Politicians have been blaming video games for real-world violence for decades.
On February 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and began opening fire with an AR-15 rifle. After Cruz was taken into custody, the death toll stood at 15 victims, mostly students, with two more dying later in the hospital. It was the work of a disturbed and radicalized killer who had ties to a local white supremacist group, enabled by the high-powered weapon he was able to easily acquire due to the United States’ gun laws.
A short time after the attack, however, as many Americans began to question why Cruz was able to legally obtain such a dangerous weapon, those in positions of power pointed the finger elsewhere. Florida Congressman Brian Mast and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin blamed games like Call of Duty. President Donald Trump spoke up as well, questioning whether we might need a “rating system” for games or movies, seemingly unaware that these systems already exist.
As disheartening as this sort of deflection is in 2018, it isn’t new — not in the slightest. Video games, as well as pen-and-paper role-playing games predating them — have been blamed for acts of violence for decades, with politicians using them as an easy scapegoat to avoid addressing the actual causes of mass killings in the United States.
Beginning in the late 1970s Dungeons & Dragons became a target for outsiders looking for something to blame when they were forced to deal with horrible and hard-to-explain circumstances. Its fantastical world, filled with wizards, dragons and magic, could easily be misinterpreted as “satanic” by outsiders. When high school student Irving Pulling died by suicide with a firearm in 1982, his own mother ignored the input of his classmates, who claimed Pulling had much deeper personal problems that contributed to his death, and instead sued the principal for his role in a “curse” placed on Pulling’s character during a Dungeons & Dragons game. She believed the curse was real.
Of course, this wasn’t true, and subsequent studies conducted by sociology organizations as well as the CDC found no link between suicidal behavior and the game.
As electronic video games began rising in popularity, they became the next big target. With their on-screen depictions of violence, they served as the perfect “proof” of the corruption of youth leading to widespread murder, even if that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, it was discovered that mastermind Eric Harris was a fan of id Software’s first-person shooter Doom. Conservative politicians ran with this information, blaming video games, as well as shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, for their supposed role in the tragedy. Then-Senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech on the Senate floor that year, suggesting that violent games were a societal problem that must be solved. “[Troubled youth] can go into chat rooms and act out these video games and even take it to real life,” Sessions said at the time. “Something there is very much of a problem.”
Doom was one of the most popular video games of the ’90s. It sold millions of copies when factoring in both the original title and its sequel, and helped to popularize the PC as a viable gaming platform. It was gory, yes, but never actively encouraged hunting down innocent people. Even if the game, or others like it, did do that, there isn’t evidence to prove they’ve led to an increase in violence. In fact, according to Villanova associate professor of psychology Patrick Markey, violence has steadily decreased over the last 15 years as sales of violent games have increased. Though a link between playing video games and aggressive behavior has been noted in studies, there is no proof the games have contributed to real-world violence.
This scapegoating isn’t unique to the United States, either. In Brazil several high-profile violent games, including Grand Theft Auto, were banned at the turn of the century for allegedly inciting younger players to commit violence. Brazil certainly has a murder problem, with about 60,000 occurring every year, There, gun control laws likely aren’t to blame, but rather corruption and the drug trade have contributed to the totals — and since these sorts of games were banned, the homicide rate has stayed relatively stagnant.
When mass shooters are discovered to have been avid violent video game fans, politicians have an easy time blaming the games for their actions. However, we’ve also seen video games get blamed when the perpetrator wasn’t interested in them at all.
In 2007 Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, including students and professors, before taking his own life. He was a quiet and deeply troubled man whose skewed view of society influenced his eventual attack, but the Washington Post ran an article shortly afterward that profiled Cho as an avid Counter-Strike player. The paper was forced to retract this claim, when it was discovered that he had played the game avidly only during his high school days and didn’t seem to have much interest in games by the time he started college.
Perhaps if extended video game playing and committing mass shootings were regularly correlated, this link would be worth examining, but this isn’t the case. In the United States the average felon serving time for a violent crime actually consumed less media than the rest of the population. Warning signs related to antisocial behavior or increased isolation are more likely to predict who will commit mass murder, which can be influenced by substance abuse or childhood abuse and poverty.
Even if every mass shooting perpetrator was found to have played violent video games, however, it wouldn’t be a cause for alarm. Grand Theft Auto V has sold more than 90 million copies to retailers since it launched in 2013. If a shooter has played the game, it’s because nearly every person his age has played the game. Connecting the dots between his attack and the game is akin to blaming an attack on someone’s consumption of nightly news. What a shooter likely hasn’t played is the sadistic Kindergarten Killers, but this didn’t stop the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre from pointing to it after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. If you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t alone — it’s a free cartoon game that has never been sold in stores.
It’s easy to blame what you don’t understand. As older generations were not raised on video games, our politicians can point to games as the mysterious “other” that must be the cause of our worst problems. But young people who grew up playing them know this isn’t true, and as they become the next politicians, they’ll have the opportunity to move on from such obvious scapegoating. When the next mass shooting occurs, we’ll inevitably see video games blamed again, but remember: This argument is old, tired and false.