The weekend of August 3 and 4, 2019 was a violent one in the United States. Over just a few hours, two mass shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, claimed over 25 lives and wounded many more.
As has become routine, politicians took to the airwaves to talk about the factors that lead to these mass shootings. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, focused on video games. He said, “We've always had guns, always had evil, but I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”
As it turns out, there was a paper on the influence of violent video games on behavior in the July 2019 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science by Maya Mathur and Tyler VanderWeele. In light of Lt. Governor Patrick’s comments, it would be useful to explore the evidence.
As Mathur and VanderWeele point out, there have been many studies in the psychology literature that have explored the link between video games and aggression. These studies use many different methods. Some are controlled studies in which people are assigned to play violent or nonviolent video games for some period of time, after which people are given an opportunity to be aggressive, and their behavior is measured. Other studies are more correlational in nature and look at whether people who play a lot of violent video games act more aggressively or violently in their daily lives. These studies attempt to control statistically for other factors that might lead to aggressive behavior.
There have been enough studies that several groups of researchers have done meta-analyses of the research. A meta-analysis looks across several studies to assess whether there is a general trend in the literature. The meta-analyses done so far have also reached somewhat different conclusions, with some arguing that the studies demonstrate a consistent influence in which violent video games increase aggressive behavior and others suggesting that there is no consistent evidence that violent video games make people more aggressive.
Mathur and VanderWeele looked at these meta-analyses carefully and suggest that these analyses are not really telling different stories. In their view, a detailed look at the literature on violence and video games suggests that video games probably do increase aggressive reactions, but that the effects are quite small. That is, playing a lot of violent video games probably makes people a little more aggressive overall—but not much.
When we look at horrible events like the shootings this weekend, or the more than 200 mass-shootings in the United States so far in 2019, we have to recognize that many factors play a role. Policymakers who are serious about actually addressing the issue should look for the lowest-hanging fruit and start by developing programs that address the biggest sources of violent behavior. That means that policymakers should pay attention to data that relates potential risk factors for committing a mass shooting to their actual influence on violent behavior.
When explored through that lens, video games are not a good place to start. The evidence suggests that while playing violent video games can make people act a little more aggressively in some circumstances, they do not seem to be a big enough contributor to violent behavior in the world to warrant being mentioned as a cause of mass shootings.
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Mathur, M.B., VanderWeele, T.J. (2019). Finding common ground in meta-analysis "wars" on violent video games. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(4), 705-708.