Quirks & Quarks

We shouldn't blame violent video games for mass shootings. Here's the science

A new study confirms research that says there is no connection between violence in video games and anti-social behaviour.
A visitor plays 'Killzone Shadow Fall,' a first-person shooter game on Sony's PlayStation 4 game console during the "Try! PlayStation 4! -2.22--" event at Ginza Sony building in Tokyo. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent mass school shooting in Florida prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to make public his belief that there is a connection between violence in media, specifically video games, those who play them, and such tragedies. Trump said, "I'm hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts."

I'm hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts.- US President Donald Trump after the mass school shooting in Florida

And with that in mind, Trump assembled gaming industry executives, parents groups, and members of Congress at the White House on Thursday this past week to talk about video game violence. Members of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents industry giants including Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and Warner Brothers, and others in attendance watched a video montage of violent video games. At its conclusion Trump commented, "This is violent, isn't it?"

However, the ESA does not deny that video games are sometimes violent. The question is whether or not they can result in anti-social behaviour. The meeting at the White House did nothing to resolve this.

Video games are plainly not the issue; entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation.- Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

This isn't the first time video games have been blamed for events like those in Parkland, Florida. The NRA - the National Rifle Association - has used violent media, including video games, as a way of deflecting criticism of gun control on an on-going basis. In defence of video games, the ESA claims the following: "Video games are enjoyed around the world and numerous authorities and reputable scientific studies have found no connection between games and real-life violence. Video games are plainly not the issue; entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation." 

Whereas research from several decades ago did suggest a connection between violent video games and behaviour, new research based on improved techniques and more thorough experiments, does not. The latest study in this area comes from The University of York in England. Dr. David Zendle, from the university's Department of Computer Science led that study.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob McDonald: Now this connection between violent video games and real life violence has been studied several times in the past. Why study it again? 

David Zendle:  So if you are looking back a couple of decades it's maybe the late 90s or the early 2000s. It really doesn't seem worth studying this thing you've got it seems like it's sewed up tight. There's conclusive evidence that if you get some people to play a video game and you get some people to play a non-violent video game afterwards the people who've played the violent game come out with more aggressive thoughts, and more aggressive behaviours, and things like that.

However since sort of over the past ten years people started questioning those old landmark studies. Most critically, there seemed to be huge problems with the methods that were used in these studies. So you'd have a group of people play a non-violent game and then another group of people play a violent game, sort of something technical some take with lots of different controls or something that's quite complicated and then afterwards you measure that aggression and you know what the people who are playing the violent games always seem to come out more violent afterwards.
Playing video games like Call of Duty does not result in violent behaviour in real-life (Activision/Infinity Ward/AP)

But recently people took another look back at those experiments and they said, "Hold it a bit." It looks like the vast majority of the violent games that were used are these experiments would just prove that the games were much more frustrating, they were much more difficult, they had much more complex controls. Might it not be the case, that in fact, it's frustration that's leading to people behaving more aggressively after playing these games rather than a violent content within the games? And in fact, people started to go back and retest these old results. They ran those old experiments again and the effects that they found were totally different. They didn't see any of the violent behaviour they predicted to see. And if you take frustration out of the mix all together, like I did in my experiments, you see absolutely nothing in terms of violence related variables. 

BM  Just in general terms though, how is behaviour thought to be influenced by video games? 

DZ  Again in the late 90s early 2000s, there's this theory that comes about that's incredibly popular. The basic thought is, you play a violent video game that contains violent concepts. It's got guns and maybe soldiers and killings and violence and smashing things. And you see all that stuff and you're exposed to all those violent related concepts and just as if you've been observing violence in the home, those concepts become easier to access. This is how the theory goes. You see the violence in the game, you're primed for violence, it's easier to access those thoughts, easier to use and then when someone presents the stimulus to you, you will interpret it in a violent manner. The more you play these games, the more that prime effect becomes rehearsed and reinforced until eventually you're permanently primed. When I show you a stimulus or when you experience some situation in your life, you're permanently more likely to interpret it in a violence related way and commit some violence related action. So it's this simple three stage model of seeing something, a game, being primed for it, and then behaving differently. 

BM  OK now, some would also say that on top of that, when it comes to video games, the technology has improved so much that they're incredibly realistic now. What about that factor? 

DZ  Everyone's really certain that realism will in some way increase the effects of violent video games. People have been saying this for decades. So I set out to have a look at that. I've run a series of experiments where you take one game and then you modify it so it's more realistic or less realistic and then you have people play both versions those games. Again, the difference between the research that I do and the research that was carried out previously is that this uses tighter, cleaner paradigms. So whereas previously, they just used two commercial off the shelf games, which could differ in terms of difficulty or pace, or whatever. I build one game myself and then I modify it. So I know the only thing that differs between these games is realism and it turns out when you manipulate realism like that and you get thousands of people to play these games, I put them up online and I have thousands of people play them, there was no measurable impact of realism on this priming variable which is so central to theories of how violent video games might affect their players. 

I couldn't find any priming. I tried again and again and again and no matter what I did I just could not find this priming effect when I tightened up the experimental paradigms.- Dr. David Zendle, University of York

BM  OK so other than looking at realism in the games how else did you test this idea that the games are going to either increased violent behaviour or not? 

DZ  So what I did was I built a violent game, I built a sort of game where you're a soldier and you go along with a machine gun and you shoot people who are coming toward you. And then I re-skinned that game. Instead of a being a soldier with a gun shooting people coming toward you, instead you're a baker shooting cakes that are coming toward you. So you have two games that are in every way, when it comes to game play, identical. They're the same game, but one is violent and one is not violent. And then afterwards you can measure the priming effects on people of playing each those games. And I couldn't find any priming. I tried again and again and again and no matter what I did I just could not find this priming effect when I tightened up the experimental paradigms. 

BM  And you saw no difference after they were playing the violent games to the nonviolent ones? 

DZ  No there was no positive priming effect whatsoever in any study I've run.