In the wake of yet another wave of horrifying gun violence in the US, President Donald Trump is working to steer the conversation away from gun legislation in favor of rehashing questions on whether violent video games promote gun violence. It’s a path taken by gun advocates in the past when facing criticism over mass shootings and the high rates of gun violence in the US – but one on which both the science and policy have been largely settled.
On Thursday, President Trump met with video game CEOs and representatives, as well as critics of the industry, to discuss the issue. The White House said the meeting was a chance “to discuss violent video game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children” following a Parkland, Florida school shooting last month in which 17 people were killed. It comes amid renewed debate on the availability of guns in the US, and comments from Trump tying the issue to violent video games. In the wake of shooting, the President said he is “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”
It’s not the first time Trump has raised the issue. Following the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, Trump said on Twitter that “Video game violence & glorification must be stopped. It is creating monsters!”
This echoed sentiments from NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who said at the time: “Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media and Obama’s budget kill people.”
Thursday’s meeting was attended by video game industry chiefs, such as Strauss Zelnick, of Rockstar Games, and Robert Altman, of Zenimax Media. Rockstar is behind the controversial Grand Theft Auto series, while Zenimax owns franchises such as Doom, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls. Representing the critics, Melissa Henson, of the Parents Television Council, and Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center also attended.
There are two problems with this approach to solving the epidemic of gun violence in America. For one, the issue has been used as a smokescreen by the NRA and gun advocates. For another, existing research does not line up with the conclusion that links gun violence to video games.
According to the Electronic Software Association (ESA), which attended the meeting Thursday:
“Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation.”
According to recommendations last year from the American Psychological Association, “public officials and news media should avoid stating explicitly or implicitly that criminal offenses were caused by violent media.” These new recommendations saw the APA stepping away from its previously staunch opposition to violent games, in response to newer studies that have bucked the conventional “common sense” wisdom that video games breed violence.
In January, University of York researchers failed to find evidence that video games can lead players to become more violent. Experiments looking at more than 3,000 participants found the games do not lead to violent behavior, and that even more realistic games aren’t necessarily linked to heightened aggression in players. The study looked at a larger number of participants than previous research, and used games with varying levels of realism. The experiments did not find that players were “primed” for violent behavior, nor did they find aggression levels were heightened in players after playing. In fact, the experiments found no connection between the brutality of video games and subsequent player behavior.
Research by psychologist Patrick Markey has shown 80 percent of mass shooters showed no interest whatsoever in violent video games.
“The problem is just the science, the data, does not back up that they actually have an effect,” said Markey.
A 2008 study by Whitney Decamp, an associate professor of sociology at Western Michigan University, examining data from 6,567 eighth graders, found that video games, regardless of their level of violence, were not a predictor of violent behavior.
According to Christopher Ferguson, co-chair of the psychology department at Stetson University, video games may even help to reduce violence on a societal level.
“Basically, by keeping young males busy with things they like, you keep them off the streets and out of trouble,” according to Ferguson.
He acknowledges that studies in the past have reached the opposite conclusion, but notes that more recent studies using “better methods” have been unable to link violent video games to even minor aggression, much less lethal gun violence.
One 2016 study supports Ferguson’s conclusions. After tracking sales and violent crime in the weeks after the release of popular video games, the research actually found a drop in violent crime after the release of popular video games.
And in terms of policy, the issue has been settled in the past. In 2011, the Supreme Court overruled a state law that prevented children from buying violent games without parental supervision, ruling that the video games were protected as free speech by the first amendment of the constitution. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote at the time, research linking video games and violence “have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.”
While the issue may indeed deserve continued observation given the dire nature of gun violence in the US, the real danger lies in writing off the gun violence epidemic as a result of video gaming, while failing to address social problems and gun availability. The US has the 31st highest rate of gun violence in the world, eight times the rate of its northern neighbor, Canada – where video games are equally available. It would seem that the first place to look for solutions are other areas where the US is in a class of its own – such as the availability of guns themselves. The US accounts for the highest level of civilian gun ownership in the world, according to every available estimate. This may be a tough question for Trump to grapple with without offending his pro-gun base – but it is a question that could help to save lives.