Research Says Trump Administration’s Focus On Video Game Violence Is Misguided

This Thursday saw President Donald Trump meet with members of video games industry to discuss a proposed link between violent video games and violent killings, such as the Valentine’s Day shooting which occurred at a high school in Broward County, Florida.

A Meeting With The Entertainment Software Association

The shootings which occurred in Florida kicked off a national conversation on gun violence, and much of the discussion has revolved around the role that violent media plays in violent actions. Many politicians, such as Kentucky’s state governor Matt Bevin, have argued that violent media is to blame for shootings and other killings. Bevin argued that we as a society can’t “celebrate deaths in video games, TV shows”, etc. and then expect that shootings won’t occur. Others have argued that violent media plays little or no role in creating violence in real life, arguing instead for things like better mental health support and more restrictive gun laws.

Trump himself seems to be at least partially swayed by the idea that gun violence is linked with exposure to violent media, as he has said in the past that there is a need to examine the impacts of media violence on the minds and attitudes of children. Shortly after the events of the shooting, Trump convened the meeting with members of the video game industry and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

Present at the meeting were individuals like :

  • Strauss Zelnick, head of Take-Two Interactive and CEO of Rockstar Games (responsible for the production of games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto)
  • Patricia Vence, the President of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)
  • Mike Gallagher President and CEO of the ESA
  • Robert Altman, CEO of ZeniMax Media
  • Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center
  • Melissa Henson, from the Parents Television Council.

Also present were several members of Congress including Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), and Martha Roby (R-AL).

The meeting took place behind closed doors and reportedly lasted for about an hour. Reuters reports that the meeting was “vigorous” but “respectful on all sides”. Henson, of the Parents Television Council, advocated for more restrictions on the portrayal of sex and violence in entertainment. Brent Bozell, of the Media Research Center, has also argued against violence in media and has criticized gun control legislation for focusing on the wrong thing when (he believes) media violence plays a much bigger role. As for the ESA, they released a statement before the meeting clarifying the position they would be arguing for.

The ESA’s statement reads in part:

Video games are enjoyed around the world and numerous authorities and reputable scientific studies have found no connection between games and real-life violence. Like all Americans, we are deeply concerned about the level of gun violence in the United States. Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation.

No Connection Between Games And Violence

The ESA asserted that violent video games are not a primary cause of real-world things, but what does the research on the subject say? At first glance, there seems to be some connection between exposure to violence in video games and increased violent activity. During the early 2000’s, various studies seem to confirm the hypothesis that violent video games could cause people to act more violently. Since then, researchers have taken a closer look at the link between violence and video games and found far less evidence to support the hypothesis.

Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, recently penned an op-ed in The Conversation where he argued that previous research done on the link between playing video games and real-world violence was shoddily done and that more cohesive studies done in the intervening years have found no evidence to support the idea that violent video games lead to actual violence.

Photo: Olichel via Pixabay

Ferguson has researched the effects of violent video games on people for the past 15 years. Ferguson says that many of the studies done which purported an existing link between video game violence and real-world violence used poorly defined terms and questionable methodology to achieve the results. Furthermore, attempts to replicate the results of these studies in recent years have failed.

Ferguson’s own research has found no substantial link between video game violence and either real-world violence or youth aggression. In 2015 Ferguson conducted a meta-analysis on the topic, a study which examines the results of other studies. This meta-analysis examined over 100 studies on the subject of violent video games and concluded that video game violence had little to no impact on the mood, behavior, grades, or aggression of children. Before this, Ferguson had done a study in 2011 which found no substantial link between video game violence and youth aggression or violence. Ferguson noted at the time that many studies done on the effects of media violence did not control for other variables like violence within the family, substance abuse, or mental health issues. When these variables are accounted for, the correlations between violent media exposure and violent behavior “essentially vanish”.

There’s another reason Ferguson suspects that reports of links between video game violence and real-world aggression/violence have been overblown. According to Ferguson, scholarly journals frequently have editorial biases which end up distorting the truth. Experimental studies which find noteworthy effects, such as those which find a link between media violence and aggression, are more likely to be reported than studies which find no effect. Interestingly enough, as video games have become more popular violence has actually declined. Spikes in the popularity of certain violent video games are actually associated with declines in violence among youth.

The Role Of News Media

Ferguson goes on to say that media outlets and professional organizations like the APA are often to blame for perpetuating the myth that violent video games lead to violent action, as it gets them headlines, grants, and views. Ferguson says that most criminologists who study the causes of mass shootings call the video game violence connection a “myth”, and that as far back as 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that the research did not support a clear connection between violent video games and violent behavior. For this reason, Ferguson argues, it is time to end the debate about games and violence.

Other research into the psychological origins of violence seems to cast doubt on the idea that exposure to violence alone, simulated or otherwise, can make people more violent. Work by the psychologist Tage Rai suggests that most acts of violence are caused by people’s moral sense, they feel that their violence is justified and obligatory in response to some perceived transgression against themselves or society. Rai argues that much of the violence we see in the world today comes from dehumanizing victims and seeing violence as a necessary response to moral transgressions. In other words, exposure to media violence has little effect on people because it doesn’t contain a moralizing element.

Ferguson caps off his piece by saying that the myth of a connection between media violence and real violence has given groups such as the NRA a convenient scapegoat. Public policy, Ferguson argues, should be based around scientific evidence. This is especially true in an era where experts on various topics are deemed untrustworthy, and social media can rapidly spread misinformation.

Says Ferguson:

It’s bad enough that these statements misrepresent the actual scholarly research and misinform the public. But it’s worse when those falsehoods give advocacy groups like the NRA cover to shift blame for violence onto nonissues like video games. The resulting misunderstandings delay efforts to address mental illness and other issues that are actually related to gun violence.