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Opinionista

That video games cause violence is a ridiculous myth

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The shooter who committed last month’s atrocity in New Zealand joked that video games made him do it. He’s right. That claim is ludicrous. It is no different from similar blame thrown at media throughout the ages, and now there is research to prove it wrong.

Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto is full of trolling and in-jokes, some aimed to signal to like-minded racists who hang out on chan boards such as /pol/, and others to provoke a reaction from alarmed media and politicians.

In the course of his lengthy, disjointed rant, which exposes him as an uneducated, racist psychopath, Tarrant declares: “Spyro the dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism. Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies.”

The third Sypro the Dragon game was released for PlayStation in the year 2000. The series was aimed at children and does not teach ethno-nationalism. Fortnite is an award-winning game released in 2017, featuring a very popular player-vs-player mode, in which one can “floss”, which is a victory dance move much like dabbing, designed to show off. Its cartoonish style certainly does not depict realistic violence.

Tarrant was taking the piss. He was laughing at idiots who say real-world violence is caused by video games and proceeded to spew reams of reasons why he, in fact, did kill dozens of innocent people. They boiled down to the fact that he hated Muslim immigrants.

Every shooting raises once again the chorus that seeks to blame violent video games for the depravity of today’s youth. It happened after Christchurch. Politicians blamed video games in 2018 after a shooting in Santa Fe. Pennsylvanian legislators are considering a tax on violent video games, believing that this will help prevent school shootings. In the wake of the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, the governor of Kentucky volunteered that it was caused by the “culture of death” that is “celebrated” in video games, TV, movies and music. Donald Trump likewise blamed video games, and students at a school in Miami were convinced to throw out their violent video games. In 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a neighbouring town held a ritual video game buyback and burning.

It goes way back. After a school shooting in 2005, Katherine Newman, a professor of sociology and self-proclaimed expert on the social roots of school shootings, told a news outlet that the shooting followed a video game “script”, and that there was “a great deal of anger brewing inside and murderous rage that is expressing itself in ways we all find quite familiar from countless video games”.

The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 was closely associated with video games, since the shooters themselves not only claimed to play games like Doom and Quake, but made lots of references to Doom before and during the massacre. Subsequently, senate hearings were held on the “marketing of violent entertainment to children”.

What followed was a sort of witch hunt for everyone who looked like, dressed like, or acted like the Columbine shooters, which distressed a great number of children who did not conform to the norms expected of them from their parents and teachers. Some kids were actually placed into therapy over their identification with video game culture.

Back in 1994, the games Mortal Kombat and Night Trap stirred up the moralising and regulatory instincts of senior politicians, with Democratic senator Joe Lieberman declaring, “These games are no mark of a civilised society.”

It’s always been this way, as Louis Anslow wonderfully chronicled, complete with newspaper headlines, for Timeline. Mother Grundys and defence lawyers routinely seek to blame the latest media for the corruption of their darling children. In the 1970s and 1980s, television took the blame for violence and murder. In 1957, the mother of a young defendant on trial for murder cited the corrupting influence of radio serials. Before that, in the 1940s and 1950s, comic books were the go-to culprit for juvenile crime. Horror comics were banned in the UK in 1955. In 1948, the US saw a spate of comic book burnings, after being linked to several murders. In the 1930s, gangsters were supposedly recruited from “precocious youth fed on poor cinema fare”. In 1927, a double murder was blamed on radio, which made the killer “feel queer inside”. In the late 19th century, attorneys for murder defendants often blamed dime novels for corrupting boys.

Just like with their predecessors, the knee-jerk responses and anecdotal evidence about video games obscure the truth. What is the chance that a disaffected person who goes on to commit a heinous crime out of anger and frustration does not watch movies or play video games that depict violence? Almost everyone else does. In a Pew Research Center study from 2018, 97% of boys and 83% of girls said they played video games. Over half of the top-selling titles contain violence, and they’re a damn sight more realistic than Mortal Kombat ever was.

A study of US school violence between 1974 and 2000, conducted by the US Secret Service and the US Department of Education in the wake of the Columbine shooting and published in 2004, found that only 59% of school attackers indicated an interest in violent media of all types, including books and movies, and only one eighth was interested in violent video games.

There have been some studies that claim to find a connection between violent video games and aggression. They mostly focus on short-term effects, which can be explained away by the adrenaline rush or “priming effect” one might expect from such games. You’d find the same reaction in people who just played a game of competitive sport.

Most of these studies are based on contrived laboratory experiments, in which non-violent “aggression”, such as gestures or sound bursts, are delivered to consenting opponents. None gave the test subjects an axe and said go to town. And none found a causal connection, which leaves open the possibility that higher levels of aggression cause people to prefer violent video games, that a third factor is the cause of both, or that the results are pretty meaningless in the first place.

A more recent longitudinal study by Simone Kühn et al., published in the prestigious journal Nature, studied a cohort of young adults over time, to eliminate short-term priming effects and establish whether violent video games have any long-term influence on attitudes, behaviour and mental well-being.

Using a battery of more than 50 psychological tests, the researchers concluded that there were no significant changes between a group that played a violent video game, a group that played a non-violent game, and a control group that did not play at all. There was also no difference between test results shortly after playing and test results two months later. These findings, they argue, “present strong evidence against the frequently debated negative effects of playing violent video games”.

In a pair of studies (available free to the enterprising searcher) published in the Journal of Communications in 2014, psychologist Christopher Ferguson compared frequency and severity of movie violence against actual US homicide rates, and violent video game consumption against youth violence rates in that country.

Controlling for factors such as population density, policing, and prosperity, he found a positive correlation only for movies in the mid-20th century. In the early part of the century, the correlation was almost perfectly inverted, and again since the 1970s, increasing movie violence is correlated with a decline in homicide rates. Likewise, violent video game consumption is associated with a decline in youth violence rates.

There simply is neither statistical nor experimental evidence that violent video games, or violent media in general, cause violence in reality, and some evidence that they do the exact opposite.

Modern online games are often highly social. Like any social interaction, this will influence those who engage in it. Some exalted guardians of the public morals, like Prince Harry, believe games such as Fortnite are merely “created to addict”, and would like to see them banned. Although attracting, engaging and retaining users is an obvious goal of game designers, this is a rather simplistic view.

Those rather more in touch with the common people, who have actually asked both parents and their teen children about Fortnite, come to radically different conclusions. Fully 61% of surveyed teens have played Fortnite. Less than a quarter of parents are concerned about the time their kids spend playing Fortnite. Just over a quarter of parents are worried about the levels of violence in the game, but only 7% of the kids share this concern.

Most tellingly, perhaps, is the finding that half of the surveyed players said it helped them keep up with friends and learn teamwork. Four out of 10 said it helped them bond with a sibling.

After school and home, social games like Fortnite are where today’s kids go for a sense of community and fun. Instead of hanging out at the mall, or roaming the streets getting up to no good, they get together and socialise using mobile phones, computers and games consoles.

Jennifer Senior, a parent who took an interest in her child’s video game playing, and a columnist for the New York Times, came to the opposite conclusion Prince Harry reached.

Sure, video games can be addictive, and there is certainly such a thing as too much playing time, but the same is true for television, comic books and dime novels. Limiting game time is no different from limiting the time kids are allowed to watch television or hang out at the movies.

Calling for taxes, regulations or bans because of misguided moral panic merely sets a precedent for government control over the media that we choose to consume. It is an unjustifiable infringement of the right to freedom of expression.

Every new medium or technology brings with it those people – usually older but from across the political spectrum – who think it corrupts the youth. Yet every generation ends up just fine. The problems they do face are not caused by violence in video games, movies or on television, but by the concerned parents and meddling politicians themselves. DM

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