Do Violent Video Games Lead to Violent Acts?

While researching for a separate post (still in the works), I came across a rather interesting article from Charisma News titled 14 Mass Murders Linked to Violent Video Games

Being a blogger myself, I can understand the appeal of writing a headline that shocks readers into wanting to read the article, so I assumed that this was just one of those “click-bait” headlines and that the article would take a much less pointed position than the title. After all, the title seemed to claim that video games were to blame for 14 mass murders. This came as a surprise since a claim like that would need to be supported by mountains of evidence — and I have yet to see any conclusive evidence showing that violent video games leads to violent behavior.

What gives? Did I overlook a few groundbreaking video game violence research studies?

In short, the answer is “no” — there still isn’t any conclusive proof demonstrating that playing violent video games causes violent behavior and the debate surrounding the issue is still as lively as ever, as evidenced by recent stories like this one from the Times Herald and this one from Kotaku.

Nevertheless, the Charisma News article attempts to show that there is a “link” between playing video games and becoming a mass murderer by pointing out that 14 mass murderers played video games at some point in their life before committing their horrendous acts of violence. To the author’s credit, they never explicitly claim that playing video games causes people to become mass murders — which is a good start — but then, they throw-in completely misleading commentary like this:

With video games becoming more and more realistic, we need to be extremely cautious as to what our youth and young people are being exposed to on a daily basis. Fantasy violence can leave a troubled mind craving more and more until they act out in reality.

To me, this line seems to indicate that the author is attempting to suggest that violent video games do indeed lead to violent acts.

Astute readers will of course notice that the author is making the classic mistake of confusing correlation with causation. That is, just because a person who commits a terrible act of violence also happens to have a history of playing video games, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the video games are responsible for the violent behavior. It is just as likely that the person was attracted to violence for some other (external) reason and therefore gravitated towards playing violent video games due to the preexisting affinity for violence. We just don’t know — and to claim otherwise is misleading at best and possibly dangerous if impactful decisions are made based-on that misinformation.

Put another way, consider how all 14 of the mass murderers listed in the article had probably ridden in a car at some point in their lives. By the same logic used in the article, we could claim that riding in cars causes people to become mass murderers since all 14 of them had ridden in cars! Of course, you can replace “riding in cars” with “breathing oxygen” or “being a male” and the logic remains just as flawed as it is in the original article — quite flawed.

The author caps off their parade of misinformation and logical fallacies by citing a study with the conclusion that playing violent video games leads to more aggression. On the surface, it does seem like this study might actually support the author’s position, but after actually reading through the study, it becomes clear that the author is abusing the conclusion. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the study:

After playing the game each day, participants took part in an exercise that measured their hostile expectations. They were given the beginning of a story, and then asked to list 20 things that the main character will do or say as the story unfolds… The researchers counted how many times the participants listed violent or aggressive actions and words that might occur.

In other words, the study states that violent video gaming caused people to insert more aggressive themes in stories which amounts to an uptick in aggressive thoughts — a conclusion that is completely different from saying that video games caused acts of violence. After all, we all have some aggressive thoughts occasionally, but our sense of morals, ethics, and empathy typically prevents the vast majority of those thoughts from becoming actions. Unfortunately, this critical point was overlooked entirely by the author of the article.

Now, to be fair, we can’t rule out the possibility that video games somehow cause an increase in violent action, because we don’t yet have sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion either way. However, we simply can’t jump to any conclusions we like just because it’s the conclusion we’d prefer to be true — that’s just not how science works.

Instead, proper science demands that we wait for the research to actually bear out a conclusion with evidence, before we risk making terrible laws or other public policy decisions based on half-truths and misguided preemptive conclusions.

Have something to add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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