Do video game makes you violent?
Whenever we see the news talking about video games these days, it seems like it’s always the same thing. Do video games violent? Do you really need to worry? Things are changed a lot since the 90s era. Let’s change the conversation, Let’s move beyond this he said or she said the style of argument that these topics been mired in for decades.
Instead, we need to get down to the real story. What’s the scientific data and real-world analysis told us? Do video games actually make people more violent?
Do video games make the people who play them more violent? And is there a connection between video games and the issue of gun violence in America or other countries? Since the 90s, various politicians have invoked video games as this major contributor to the mass shootings that are in the headlines over and over again.
This topic is one of the most controversial since the 90s. This debate you have two sides, that are so entrenched in their respective answers. That no one is bothering to actually stop and do the research. On one side you have people who are so convinced that it must be the media we’re consuming. That’s causing this aggression that they’re eager to point the blame there. Because they’re biased against games. They don’t understand video games. But on the other side, you have people like me, people who grew up playing video games. Our reaction is like, I play video games, I know a lot of people who play video games and we’re not violent.
Real Data analysis of video games violent
The problem with that though is it’s not real proof. It’s a small amount of anecdotal evidence. It’s important to recognize that everyone’s brains function differently. We’re biased too in this debate because we’re eager to defend this thing that we love, that embodied our childhood. Neither side here is having a conversation. Because we’re both so certain that we’re right. What I want more than anything is what I hope all of us want, and that’s the truth.
If video games have no connection to real-world violence what so ever. I wanna have done my homework and have the receipts to prove it. And then being able to show those receipts to other people who claim otherwise. On the other hand, if I were to find conclusive causal evidence that said, video games are warping our minds and making us more prone to violence, making us less sensitized to violence then I want us to hear that hard truth too.
It’ll be important for us to know because we can start figuring out a solution from there. And that’s not me trying to get political or anything. I don’t care whether you’re someone who believes strongly in gun ownership rights. Or the exact opposite.
Three separate angles to figure out whether video games violent or not.
I’ve done looking at the issue from three separate angles.
- Examining links between video games and crime numbers
- Looking at the profiles of many shooters and the role that video games played in their lives
- Exploring the psychology behind playing video games and how they affect our perspective on violence
let’s start with angle no 1.
1. Examining links between video games and crime numbers
Looking at any links between video games and crime. Before starting the topic, we have to talk a little bit about the history of some video games. Video games like the more controversial and violent video games
You see if there is indeed a direct causal link between violence shown in video games. And users becoming more violent in their daily lives then we would expect to see increases in violence and crime.
Well, there are definitely some very early video games that had violent themes to them. If we want to talk about true or realistic violence becoming popular in the mainstream we have to look at the early 90s. Mortal Kombat, which was released in 1992. As well as Wolfenstein 3d and doom in 1992 and 1993.
From that point forward we’ve seen plenty of other violent video games get themselves bad press. Like the Grand Theft Auto series, the Call of Duty series, battlefield things like that. But for the most part, the availability of violent video games has been pretty constant since the mid-90s.
Graph of The Evolution of Video games sales
Now, this graph shows us the sales of the game sold per year as well as the number of titles released per year. And unsurprisingly they both start to take off in the mid-90s. With platforms like the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 really surging the popularity and then it explodes in the 2000s as they really hit their peak in the 2000s.
The graph is going down in the mid-2010s as the smartphone and mobile gaming become popular. But it’s pretty clear that if the real surge in video games, which would include violent video games occurred between the mid-90s and 2010.
Well if they’re influencing people to commit more violence in real life, then crime statistics should show similar growth during those same periods.
Murder Rate graph in the U.S since 1980-2000
But when you look at the data that’s the opposite of what’s happened. The murder rate in the United States actually hits its peak in 1980. But starting in the early 90s those rates went way down from 1991 through 2016.
Homicides in the US have actually gone down by 45.5%. And it’s not just homicide that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about all major crime categories across the board. Assault, burglary, rape all of them are down by at least 30% since 1991.
The popularity of video games, which again weren’t really all that commonly played until about the 1990s has contributed to making the United States a more violent society as a whole, just doesn’t really show up in these sorts of statistics.
Now maybe you think that since young people are the ones tending to play more video games. Youth crime statistics would actually show the real impact of violent video games on our minds. But those stats actually looked pretty similar.
Youth Crime rate graph in the U.S from 1980-2015
The number of violent crimes committed by people ages 12 to 17 has plummeted. Since those early days in the 90s to a rate of about 1/5 of what it was at its peak.
So the overall data seems to tell us that crime isn’t getting worse. Even though someone watching the news nowadays, we think that’s worse than ever. And that’s probably less because crime as a whole is getting worse. And more because incidents of mass shootings have gotten bigger and more prominent and more shocking in the media.
Just exactly what constitutes a mass shooting creates a lot of disagreements. It is shockingly difficult to define as everyone comes up with their own definition to kind of forward whatever statistics they’re looking to prove.
But in general, I think a pretty common definition is that a mass shooting involves an incident, where at least four people are killed by a shooter in a public place. In that case from 1982 until 2006 there were approximately 1.6 mass shootings per year. But in the years since 2007-2019, it’s actually more than tripled, 5.4 per year.
To put that statistic in another way from 1949 until 1998 there were 9 mass shootings in the US. That means at least 10 people have killed so that’s about 1 every 5 years. In the last 20 years meanwhile, there have been18 shootings, where at least 10 people were killed. That translates to 1 per year.
While the murder rate has indeed gone down, the percentage of homicides committed using guns hitting 73% in 2016.
So maybe the question that we should be asking ourselves. Isn’t whether video games make our society as a whole more violent. Like I said at the beginning everyone’s brains work totally differently. So well 99.9% of society might be completely unaffected by the violence and videogames. All it takes is just that one person to have a bad reaction to what they’re playing.
2. Looking at the profiles of many shooters and the role that video games played in their lives
Perhaps most famously the two Columbine shooters from 1999. They were both fans of the early first-person shooter Doom. The Sandy Hook elementary shooter owned a lot of video games. Games like Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Grand Theft Auto. And there was a Norwegian shooter. Back in 2011, he claimed that playing Call of Duty actually helped his aim and target acquisition. Both skills that he used during his attack.
Now to be sure some mass shooters are fans of video games. But you can’t take just these few examples and create a causal connection there. Especially since I could list plenty of other tragedies where those shooters didn’t have strong ties to video games. In fact of the 18 incidents that I mentioned earlier that had more than 10 deaths. My research actually tells me that only 4 of those shooters actually had noteworthy video game habits.
There are plenty of explanations for that but it all aligns with the report issued by the Secret Service back in 2002. Which, indicated that only 12% of school shooters expressed any sort of interest in violent video games.
Now you could probably make a case for an interest in video games being a statistical coincidence. Given, that most mass shootings are actually committed by young men. And 72% of men under the age of 30 play video games. 58% of men from 30 to 49 played video games as well.
Norwegian terrorists claim that shooting games made him much more effective
Now as for that Norwegian terrorists claim that shooting games made him much more effective in his shooting. Those claims may have had some ground to stand on if they wouldn’t have gotten redacted over the years.
You see a study was published in 2014(Boom, headshot!) that found people who practiced shooting games got more headshots in real-world target practices by a wide margin. But that study was retracted. Because the results couldn’t be replicated by outside researchers or the original researchers who conducted the experiment in the first place.
Regardless there’s still one more piece of evidence that makes me think that video games aren’t the variable to blame for our epidemic of gun violence here. The United States isn’t unique in its consumption of video games. Compare it to other nations with big gaming cultures though, The U.S is number one in money spent on video games per year. The rest of the top ten includes China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Canada, Spain, and Italy.
Firearm statistic data the U.S and other countries
Now China doesn’t release statistics on gun violence but the rest of them do. And if you compare homicides by firearms and adjust for population size. The United States actually has more gun deaths per year than all those eight other countries combined. It doesn’t mean that these countries aren’t immune to mass shootings.
I am willing to consider the possibility, that violent video games could be harmful especially since the American Psychological Association, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, have both come out against violent video games.
So do video games make us more violent in the long run? Or maybe they’re desensitizing us to real-world violence by simulating such graphic and often realistic violence in gameplay.
Well, there are a lot and I mean a lot of studies out there done on this topic. The connection between playing video games and aggression. And many of them do actually show a positive correlation between the two. The trouble here though is that a lot of news outlets or studies show us a connection between video games and aggression. But they don’t understand the report or fully talk about the limitations of those sorts of studies.
To show you what I mean we need to think about how these sorts of studies are being conducted. For instance, how would you test aggression in the first place? These tests have to be ethical after all. Can’t just give kids video games and then ask them to act them out by shooting things.
3. Exploring the psychology behind playing video games and how they affect our perspective on violence
Another issue here is that the findings that are statistically significant aren’t necessarily statistically impressive. You see when a study determines that there is a correlation between two things that are being tested. That correlation is measured with a value between -1 and +1. Now a 0 value would say that the two variables are entirely unrelated to one another. While a positive value would indicate that one predicts the other. So a +0.3 correlation, for example, would mean that one thing predicts another by a little bit. Whereas something like a +0.7 correlation means that one thing strongly predicts another. +1 guaranteed, I do X, Y is gonna happen 100%.
Now when it comes to our case of using video games violent behavior. None of the studies I saw which claimed to show some level of connection between violent media and future behavior or immediate aggression seemed to correlate beyond a positive 0.3. This means that the studies can indeed sometimes indicate a correlation. But even in the best-case scenarios, it’s a very weak level of correlation. And then that’s not even mentioning the conflicting studies, that contradict all the ones that I just mentioned. Or the psychologists who write entire articles and papers talking about how overblown the idea of video games causing violent aggressive behaviors might be.
It gets confusing trying to figure out what findings are most valid? Which researchers might have conflicts of interest? Which ones are just putting out weak findings because they have to get published to keep their jobs? But for me, one of the most telling analyses of the state of psychological research on this topic, violence in video games, actually comes from an unexpected source. The Supreme Court of all places.
In a 2011case titled Brown Vs Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court ruled that a California law forbidding the sale of certain video games to kids was unconstitutional. And they struck down that law with a vote of 7 to 2. Part of the majority opinion written by the court stated this.
“Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”Brown Vs Entertainment Merchants Association
What’s really encouraging about that message right there. Is that majority opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative members of the court. But it was co-signed by one of the most liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. What I mean to say with this is that, when you’re looking at gun violence it doesn’t have to be apart is an issue. Sure Supreme Court justices aren’t supposed to be a part of any political party. But with how divisive discussions on gun violence gets, it’s important to remember that looking at research and deciding what is and isn’t supported by sound scientific data isn’t a matter of politics. It’s a matter of caring about the truth above and beyond everything else.
There is still plenty more out there in the gaming community that we have to be concerned about. Like how video games might be shortening our attention spans or how certain mechanics and video games can be linked to problematic gambling. There is still plenty more out there that people can point to video games and be like they’re not a good influence. But in this case, the fact of the matter is that there’s just very little sound causal evidence to suggest that video games are more likely to get people to commit violence. Or that playing video games get people to be more violent.
It’s important for us to remember regardless of where you stand politically on guns, on videogames, or on whatever that we all want the same thing. A safer less violent future for ourselves for our children and for our country. Just like I had to put some of my preconceived notions about video games aside to research on this topic. We’re not gonna find any solutions to the issue of gun violence in this country or any other country if we only hear the things that we want to hear. I think decisions based on data nonpartisan research, is the thing that’s gonna help us have a chance of making that happen. It’s not about emotion, it’s about the facts. And I’ll do my best to keep an open, but critical mind if any findings show us the path forward. And I encourage you all to do the same.