Co-authored by Patrick Markey at Villanova University
The recent mass homicide in Las Vegas has set the country, once again, on a soul search regarding gun control. However, some powerful entities, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their apparent ally Rick Santorum, have attempted to shift the blame from real guns to imaginary ones, particularly those in movies and video games. This isn’t a new tactic. After the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA also sought to shift blame from real guns to those in video games. Yet, in the official investigation report it was revealed that if the killer had a video game obsession it was not with violent video games but with the non-violent rhythm game Dance, Dance Revolution and the ultra-cute and beloved Super Mario Brothers.
These attempts by the NRA are an obvious ham-fisted attempt to distract the conversation from gun control. After all, the perpetrator of the Las Vegas shooting was a 64-year-old man, hardly a member of the avid gaming demographic and little has suggested he consumed much by way of violent movies (he seems to have spent the majority of his time gambling.) But is there any basis in fact to claims that violent movies or video games spark societal violence or aggression?
This is a debate that has been going on, without resolution, since at least the time of the ancient Athenians. Characters in Plato’s dialogues complain about Greek plays (the same ones we now force high schoolers to read.) People in the Renaissance shifted to worrying about non-Latin translations of the Bible. By the Enlightenment, policymakers worried women wouldn’t be able to distinguish the fictional world of novels from real life. The 20th century saw predictable patterns of moral panic regarding jazz, blues, rock and rap music, comic books, Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons and now video games. And that’s all these concerns really are: a moral panic.
Scholarly opinions certainly differ, but recent surveys of scholars suggest the majority are skeptical that violent media contributes to violence in society. Recently the American Psychological Association’s division devoted to media psychology released a public education statement warning policy makers and journalists against linking violent games and media to acts of violence in society. The reason is simple: there’s just not evidence the two things are connected.
Recent long-term outcome studies have not found evidence linking violent media to youth violence. Other studies have found that the release of violent movies or video games are associated with immediate declines in societal violence. Studies conducted by both the U.S. Secret Service and in our book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong have consistently found that those who commit mass shootings at schools play violent video games less than the average high school student. Recent meta-analyses of studies have likewise concluded that effects are minimal. And youth violence has plummeted by over 80% even as consumption of violent games in society as skyrocketed. So, no, there is not, as Rick Santorum claimed “…a mountain of evidence out there, psychological evidence…” that Hollywood violence contributes to the real thing.
So why do such beliefs persist? In the case of the NRA the issue is one of naked opportunism. Distract society from one issue by getting people talking about another. Unfortunately, the NRA has been unwittingly abetted at times by professional guilds such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and American Academy of Pediatrics who have made public claims about media effects that were unscientific. Presumably finding a big societal problem their members could rush in to fix seemed a no-brainer. Concerns about these guilds’ false claims of media effects prompted over 230 scholars to write the APA in 2013, expressing their concern about misleading public positions, given research evidence can’t link violent media to aggression or violence. Efforts continue to properly realign these organization’s public statements. But these guilds can be ignored for now.
The false statements by the NRA and Rick Santorum highlight the damage that bad information and bad research can do. Sparking another moral panic, despite the data, over media violence merely distracts society from talking about real issues. Even if gun control is a controversial topic, certainly we should be talking about mental health reform or other known causes of societal problems. Provoking people to clutch their pearls over video games or movies only wastes society’s time and, even worse, will make us to lose sight of the real causes of horrific acts of violence.