In August 2019, in the span of less than 24 hours, more than 80 people were killed or injured in mass shootings in the US. Reeling from the shock, politicians and public figures searched for something to blame for the attacks. It didn’t take long to find it.
Video games, said politicians like the Lt. Governor of Texas Dan Patrick and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, were the problem: they “dehumanize individuals” and make “a game of shooting individuals and others,” said McCarthy. Walmart removed violent video games from its shelves even as it continued to sell guns and ammunition; even the then president, Donald Trump, made a speech blaming “gruesome and grisly video games” for making it “too easy … for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
On the face of it, this idea seems to make sense: spend all your time murdering CGI bodies, and perhaps it’s not so difficult to move onto real ones. But is that how it really works? A new study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization suggests not.
“Popular media often links violent video games to real-life violence, although there is limited evidence to support this link,” wrote applied microeconometrician and sole author of the paper, Agne Suziedelyte. “I [analyzed] how adolescent boys’ violent behavior is affected by the releases of new violent video games in the U.S. … I find no evidence that child reported violence against other people increases after a new violent video game is released.”
The study is just the latest in a growing body of evidence against a link between playing violent video games and committing real-world violence – if anything, such game releases have actually been shown to decrease levels of violence in society.
But Suziedelyte’s findings, along with the analyses that support her, contrast with an equally healthy series of studies linking violent video games to increased aggression. This apparent conflict may not be as irreconcilable as it first seems, though, when we consider a certain caveat in Suziedelyte’s methods: she measured specifically violence against other people – “the type of violence which we care about most,” she explained. Parents of teen and tween boys certainly reported increased aggression after their children had been playing violent video games, but that aggression was mostly limited to destroying objects, not attacking people.
“Taken together, these results suggest that violent video games may agitate children, but this agitation does not translate into violence against other people,” said Suziedelyte.
The reason for that may well be practical rather than psychological, Suziedelyte speculated: basically, the most likely place for a kid to be playing a video game is at home, she said, where “opportunities to engage in violence are lower.” There’s no grand crusade in defense of video games here: Suziedelyte likens the effect of video games on violence-prone boys to the idea of an incarcerated inmate – removed from society, and thus unable to lash out at it.
While mass shootings may have disappeared off the radar for the last 18 months or so, violent video games are still as controversial as ever, with some US politicians calling for outright bans on certain titles as recently as this year.
Suziedelyte says such policies probably won’t have the effect their supporters hope, however. After all, since her research showed no increase in violent attacks after playing video games, she explained, “policies that place restrictions on video game sales to minors are unlikely to reduce violence.”