psychology Professor Jeffery Goldstein has said that children are aware that the rules that apply in the video game world do not have the same implications on the real world, for instance children know that the real world doesn’t have a pause button or a reset option.


Screenshot from Hezbollah's Special Force 2 (Derek Caelin/YouTube)


It is understandable that some people suspect video games of having a desensitizing impact on impressionable children after all video game graphics have improved in an unprecedented level and those who still associate video games with 16-bit graphics or rough polygons might be flabbergasted at just how lifelike games have become. Moreover, gruesome stages such as the one in GTA: V in which the player is required to torture a captor doesn’t help matters. However, the game industry has long had two detailed yet simple to understand ratings systems, the United States has the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system which has been around since 1994 while the EU has Pan European Game Information (PEGI) was created in 2003. Both boards clearly age mark video games, so there is no excuse for parents to not be aware of such systems. This, of course, is easier said than done since children are considerably more technologically sophisticated than their parents, and the rise of software purchases has made it easier for kids to circumvent parental authority.


Screenshot from GTA: V’s Torture Mission (Spawnster/YouTube)

For the longest time, this “violent video game blame game” has been and still remains a way of creating a false narrative meant to shift public focus away from the issue of gun reform, and the empirical evidence demonstrates this. According to Newzoo, a website that analyzes market trends, the US has the largest gaming market in terms of game revenue. The countries that follow the US are China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the UK. If violent video games did indeed cause more acts of violence, then surely the rest of these countries must have frequent firearm homicides, but empirical evidence suggests otherwise. According to World Atlas, the US has a murder rate of 4.7 for every 100,000 people, while that may not seem like much, the UK and China only have a murder rate of 1.0, South Korea has one of 0.9, Germany has one of 0.8 and Japan only has a murder rate of 0.3. Meanwhile, a recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed that the vast majority of homicides in the US are by firearms, meanwhile in Europe other mechanisms, such as use of sharp objects, have a larger share of homicide causes (the study did indicate that murders by firearms did cause the largest share of homicides in Italy and France, but they did not represent the majority). As such, the video games cause murders argument is a faulty correlation equals causation one. What other countries with avid gaming populations have is stricter gun laws that make it harder to purchase firearms, however, gun culture in the United States and extensive government lobbying from the National Rifle Association (NRA) stops substantial government debates on gun law reforms from happening. The graph below from The National Tribune shows the extent of NRA lobbying in the US, and just how much lobbying funds have been increasing. Until legislative changes happen, then homicides are likely to continue in the US and as video games become more realistic they will remain an easy scapegoat for gun violence.


Graphic of annual NRA lobbying since 1999. (The National Tribune)