In the search for explanations when school shootings occur, many have pointed to violent video games as culprits. A number of school and campus shooters were obsessed with playing violent video games, which some experts say are designed to teach people to kill. Others maintain that while playing video games is not the healthiest habit, scores of people do it every day and do not perpetrate acts of violence.
Michael Carneal was a fan of the violent games Doom, Quake,and Mortal Kombat. The families of some of his Paducah, Kentucky, victims filed suit against the makers of these games in the aftermath of his crimes, claiming they were an influence on Carneal. The suit was not successful. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School shooters, were avid players of Doom,and Harris had even written programs for the game. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was also said to have been a gamer, preferring Counterstrike.
An article in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported on two studies related to video games and violence. In the first, 227 college students completed a survey on their aggressive behaviors and video game playing. Those who played more reported both more aggressive behavior and lower grades in college. In the second study, 210 college students played either a violent video game (Wolfenstein 3D) or a nonviolent video game (Myst). Afterward, they were asked to “punish an opponent” by pressing a button that made a loud noise. Those who had played the violent game pushed the button longer.
A 2004 study of 607 eighth- and ninth-grade students found that those who played video games were more hostile, got into more physical fights as well as more arguments with teachers, and had lower grades. A 2004 meta-analysis (a review of previous studies) found a causal link between exposure to violent video games and aggressive affect, aggressive behavior, and decreases in helping behavior.
Henry Jenkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor and Director of Comparative Studies, has listed eight myths about video games. First, he maintains that widespread availability of video games does not correlate with any spike in juvenile violence. Rather, rates of juvenile violence have deceased at the same time more kids are playing video games. Jenkins notes that it makes sense that many of the school shooters have been game players, given that 90% of boys and 40% of girls in the general public play video games.
Second, Jenkins points out the lack of scientific evidence linking the playing of violent video games to acts of aggression. While more than 300 studies have addressed media violence, many have been critiqued for methodological concerns, are not conclusive, or are not contextualized.
Third, Jenkins explains that the primary target market for video games has shifted. Whereas marketing was once focused on children, it is now directed at people older than the age of 18. Fourth, while boys still outnumber girls, there have been dramatic increases in the number of girls playing video games.
Fifth, even if Grossman and others are correct that video games were created and are used to train soldiers to kill, there is no reason to believe the same effect occurs with young people who play them in their homes rather than through military training. Sixth, many video games offer players practice in making ethical or moral choices, which can be important practice for real-world experiences.
Seventh, Jenkins maintains that video games are generally played in groups, with 60% of young people saying they play with friends. Thus games are not necessarily socially isolating, as some contend. Finally, Jenkins argues that rather than desensitizing young people, video games are an important part of young people’s play activities.
- Anderson, C. (2004). An update on the effects of playing violent video games. Journal of Adolescence, 27(1), 113-122.
- Anderson, C., & Dill, K. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 772-790.
- Benedetti, W. (2007, April 20). Were video games to blame for massacre? MSNBC.
- Gee, J. (2001). What video games have to tell us about learning and literacy.New York: Palgrave.
- Gentile, D., Lynch, P., Linder, J., & Walsh, D. (2004). The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance. Journal ofAdolescence, 27(1), 5-22.
- Grossman, D. (1995). On killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York: Little, Brown.
- Jenkins, H. (n.d.). Reality bytes: Eight myths about video games debunked. PBS.
- Jones, G. (2002). Killing monsters: Why children need fantasy, superheroes, and make believe violence. New York: Basic.
- Laidman, J. (1999, April 27). Video games figure in school shootings. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.