Video Game Blame Game Draws Attention From Capitol Hill

Seemingly within minutes of the tragic D.C. Navy Yard shooting, video games became part of the conversation. Shooter Aaron Alexis’s friends and family mentioned Alexis’s frequent video game play, some calling it obsessive, and foreign news outlets translated this to an addiction led to violent behavior. Several domestic news outlets glommed on to Alexis’s video game play, using it as another indictment on video games, and it appears a few legislators in Washington are listening. An aide to the Republican leadership indicated that they are set to stage a hearing on the matter soon.

Instead of focusing on real guns and Alexis’s evident mental health issues, it appears that pixelated guns are of more concern to these congressmen. From Steve Benen at The Maddow Blog:

To reiterate our last discussion on the topic, even if we put aside the irony of the underlying point — blaming simulated, pixelated guns is fine; blaming real guns is not — these arguments aren’t new. Plenty of officials have been arguing for years that violent games desensitize players and contributes to a larger corrosive effect on the culture.

The problem, however, is that the evidence to bolster the arguments is thin. It’s only natural for society to look for satisfying explanations after senseless violence, but social science research does not support claims that gaming and gun violence are connected.

Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychology professor and outspoken critic of the flawed research that has been used to connect video games and real world violence, wrote an opinion piece for CNN, asking people to stop linking video games with mass shootings:

The horrible shooting at Washington Navy Yard adds to the recent litany of mass shootings in the United States. Much attention typically focuses on what we, as a society, might do to prevent similar events in the future. Unfortunately, the line between reasonable reflection and cultural crusade can sometimes be blurred, with activists drawing in shootings to advance their particular axes to grind.

Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, that issue has often been violent video games. So it should come as no surprise that we have already seen some speculation about whether the Washington Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, may have played violent games.

Ferguson focuses on bad science and flawed interpretation to make his argument, pointing out that media coverage of mass shootings does not support causation, only the false interpretation of causation:

Contrary to Dr. Bushman’s suggestion, violent video games are not a commonality among mass homicide perpetrators. The impression that a link exists is a classic illusory correlation in which society notes the cases that fit and ignores those that don’t. When a shooter is a young male, the news media make a fuss over violent video games, typically forgetting to inform the public that almost all young males play violent video games. Thus, finding that a particular young shooter happened to play violent games is neither surprising nor meaningful.

Much of the anti-video game response is driven by moral panic, the same type of moral panic that drove the hearings that led to the Comics Code Authority and decades of self-censorship by the comic book industry. The Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment rights of video games in Brown v. Ema, recalling the persecution of comic books when they drew from CBLDF’s amicus brief to write their decision. Regardless, it appears that video games may see the same treatment that comic books once saw.

In the 1950s, the false link between juvenile delinquency and comic book reading was used as an excuse for censorship. Today, it appears that the false link between mass shootings and video game play may be used for the same reason.

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Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.