Blaming violent video games

video game gun

Americans awoke yesterday to revolting news: a gunman opened fire on a Las Vegas concert crowd, killing at least 59 people and wounding hundreds more. This horrifying event has rekindled the country’s long-smoldering debate on gun violence. Why are mass shootings a uniquely American problem?

Inadequate mental health care and lax gun laws are likely causes,[1]  but violent video games are also frequently blamed. Critics point out that the gaming industry’s most popular franchises are war simulators, which let players wield many of the same weapons used to perpetrate real-world attacks.

Is there a causal connection between Call of Duty and mass violence? The evidence isn’t clear. One recent study contradicted previous research by suggesting that playing violent video games has no negative long-term impacts on gamers’ empathy or aggression.[2]

The data is the data, but that conclusion feels wrong to me. I resonated with Marco Arment’s reflections yesterday on Twitter:

Back when I still played video games, I loved the Metal Gear Solid franchise, which encouraged stealth over brutality. In many situations, it was actually easier to tranquilize the enemy or sneak around him, rather than fire live rounds. Knock out the stooge, then hide his comatose body so that his comrades didn’t detect your presence.

Playing Metal Gear “nonviolently” took longer, but at least I didn’t have Henchman #14’s blood on my conscience. I was plagued by the thought that violence—even imaginary violence—could damage my soul somehow. I worried that rehearsing murder would make me less empathetic. Even though the “victims” were algorithms and polygons, attacking them might undermine my own reverence for real-life humanity.

Video games aren’t unique in their tendency to normalize violence. Many other American pasttimes do the same thing. We hand our children toy pistols, then encourage them to mime-murder each other. Before our sporting events, professional soldiers toting firearms preside over a national anthem whose lyrics celebrate war. We ravenously consume MMA, boxing, and football—“sports” that treat gladiatorial violence as marketable entertainment.

These “harmless” practices aren’t the direct causes of our mass shooting epidemic. But they’re symptoms of a sickness in the American psyche, a perverse reverence for violence. We happily steep ourselves in foul waters, then act surprised when monsters emerge from the depths. ■

  1. For the record, I strongly support tighter firearm regulation, but the evidence for the potential effectiveness of tougher laws isn’t quite as clear as one might expect. ↩
  2. In fact, some psychologists have even suggested that violent games reduce violence by giving men and boys a harmless outlet.  ↩

Artwork adapted from vector imagery by Alvara Cabrera and Freepik.