In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, it was distressing to see the paroxysms of neurotic finger-pointing and "expert witnessing" that inevitably followed. Beyond noting simply that a bad (evil, some would say) man chose one day to make the lives of other individuals as hellish as he felt his own to be, I don't think we'll ever come up with much more of a scientific explanation for what leads people, mostly men, to become mass murderers. Let me put that another way: Beyond individuals who actually threaten in advance to carry out school shootings (which a recent Secret Service report concluded was the only really useful indicator), no other behavior is particularly predictive of such acts of senseless violence.
That's not very satisfying, is it? Perhaps for that reason, it seems to me that increasingly, as a culture, we have shied away from holding people responsible for their behaviors, and instead prefer to seek out easy or even abstract entities to blame. Events like school shootings tend to make people nervous. Nervous people like reassurance. We would like to think that such events can be explained, predicted, and prevented. We like scientists and politicians who stand up and claim to have the answers so that we can fix the problem.
The difficulty is that this often leads to a witch hunt or moral panic, wherein explanations rely on weak social science or what is politically expedient. In past centuries, a variety of art forms have taken the blame for society's problems. From literature to religious texts, to jazz, rock 'n' roll, and rap, to television, movies, and comic books, people have viewed various media as being responsible for personal failings, as if such media were like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, leading us astray from our natural goodness. Increasingly, in the past two decades, video games have been the scapegoat du jour. The video-game platform is the newest kid on the media block and, as such, is subject to a particularly high dose of suspicion and scrutiny. I think that this is wrong and, indeed, dangerous.
It seemed that the Virginia Tech rampage was barely over before a few pundits began speculating on the role of video games. The lawyer and activist Jack Thompson asserted that violent games such as Counter-Strike may have been responsible for the shooter's actions. Although I have heard little to indicate conclusively that the perpetrator was an avid gamer, the prevalence of game playing among young men makes it likely that he would have crossed paths with a violent game at some point ("He played Spy Versus Spy once when he was 12, that's the culprit!"). For instance, a 1996 study found that 98.7 percent of children of either gender played some video games, with violent games, like Streetfighter II, particularly popular among young men (93 percent of whom had played that one game alone). Since most young men today play violent video games, it is usually not hard to "link" a violent crime with video-game playing if you are so inclined. This is the classic error of using a high-base-rate (very common) behavior to explain a low-base-rate (rare) behavior. Using video-game-playing habits to predict school shootings is about as useful as noting that most or all school shooters were in the habit of wearing sneakers and concluding that sneakers must be responsible for such violence.
I actually do research on violent video games. I certainly don't
others in the field, some of whom I know will disagree with my
I do speak from a familiarity with the research and the literature. One
meta-analysis of video-game studies, conducted this year by John
My meta-analysis concluded that there was no evidence to support either a causal or correlational relationship between video games and aggressive behavior. My impression is that social science made up its mind that video games cause aggression before many data were available, and has subsequently attempted to fit square pieces of evidence into round theoretical holes. The threshold for what appears to constitute "evidence" is remarkably low. Admittedly, publication bias (the tendency to publish articles that support a hypothesis and not publish those that don't) is very likely a widespread problem in the social sciences and is not unique to video-game studies. Perhaps this is really a reflection on human nature. I may sound hopelessly postmodern here, but sometimes we forget that scientists are mere humans, and that the process of science, as a human enterprise, may always have difficulty rising above a collective and dogmatic pat on the back rather than a meaningful search for truth.
Unfortunately, I think it is a worrisome reflection on social
general that social scientists may be too prone to make big and
pronouncements from weak results. That violent crime rates in the
In my opinion, the video-game hypothesis remains because it fits well with the dogma of social science (which has yet to escape from an obsession with deterministic learning models that view humans as passive programmed machines rather than active in determining their own behavior), and it is politically expedient. Politicians can use "media violence" to enact popular (but unconstitutional) legislation censoring or otherwise limiting access to violent media, legislation that can appeal to both political conservatives and political liberals. (Religious conservatives might be bemused to know that some media-violence researchers recently published an article suggesting that reading passages from the Bible with violent content increases "aggression" in much the same way that video games supposedly do. So if video games have to be restricted from children, apparently so do at least some portions of the Bible.) By stating that such legislation is based on "concern for children," politicians can cast their opponents as being unconcerned with children while stripping parents of their rights to decide what media are appropriate for their children. In such a political environment, the video-game-violence hypothesis has persisted long after it should have been laid to rest.
All this is no idle concern. Media issues serve to distract us from more-sensitive topics that may be real contributors to violent behavior, notably violence in familiesalthough in fairness, not all abused people become violent offenders. I also posit that many of us prefer to blame others, particularly an abstract entity such as the media, for our problems rather than accept personal responsibility when we or our children behave badly. That's the crux of it, I think. Video games, like the rest of the media, form a faceless specter that we have called into being with our own internal desires for sex and violence, yet can turn against when we need a straw man to blame for our own recklessness.
What's lost in the discussion is that there have been several publications suggesting that violent games may be related to increased performance in some areas of cognition, particularly visuospatial cognition. This is a new research area, and I certainly don't wish to reverse the error of overstating the link between video games and aggression by producing my own overstatement. But I do think that, instead of fueling up the bonfires and throwing in the game consoles, we need to have a serious discussion of both sets of potential effects. Given the allure of violent video games, it may be advisable to consider how some games with violent content may be used to further educational purposes. For instance, a first-person-shooter game (though certainly a mild one compared with some) called Re-Mission is being studied in relation to young adults with cancer. One group of youths who played this game demonstrated better cancer-treatment adherence, better self-efficacy and quality of life, and more cancer-related knowledge than did those in a control group who did not play the game. Of course, once the dust settles, it may really be that video games, like most other forms of entertainment, are simply that: entertainment, neither helpful nor harmful.
I don't know how it came to be that we, as a culture, ceased holding people responsible for their actions. How did we come to feel that we are programmed like machines? How did we come to embrace the Brave New World not as a dystopia to be feared but as a panacea for all of our human guilt? When a man or woman picks up a weapon and premeditates the end of another human life, it is not because he or she was programmed by a video game but because that individual made a conscious choice — not to play a game, but to kill. This darkness lurks not within our computers, televisions, books, or music, but rather within our species and, sometimes, ourselves.
Christopher J. Ferguson is an assistant professor in the
behavioral, applied sciences, and criminal justice at
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 42, Page B20