On Saturday, August 3rd, a gunman opened fire in an El Paso, Texas Walmart. He killed at least 22 people before police managed to take him into custody. The next day saw another active gunman in Dayton, Ohio. Police shot and killed the shooter within 30 seconds of the start of the attack, but not before he was able to take nine lives. In response to one of the deadliest 24 hour periods in recent American memory, President Trump took to television and blamed, not lax gun laws, but video games.
It’s an old song and dance, a routine with origins in the 1990s when Mortal Kombat had the U.S. Senate in a panic. Since then, study after study has been conducted in an effort to draw a line between video games and real-life violence with little success. Throughout the 2000s and beyond, researchers across the globe almost universally have come to the same conclusion: there is no significant link between video game violence and real-life violence. This is a refrain that has been sung time and time again, and now, in 2019, journalists are once again forced to defend the medium against an administration looking for a scapegoat.
In the days following the attacks in El Paso and Dayton, a number of prominent publications responded to Trump’s accusations with pieces pointing out the lack of concrete scientific evidence behind the rhetoric. In many cases, journalists called out Trump’s remarks for what they were: a distraction from the real issues.
“It’s unlikely that Trump and other political leaders who are targeting interactive entertainment have spent significant time as gamers, but they certainly understand one common video game tactic: distraction,” wrote Todd Martins for the LA Times. “In any number of major games, a player can bypass enemies by creating a diversion. If one, say, is facing an army of villains, throw something — anything, even a coin will do — and watch them all go scurrying toward the meaningless object. The player then can bypass the conflict and carry on.”
For Game Informer’s Matt Miller, if giving up video games meant ending gun violence, the choice would not be a difficult one. “I’d happily give up my favorite hobby, and even my profession, if I believed that the end result of supporting games was societal violence,” Miller wrote. “But that’s simply not the reality supported either by research or anecdotal observation.”
He posited that games offer a sense of community for those of us who need one, a place where a common element can bind strangers in friendship. That games aren’t the breeding ground for real-world violence at the current administration might suggest.
In his piece, Miller referenced a 2018 study from the University of York that found no evidence to support the claim that video games make players violent. Over 3,000 people participated in the study, and were exposed to a variety of game styles before researchers determined that they had no adverse behavioral effects.
One of the most stalwart defenses against lawmakers’ attack on video games comes courtesy of Vox’s Alvin Chang. In a story from August 7th, Chang pointed out that video games are a worldwide medium, and yet the United States is singular in its volume of mass shootings. In fact, the U.S. is not even at the top of the list when it comes to the number of games sold in a year - that spot is occupied by Japan, where, in 2017, there were only three gun-related deaths.
In an enervated attempt to draw out the positive elements of the video gaming hobby, Kinda Funny host, and ex-IGN journalist Greg Miller took to Newsweek. In the article, Miller pointed out a host of non-violent video games that denounce the stereotypes the Trump administration leans on.
“Celeste looks and controls like Super Mario Bros. but challenges players to learn about and deal with anxiety and depression,” Miller wrote. “In Gone Home, players find handwritten notes while exploring an empty house and unravel the story of their sister's coming out and her first relationship. That Dragon, Cancer takes us on a family's autobiographical journey through the life of their terminally ill son.”
It’s experiences like these, Miller suggested, that make the video game medium an art with import equal to film and literature. Even many violent video games have poignant messages that are just as meaningful as some of the most revered movies of all time.
For many people--gamers and journalists alike--video games serve as a place of belonging, a community that brings people together through their love of the medium. The industry has also been making strides towards inclusivity that have opened the hobby up to more people than ever before.
“I haven't even touched on how games like Fortnite give players a community to hang out with online, how more than 80,000 video game fans will gather in Seattle at the end of the month for a convention called PAX West, or how technological advances like the Xbox Adaptive Controller make it so many disabled people can play,” Miller continued.
While video games are not the direct cause of any real-life violence, there are legitimate conversations to be had about how far some video games go when depicting violence, and the role some toxic communities play in radicalizing its members into aligning themselves with white nationlist movements.
“Rather than waiting for targets to find them, recruiters go to where targets are, staging seemingly casual conversations about issues of race and identity in spaces where lots of disaffected, vulnerable adolescent white males tend to hang out,” Megan Condis wrote for the The New York Times in May. “Video games aren’t the only places online where these conversations are taking place...But video games in particular make for an ideal recruiting venue. Why? Because they come equipped with an easy-to-understand narrative of the unwelcome ‘invasion’ of ‘our spaces’ that, in the right hands, can readily be expanded beyond the world of gaming.”
In the end, though, one thing is more than clear: video games do not cause mass shootings. In fact, they may be conducive to a less violent environment. According to a study cited by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, gun-related crimes actually decreased during the weeks surrounding the release of the 50 most popular games from 2005 to 2008.
“They use time-series modeling and also instrumental variable modeling, and either way you slice it, when a very popular violent video game comes out, violent crime goes down, not up,” Ygesias wrote. “The researchers believe the method is what criminal justice scholars call ‘incapacitation’ — if you are sitting on your couch playing video games you are, by definition, not out on the street making trouble."
Given the availability of research surrounding games and their link to violence, the current administration’s attacks on the industry are nothing more than blatant attempts to shift attention away from the true culprit: lax gun laws. The scapegoating of video games is an old-hat trick that ignores the overwhelmingly positive impact video games have had on society. The unifying power of the medium is a boon to humanity, and President Trump needs to take note.
In the words of Greg Miller: “Video games aren't making killers. Video games are making better people. Perhaps Trump and McCarthy should try one.“