In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead, President Donald Trump followed in the footsteps of many politicians who have had to deal with mass shootings: He drew a direct connection between the violence in schools to the violence in video games and movies.
“I’m hearing more and more people saying the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” said President Trump on Thursday. This sentiment is, more or less, exactly the same as the rationale commentators proposed after the Columbine shooting in 1999, which was the deadliest school shooting in the United States since the University of Texas massacre in 1966. It sounds plausible: If kids see violent acts in film and engage in simulated violence in video games, they might be predisposed to it.
But no matter how often this idea is repeated, Chris Ferguson, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at Stetson University, tells Inverse, there’s still no changing the fact that it’s not backed up by scientific evidence.
“The claims Trump is making about movie and video game violence and gun violence are entirely false,” he says. “This is an idea that has been debunked very thoroughly.”
Ferguson researches the effects of violent video games on children, and in 2017 he co-authored a statement on the topic that was released by the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association. This statement called claims like the one President Trump made baseless and urged politicians and newsmakers to stop making them.
“Research evidence is increasingly clear that violent entertainment is not associated with violence in society,” says Ferguson. “If anything, there are some studies now to suggest that violent movies and games are associated with reduced criminal violence.”
The impulse to connect video game violence with real-life violence is an understandable one, especially when we consider the fact that modern warfare increasingly depends on simulations for training and even uses video game-like interfaces for actual drone combat. How can it be true that video games don’t cause violence, even when militaries use video games to train violence? As Inverse previously reported, it’s an incredibly complex topic in which the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Whatever the ethics of the gamification of warfare suggest, though, the preponderance of current scientific evidence shows that there is not a significant connection between violent games and violent behavior. That doesn’t mean there’s definitely not a connection, but it does mean that researchers have yet to establish that connection in a way that meets the standards of scientific evidence.
“When it comes to the effects of violent video games on children, the literature is currently inconclusive,” David Zendle, Ph.D., an associate lecturer at the University of York in the United Kingdom, tells Inverse. Zendle is the first author on a paper, published in the January 2018 issue of the journal Entertainment Computing, that showed no link between violent video games and violent behavior.
“It really isn’t clear from the body of research on offer that playing these games is leading to important behavioural changes,” he says. “Certainly, there is no conclusive causal relationship between games with guns and going out and committing a shooting.”
But a lack of scientific evidence has never stopped people from spreading inaccurate ideas, and it’s not likely to stop people from continuing to claim a link between gun violence in video games and in real life.
“My best speculation is that these types of moral panic claims are purposely being used to deflect the national conversation from gun control to video games and movies,” suggests Ferguson. After all, President Trump and Republican lawmakers score political points by ingratiating themselves to the National Rifle Association and playing into traditional values. Unfortunately, this misguided focus only serves to move the discussion backward.
“Bringing back pseudo-science nonsense that’s been thoroughly discredited doesn’t add anything to the debate,” says Ferguson.
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