Causal/Correlative Links Between Video Games and Mass Violence

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The question is an old one: does the violence in the games that children play teach them to be violent in real life? In recent mass shootings such as the Columbine and Sandy incidents, the perpetrators were later shown to have been disaffected, isolated loners. It was also found that they loved to play violent video games! This has been used in popular media as an explanation for the killers’ bizarre, violent, murderous sprees. It is clear, however, upon any commonsense examination of the issue, that there is no proven causal link between video games and mass violence (or violence in general), and that there is only a very, very weak correlative link.

In answering the question, “Does A cause B?” one must be careful to avoid common logical errors. The most pervasive of these is the error of confusing correlation with causation: the adage that refutes this line of reasoning is “Correlation does not imply causation.” In other words, that A occurs and then B happens does not suggest or imply that A caused B. Only after repeated iterations of an AB series of events can a causal link be inferred, and even then, it is not proved. So in answering the question, “What causes these outbreaks of mass violence?” we naturally look for some distinguishing characteristic, something that sets violent mass murderers apart from the rest of the crowd. After all, our intuition tells us that people who perform extremely unusual acts must be extremely unusual. However, even if we identify this unusual characteristic, we still haven’t found a causal link, only a correlative one.

In the aftermath of mass shootings, which usually end with the death of the shooter, the media release whatever details of the killer’s life that can be dredged up. There is a set of shared characteristics, which are touted by pundits and columnists as having great significance. The killers are often socially isolated, loners, and social misfits. As a result, they may have been bullied in school. They may have one close friend, as in Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine shootings, but more often than not, they don’t have any. They often show a fascination with military paraphernalia and guns. They often play ultra-violent video games and enjoy violent movies.

The trouble with establishing even a correlational, let alone causal, link between any one of the above characteristics is that they are by no means confined to the (very small) population of those who have committed acts of mass violence. Many, many people are or feel they are socially isolated in one way or another, despite many technological devices that claim to bring people closer together. Many kids are bullied in school. Many people are fascinated by guns, and many, many (probably a majority) people have played violent video games at some point in their lives. Violent movies sell millions of tickets nationwide.

It is a logical error to try to establish a correlation between populations of greatly different sizes. In this discussion, such a correlation would necessarily be between all people who play or have played violent video gamesall people who have perpetrated mass shootings. The trouble with this, of course, is that one population outnumbers the other by a factor of about a million to one. In fact, such a comparison does serve one useful purpose: it negates the idea that a correlation exists! Consider: if there were even a weak correlation between violent video game playing and mass violence, there would be far more incidents of mass violence, given the huge number of people who play violent video games. If violent video games did, in fact, cause mass shootings, then we should expect a huge spike in the number of incidents where little Johnny grabs an AK-47 and blows away the entire fifth grade immediately after the mass release of Death Race Massacre 2013 for X-Box. But that doesn’t happen.

Of course, all this is articulating the obvious to any thinking person. Why, then, is the concept that play violence leads to actual violence so persistent? It isn’t as if violent play and violent role-playing are new to the human experience. Before violent video games, kids played Cowboys and Indians with toy guns, and a couple of thousand years before that, Centurions and Huns with toy swords. At no point did children’s violent play produce a generation of bloodthirsty monsters. We sometimes think that we live in a violent age, but that’s more due to the mass media publicizing of every violent incident than any particularly great prevalence of it. In fact, we are probably living in a less violent age than in the past, because we have powerful and established social institutions such as the police and court systems. But because every violent act, wherever it occurs, is splashed across our TV screens in lurid detail, we make the mistaken inference that influential violence is ubiquitous and pervasive.

Also, rare events don’t happen at nicely spaced intervals; they tend to cluster. So when a “series” of mass shootings occurs, people tend to see that as an indication of a trend, and start to wring their hands and bemoan the degradation of our society that must have occurred in order for these horrible incidents to have taken place. This is the causation/correlation error in reverse. It also is flawed thinking because of insufficient sample size. Nonetheless, people are emotionally driven to explain traumatizing events. If we read in the newspaper that a mass shooter loved video games, then recall that the last mass shooter we read about also enjoyed them, a light bulb goes on in our heads. Aha! Video games cause violence! (And of course, we can make this logical error about any shared characteristic: was a loner, was bullied, was an only child, loved Bacon Double Whoppers, etc. etc. etc.)

All of this discussion up to this point has shown that to even suggest a correlative or causal link between violent video games and mass violence is to make a series of basic logical errors. Yet, there have been many studies done on the subject. This is no doubt because the subject is of great concern to the public. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to conduct an empirical experiment without a working time machine: you can’t go back in time, take away Dylan Klebold’s video games, and then watch and see if he kills a bunch of people anyway. So all that can be done is to set up some kind of condition where people are exposed to violent stimuli (video games or something similar) and then see if they exhibit violent tendencies immediately afterward. The limited utility of such experiments in terms of generalizing them to the real world is obvious. Furthermore, the impossibility of isolating a population that has never played violent video games and comparing their lifetime histories of violence against the rest of the population makes a survey form of research unfeasible. Following are examples of attempts to scientifically investigate the subject.

In a review of the existing scientific literature, Anderson and Bushman did find that violent video games increased players’ physiological arousal and aggression-related thoughts, feelings, and sometimes actions (1, 4). This was found to be true of both children and young adults and interestingly, in both male and female populations (the traditional view is that males are more predisposed to aggressive and violent behavior). Also, Anderson and Bushman found that violent video games decreased prosocial behavior. Of course, there is a huge gap between “does not play well with others” and “shot up an entire school.” Insofar as establishing a causal link between violent video games and mass violence, this study only suggests a weak inference at best. To extrapolate the finding that violent video games make people more aggressive and a bit less nice to one another to suggest that violent video games cause mass violence is to make a gross logical error. That said, Anderson and Bushman provide food for thought.

However, in his controversial book, Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!, Marc Prensky takes a diametrically opposite view. He argues that the skills imparted by video games give children the skills they will need to prepare for life in the 21st century. These skills include collaboration (many video games, particularly those played online, are multi-player, cooperative games), strategizing (most video games, to enhance playability, require a good amount of strategy and planning to succeed), risk management (players almost always have limited resources to work with in the games), and even moral and ethical decisions (particularly in roleplaying games, the player who chooses to act morally and ethically fares better than the player who does not) (Prensky 4, 14-17). Prensky acknowledges that violence, often highly stylized, exists in these games but notes that in all but a few games, the violence is only a means to an end (21). From this author’s own observations, it seems that the mindless blow-everything-away-that-moves “first person shooter” games are pretty much obsolete and never had that much appeal to the public in the first place. Also, even when those games were popular, there was no epidemic of mass violence.

While Prensky did point out the beneficial effects of video games, many studies have validated the popular perception of a causal link between violent video games and real-world violent behavior. In addition to the Anderson and Bushman study cited above, Craig Anderson found in an overview of the existing literature that exposure to violent video games was significantly linked to aggressive behavior. He mentioned that of previous studies done on the subject, the stronger the methodology, the greater the effect that was found, suggesting that many of those studies had underestimated the causal link between violent video games and violent tendencies. Additionally, in 1999, Mark Griffiths reviewed the existing literature on the subject and found the same methodological flaws that Anderson had noted in many of the empirical studies then in the literature (Griffiths 1). He did report an apparent link between violence in video games and violent tendencies. Of course, to reiterate the point, “violent tendencies” are not the same as “mass murder.” While there may be a causal link between violent video games and violent tendencies, that does not do more than possibly suggest a causal link between violent video games and acts of mass violence; at most, there is a weak correlation.

It is this author’s opinion that there is no causal and only a weak correlational link between violent video games and acts of mass violence. Many studies have shown a link between violent video games and violent tendencies, but violent tendencies, the vast majority of the time, do not result in acts of mass violence. The difficulties of conducting a study dealing with this specific issue have been noted, namely, that of small sample sizes (very few mass killers, and even fewer surviving ones) and the near-impossibility of establishing any but weakly implied causal links. The single most powerful refutation of the idea that there is a causal link between violent video games and acts of mass violence is the commonsensical one: that violent video games are ubiquitous but acts of mass violence are (despite the media exposure that often creates an impression to the contrary) extremely rare. Also, there is no historical evidence of a wave of mass violence engulfing the world after video games were introduced. It is clear that if acts of mass violence have a common cause, that cause is very unlikely to be the playing of violent video games by the perpetrators.

Works Cited

Anderson, Craig A. "An update on the effects of playing violent video games." Journal of adolescence, vol. 27, no. 1, 2004, pp. 113-122.

Anderson, Craig A., and Brad J. Bushman. "Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature." Psychological science, vol. 12, no. 5, 2001, pp. 353-359.

Griffiths, Mark. "Violent video games and aggression: A review of the literature." Aggression and violent behavior, vol. 4, no. 2, 1999, pp. 203-212.

Prensky, Marc. Don't Bother Me, Mom, I'm Learning!: How Computer and Video Games are Preparing Your Kids for 21st Century Success and how You Can Help!. St. Paul: Paragon House, 2006.