The link between games and gun violence is hotly debated among politicians, game developers, and social scientists on both sides. But new results from a truly strange experiment published Friday in JAMA Network Open showed that virtual monsters, hundreds of children, and two disabled guns make the case that games and gun violence may go hand in hand.
There’s a famous concept attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov that goes something like this: If there’s a pistol on the wall in the first act, it has to go off in the third. And this experiment seems to take this idea to heart.
Led by Brad Bushman, Ph.D., a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, this experiment had pairs of children between 8 and 12 years old play a somewhat violent game (Minecraft), and then placed both kids in a room full of toys — including a mysterious cabinet. Inside that cabinet were two disabled, but very real nine-millimeter handguns.
If placing the gun inside that cabinet was act one, the rest of Bushman’s experiment investigated whether violent video games would help usher in the climax in act three. Bushman reports some somber results. Of the 242 kids in the trial, 90.9 percent found the gun. Out of those, only 22 percent told an adult they found it. And after they played Minecraft, the kids who found the gun were far more likely to actually pull the trigger, both at themselves and at their playmates.
“Gun owners should lock up their guns,” Bushman tells Inverse, reflecting on his results. “Parents should protect their children from violent media, including violent video games.”
The true value of Bushman’s experiment lies in the details. As he and his team note in the paper, the setup they used was intended to mimic a real-life American household — specifically, one of the approximately 20 percent of gun-owning households where the gun isn’t locked up. This setup has been used before, as in a 2017 JAMA Pediatrics study showing that violent movies also increased children’s proclivity towards messing around with a gun if they found one.
To investigate whether video games would have a similar effect, Bushman explains that he chose Minecraft, which isn’t exactly the goriest game on the market, for ethical and practical reasons. “We also added a weapon condition (swords) that were not guns to see if effects would be larger in the gun condition,” he says.
After playing or watching 20 minutes of the game, the kids were more likely to point the gun at themselves or at a playmate and pull the disabled trigger. Kids who played non-violent games, on the other hand, pulled the trigger less than once on average (0.2 times). Those who played sword-based games pulled the trigger an average of 1.5 times, and those who played gun-based games pulled it 3.4 times on average.
Even after controlling for variables like sex, age, exposure to violent media, and attitudes toward guns (among others), the experiment’s patterns of trigger pulls held steady: Kids who played violent video games also tended to hold the guns longer, nearly twice as long in the gun condition versus a control. However, that pattern wasn’t statistically significant.
How Can We Explain the Connection?
The number of American households that actual own a gun has declined since 1976, from 51.2 percent to 31 percent, according to the University of Chicago’s March 2015 General Social Survey. This latest experiment showed that, if the gun is available, violent video games are a factor that ushers in Chekhov’s act three, but Bushman makes it clear that other crucial factors come into play, too.
"It is one risk factor among many."
“[Playing violent video games] is one risk factor among many,” he says. “It is not the least or most important risk factor, but it is not a trivial risk factor for sure,” he adds.
Still, the results do seem to point toward some type of connection, which does have a backing in social science theory.
In the paper, the team explains the proclivity towards using a gun, according to social learning theory. Social learning theory is the idea that people will model their behavior after someone else’s, even a fictional character’s, like a hero in a violent video game.
“Modeling is especially likely to occur when the potential outcomes of a behavior are dangerous,” they write. And it’s especially prominent when someone notices that there could be a reward that comes from performing that action.
Shooting a gun to vanquish a monster is rewarded in the game, providing that positive outcome. And the authors noted that even kids who just watched the game tended to mess around with the guns more than those who watched controls, adding credence to the idea that mimicking behavior was behind their results.
Of course, video games alone can’t explain patterns of gun violence throughout the country. But experiments like this can help illuminate one of the many factors that may draw someone in that dangerous direction.
Intervantions: In a 3-group randomized design, pairs of children played or watched 1of 3 versions of the game Minecraft for 20 minutes: (1) violent with guns, (2) violent with swords, or (3) nonviolent. The pairs of children were then placed in a different room and were told they could play with toys and games for 20 minutes. A cabinet in the room contained 2 hidden disabled handguns with counters for trigger pulls. Play sessions were videotaped.
Main Outcomes and Measures: Main outcomes were touching a handgun, seconds spent holding a handgun, and number of trigger pulls (including at oneself or the partner). Control variables included sex, age, trait aggressiveness, exposure to violent media, attitudes toward guns, presence of firearms in the home, interest in firearms, and whether the child had taken a firearm safety course.
Results: Of 242participants, 220 children (mean[SD]age, 9.9 [1.4] years; 129 [58.6%] boys) found a gun and were included in analysis. Among the 76 children who played the video game that included gun violence, 47 children (61.8%) touched a handgun. Among the 74 children who played the video game that included sword violence, 42 (56.8%) touched a handgun. Among the 70 children who played the nonviolent video game, 31 (44.3%) touched a handgun. Participants who played a violent version of the game were more likely to shoot at themselves or their partners than those who played a nonviolent game. Other risk factors for dangerous behavior around firearms included self- reported habitual exposure to violent media and trait aggressiveness. Self-reported exposure to violent media was positively associated with total trigger pulls (incidence rate ratio [IRR], 1.40; 95% CI, 1.00-1.98) and trigger pulls at oneself or one’s partner (IRR, 1.88; 95% CI, 1.29-2.72). Trait aggression was positively associated with total trigger pulls (IRR, 13.52; 95% CI, 3.14-58.29), trigger pulls at oneself or one’s partner (IRR, 25.69; 95% CI, 5.92-111.39), and time spent holding a handgun (IRR, 4.22; 95% CI, 1.62-11.02). One protective factor was having taken a firearm safety training course.