President Trump is “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts”. Like his tan, hair, and attitude to women, perhaps Trump’s ears are stuck in the 1990s, when the suggestion that video games cause violence first became popular in the press. Since then, this theory has popped up again and again after each newsworthy American mass shooting (there are loads of ostensibly non-newsworthy American mass shootings literally all the time).
As such, it’s no real surprise that Trump is touting this line a week after the deadliest high-school shooting in American history. But just how scientifically sound is the thesis that video games cause violent outbursts?
“Basically, there’s no scientific evidence to back the contention by President Trump that violent movies or video games play any role in societal violence, including mass shootings,” says Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University who has studied the link between video games and violence for almost 15 years.
Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University and part of the International Society for Research on Aggression, has a different perspective. “The issue is more complex than the President’s statement or than the opposing statements by video game industry supporters,” he tells me over email.
It’s a contentious issue, and it’s easy to see why it’s a popular topic in the media. In recent years, it has become apparent that online gaming culture can lead to misogyny which in turn can lead gamers to threaten and intimidate women (see: Gamergate). Yet Trump isn’t concerned about this (a lot of these same gamers, after all, were his supporters) and is instead advancing the more simplistic argument that anyone who plays Grand Theft Auto is destined to become a violent criminal in real life.
“The evidence just isn’t there,” says Ferguson over email, noting that the consumption of violent video games appears to be associated with a reduction in violent crime (rates of which have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years). In the scientific community, he says, “the idea that violent media contributes to societal violence is definitely a minority view.
“In recent surveys, only about 10-15 per cent of scholars or clinicians seem to endorse this view and they tend to be older and harbour more negative attitudes toward kids in general.”
The idea video games create school shooters can certainly be shaped by other biases, as in the president’s case the claim allows him to find a scapegoat and solution for violence without taking on the NRA. Yet Ferguson does note that minor acts of aggression (he gives the example of giving hot sauce to someone who doesn’t like spicy food) and their links to gaming are up for debate in the scientific community. A 2017 meta-analysis by the American Psychological Association found playing violent games was a “risk factor” for increased aggression (although this could not, in turn, be linked to actual criminal behaviour).
Anderson claims that violent media is a “known causal risk factor” for aggressive behaviour (a view supported by the American Psychological Association and the International Society for Research on Aggression). “A normal teenager who has few other risk factors for aggressive behaviour will not turn into a school shooter simply because he or she starts playing a lot of violent video games,” he says. “But, if a lot of other risk factors are present, then adding high exposure to violent screen media adds another causal risk factor.” Other risk factors he cites include social exclusion and growing up in a violent family.
“It is inaccurate to claim that any single risk factor is the cause of violence,” Anderson says.
While video games have therefore been cited as a risk factor for aggression, whether this is a hugely significant link, or in turn can be linked to criminal violence and mass shootings, is still debated. Ferguson firmly takes the “no evidence” line, while Anderson argues that there is insufficient funding to undertake proper studies linking video games to real-world violence. It should be noted that Ferguson’s views are at present more popular in the scientific community, while Anderson’s studies were in the past criticised by the United States Supreme Court during a ruling against a California law that attempted to ban the sales of violent video games to children without parental supervision. It stated: “they do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively” and:
“They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”
Regardless of their differencing perspectives, however, the two scientists seem to agree that video games shouldn’t be Trump’s first concern after the Parkland shooting which saw 14 students and three teachers murdered.
“If we want to reduce school shootings, make it much more difficult (or impossible) to get rapid-fire guns with large capacity magazines,” says Anderson. When asked about Trump’s statements, Ferguson said: “More cynically, I suppose it’s reasonable to speculate that this may be purposeful, as a distractor to draw the nation away from talking about other issues, particularly gun control.”