Blog Post 3: The “Influence” of Video Games on Violence

Christopher Ferguson brings a seemingly forgotten element into the discussion of the role of video games in youth violence – actual data. It is refreshing, in my opinion, to see such a contentious issue being discussed with at least some semblance of rationality. The wealth of evidence he cites to support his argument and refute his opposition is admirable. Overall, Ferguson puts forward a logical and reasonable answer to the moral panic surrounding video games and societal violence.

On that note, however, what truly piqued my interest about Ferguson’s article was his mention, on two separate occasions, of what even he considers a reasonable argument for a link between violent video games and school shootings (p. 4). He states that little research has examined whether small groups of children with existing “problems” (which I assume to mean psychosocial, in some way) may be affected negatively by video games and thus more prone to mass violence. I interpret that to mean that whether video games can exacerbate violent tendencies in individuals with a history of, say, abuse, neglect, or other psychosocial issues, is still largely unknown.

Just as he did for every other issue he addressed, Ferguson followed this “reasonable” possibility by presenting a trove of evidence on the issue. Using Secret Service reports, FBI publications, and other peer-reviewed studies, he convincingly argues that the available evidence does not support the hypothesis that violent video games played and “etiological” (why not just say causal?) role in instigating such real-world violence.

That is fine – the evidence speaks for itself. Clearly, one must grasp at ever shrinking straws to support a causal link between video game consumption and mass shootings. Yet, Ferguson does not specifically address whether video game consumption by an ‘at risk’ population could influence their actions, which is of course different from causing actions. Perhaps this is what he laments at the end of page 10: “unfortunately, little research has examined the possibility that, whilst most children are unaffected by violent video games, small groups of children with existing problems may be ‘at risk.’”

This is an interesting hypothesis. While retrospective studies of past shooters ascertained that the vast majority did not play violent video games, there could be better ways to address this question. For example, a more rigorous prospective study could follow ‘at risk’ youth (the definition of ‘at risk’ already poses a problem) and track their violent video game consumption as well as their participation in violent or other crime over, say, five to ten years, to establish correlations, if any.

Even without such data, I would argue that Ferguson still has ample evidence to refute this “video game influence” hypothesis. As stated earlier, a retrospective study of shooters found that many of them did not play video games. Additionally, studies have shown that as the prevalence of violent video games has increased, violent crimes have dramatically decreased (p. 10).  While this is only a correlation, one would expect mass shootings to increase if violent games do promote societal violence, not decrease as they have been. Given this evidence, I feel that Ferguson could have been more direct in his rebuttal of this “influence” hypothesis.

Admittedly, there are limitations to all of the different pieces of evidence that Ferguson has strewn together in his paper. However, when taken together, I believe they constitute a strong arguments against the hypotheses that violent video games “cause” violence and that video games “influence” potential shooters to commit violent acts. While more rigorous testing would certainly be welcome, I will be surprised, but very much interested, if future studies find evidence to support it.

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One Response to Blog Post 3: The “Influence” of Video Games on Violence

  1. cstabile says:

    Yes — refreshing to have data, isn’t it? And you’re right to suggest that what Ferguson is resisting involves simple causal explanations for mass shootings. He talks about “third variables” on the third page of his piece, his point being that our models for understanding mass shootings leave very little room for understanding the role that other variables (he mentions, as you point out, genetic and family violence) might play in transforming those at risk into murders. Criminologist Lonnie Athens wrote a book some years back about what he describes as “violentization,” or the process where by people become violent, dangerous criminals. It’s an interesting and compelling account of how and why some people become violent and others don’t and it provides a kind of template for identifying people who might be at risk. FYI — Athens also points out (in the transcript of this interview: http://www.pbs.org/thinktank/transcript1121.html) that Western culture was considerably more violent in the medieval era. Can’t blame that on media, as he notes.

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