Texas Official Blames Violent Video Games For School Shooting, Is He Right?

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About two weeks ago, a mass shooting occurred at Santa Fe High School in Texas. Authorities revealed that around ten people were killed in the shootout which lasted for 25 minutes. The gunman is identified as Dimitrios Pagourtzis a 17-year-old student at the school. 

As families and friends mourn over the lives that were lost in this horrible incident, Texas’ Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick spoke out regarding the apparent causes of these mass shootings. In a video by SBS news, which is currently going viral on Facebook, the public official was shown pointing blame to the removal of God in schools and abortion. However, he is most insistent that video games play an active role in the creation of these shooters who have been terrorizing schools, churches, and public spaces for several years now. 

In the video, Patrick is seen appealing to the nation about the role video games play in mass shootings in the United States. He said that “Look, the video games issue we have got to address this country. Based on all the research we have done, 97 percent, according to psychologists and psychiatrists, 97 percent of teenagers view video games, and 85 percent of those video games are violent.” He also commented that teenagers are spending a lot of time playing these video games that are showing these kids how to kill people. 

The debate on whether violent video games lead to violent behavior has been going on for a long time. On the one hand, you have the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics insisting that there is a link between violent video games leading to violent behavior. The psychological group claims that 90% of children in the US play video games, the majority of which are between the ages of 12 and 17. Furthermore, the APA said in an August 2015 policy statement that, “Researchers have also continued to find that violent video game use is associated with decreases in socially desirable behavior such as prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement.”

On the flip side, several studies from sociologists, psychologists, and other behavioral experts have debunked the claim that violent video games increase aggression and decrease empathy, which eventually leads to violent behavior. A study by Whitney DeCamp, an associate professor of sociology at Western Michigan University, revealed that kids who like to play brutally violent video games may already have a predisposition toward aggression, DeCamp claims.

In his research, DeCamp examined data from a 2008 Delaware School Survey that collected responses from 6,567 eight-graders. In this survey, the students were asked whether they had played any violent video games in the past year. DeCamp separated the respondents who had an inclination to aggressive behavior due to a natural attraction to violence and other factors such as gender and family relations. When he studied the data of the respondents who did not have an inclination towards aggression, DeCamp concluded that playing video games, no matter how brutal or violent, does not predict violent behavior. 

A video by Psych2Go shared another interesting perspective on the issue. The video said that majority of the studies that claim a link between violent video games and aggressive behavior were not entirely accurate and reliable as they focus on short-term effects. In previous studies, participants will be asked to play violent video games for an amount time, and right after the game, researchers will test the participant’s empathy and aggression levels. Of course, the results showed that right after playing a brutal video game, the level of aggression increased while the level of empathy decreased. However, the video claimed that the same result can also be obtained after a participant undergoes a competitive or challenging task such as failing to answer a complicated math problem.

Due to the unreliable results of short-term testing of aggression and empathy levels, researchers from Germany decided to conduct a study of their own. In their study, participants were not required to play video games. Instead, they talked to gamers who are already playing violent video games on a consistent basis and non-gamers who have never played a video game in their life to participate in the research. They then showed the participants an image that, according to previous studies, would not invoke the same emotional response from people who play violent video games as opposed to those who do not. Researchers discovered that neural responses -which were measured via a fMRI- showed that both groups displayed the same level of empathy regardless of their gaming background, which weakened the claims from previous research. 

Furthermore, Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California shared in an essay published in 2005 that despite the high consumption of video games by young people at the time, juvenile crime was at a 30-year low. Jenkins also detailed in his essay that people who are serving time for violent crimes were usually the same ones who consume fewer media than the average person. Lastly, he said that “the overwhelming majority of kids who play do not commit antisocial acts.”

Another way to determine whether video games play a role in violent acts such as mass shootings is to look at other countries with high consumption of video games. Japan, which is basically the hub for anything related to video games is a great example. According to NewZoo, a gaming market research company, about 60 percent of Japan’s entire population has played video games in 2016 one way or another. The interesting factor here is that despite the vast community of gamers in the country, there were almost no incidents of people being killed by a gun. In 2014 GunPolicy.org reported that Japan had only six gun deaths while the United States had 33,000 in the same year. The most significant difference between the two countries with high video game consumption is that Japan bans the possession, selling, or buying of handguns and rifles. Other countries such as Germany, the UK, Canada, France, and Australia all have high populations of gamers as well and all of these countries have lower incidents of death by guns compared to the US. Now there are, of course, many factors to consider when looking at gun violence statistics. However, the data does beg a major question: If all the above countries have a high consumption rate of video games similar to the U.S., then why is there a significantly lower instance of violence caused by guns in these countries? 

Going back to Dan Patrick’s statement that video games cause mass shootings, it is clear that studies prove the opposite. It is apparent that while video games may have an effect on aggression and empathy levels in the short-term, they rarely lead to aggressive and violent behavior in the long term. To put it simply, video games do not cause mass shootings. Of course, once tragedy such as the recent shooting occurs, it is easy to point blame on violent video games. However, given the vast amount of research that debunks this claim, maybe it's time we move forward from this false narrative and start looking for real-world solutions instead of blaming the virtual worlds gamers enjoy. 

Let’s be real, a lot of countries in the world play violent video games. However, why do these countries have lower instances of mass shootings? If video games are not to blame, then what is/are the real cause(s)? Let’s all think about that.