Putting to bed the myth that video games are linked to mass killings

In a nationally televised address Monday morning, President Trump outlined his targets of blame for this past weekend’s mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, and among them fell “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.” That echoed numerous others from the past 36 hours:

Video games, of course, have been the bogeyman for explaining mass killings since Columbine 20 years ago; while it’s a common trope among conservatives looking to shift the focus away from high-powered rifles and high capacity magazines, video games were also a target of President Obama and Vice President Biden

This is despite our decades of research that show no relationship between exposure to violence in video games and the committing of mass murder. I know, because I decided to enter grad school and research that exact issue while I watched the events in Colorado on April 20, 1999, six weeks before my college graduation. My subsequent Master’s thesis research never entered the literature because far more skilled researchers were already presenting their findings; we could pick from literally hundreds of them, but the most conclusive was published by Markey, Markey, & French in the APA’s Psychology of Popular Media Culture in 2014.

The trio point out that previous research suggesting a link between violent video games and violent behavior either used an unrealistic definition of “violent behavior” (including mundane forms of aggression such as giving too much hot sauce to another person) or simply relied on correlative factors without expressing any evidence of causation; while most young men who commit mass killings played video games, the same percentage of young men who do not commit mass killings play video games. 

Contrary to the claims that violent video games are linked to aggressive assaults and homicides, no evidence was found to suggest that this medium was a major (or minor) contributing cause of violence in the United States.

Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to 4 years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides 2 months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.

The findings that violent crime was more likely to show decreases instead of increases in response to violent video games were contrary to what was expected.

Markey, Markey, and French (2014)

That last line—that decreases were contrary to what was expected—may reveal that psychologists and communication scholars haven’t been exposed to enough economics research; there was enough evidence well before video games even became a major part of contemporary culture to understand that they could function as a substitute good to the actual commission of violent crime. Video games function as a substitute for the direct commission of crime, and the time spent playing them necessitates the potential offender being in a place and time where he cannot commit the crime in the first place.

A common critique within the academy is that research often has little to no practical application. This is true! But it’s also why we ought to elevate the research that directly refutes claims made by the media, by elected officials, and, especially, the President of the United States.