Dead bodies of twenty children lie on the floor of Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The killer was Adam Lanza, a young man struggling with mental illness. The motive behind the mass shooting was unclear, but the media and government didn’t need one. They didn’t talk about Lanza’s battle with developmental and personality disorders. Instead, politicians fixated onto a piece of anecdotal evidence from Lanza’s life: he had played violent video games. The media followed up with articles stating video games were causal factors to gun violence. The misconceptions perpetuated a wave of unreliable research that was culturally incompetent and non-transparent.
There is a saying that professors hammer into every biology student; correlation does not equal causation. Video games have risen to be the leading form of entertainment, with the industry’s 120 billion dollar revenue surpassing the music’s 19.1 and film’s 41.1. Likewise, the immense popularity of games has coincided with the growth of mass shootings. Data from the FBI shows murder by firearm in 2016 was at an all-time high, peaking at 73%.
In a study funded by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bruce D. Bartholow raised the violent video game exposure (VVE) of male undergraduates with low levels. Afterward, the subjects took surveys that measure aggressiveness and anger; one example of an item was, “If somebody hits me, I hit back.” Researchers concluded violent games cause players to be more hostile. However, it is wrong to generalize games as the causal factor of mass shootings.
There are many issues with Bartholow’s study ranging from the diversity of his subjects to his measurement methods. The results in his research cannot be generalized to the whole population, especially to other cultures. South Korea has an impressive gaming culture, where people of all ages find it normal to play games for hours. An example of this culture are businesses called “PC Bang,” if translated means computer room. These places open 24/7 and serve hot food for gamers wanting to play for the whole day.
Even though gaming has a more prominent role in Korea than America, the number of gun violence cases in Korea is nowhere near America. Based on Adam Lankford’s research, the mass shootings in the U.S is six times the combined global total. Korean culture is very different from the one experienced by westernized male undergraduates; therefore, we must be culturally competent when analyzing research.
Christopher J. Ferguson, the co-director of the Psychology Department at the University of Florida, found self-interest biases present in publications that showed video games as causal factors. Researchers measured aggressiveness with methods that have weak statistical relations to criminal behavior but framed their results to associate video games and gun violence.
For example, Bartholow measured short-term emotions after raising the exposure scores. He couldn’t quantify the long-term effects of high exposure on the limbic system and prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain that dictates personality and emotional processing. Bartholow and many similar researchers do not point out their limitations; instead, they structure their conclusions to imply unsupported correlations.
As a researcher, I understand a career in science is very dependent on publications. Unsurprisingly, researchers sometimes frame their results to increase the chance of being picked by a journal. However, researchers need to be aware that the government will use the results for policy-making purposes. Issues, ranging from ethical to cultural, may arise if the government uses skewed results. An example would be past research showed homosexuality as a disease; the government then funded treatment programs that included electric shocks.
In contrast, studies did find fighting and shooting games cause desensitization to real-life violence. In a study done by Dr.Carnagey, subjects who played violent games for 20 minutes were less aroused when shown videos of real-life violence. Even with low exposure to violent games, players better adjusted to high-stress situations.
Whether or not you consider desensitization a negative psychological effect of gaming, the results do bring up questions about mental development for children playing such games. I have nephews under 13 playing shooting games, like Fortnite. I also wonder if violent games are encouraging children to express aggressive behavior.
Researchers in Norway surveyed 1,928 children from ages 13 to 17, but they failed to find a relationship between gaming and antisocial behavior, which includes hostile personalities, mental illnesses, and performance issues. However, children who met the criteria for the DSM’s diagnosis of video game addiction did suffer mentally and academically.
Medical professionals frequently use the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a guide to diagnosing patients. In the DSM, video game addiction is an inability to stop playing video games without having withdrawal symptoms (e.g., depression, anger). People diagnosed with video game addiction cannot continue their normal functioning before their obsession; therefore, they no longer engage with other activities and people. The researchers found an extreme usage of video games could cause alcoholism, depression, and academic failure.
Nevertheless, the majority of the population are casual gamers, so we cannot associate time spent playing video games to adverse outcomes.
The question still stands on what made Adam Lanza pull the trigger. We cannot point fingers at video games, because mass shootings and crimes will not stop by if we banned violent games. The fixation on video games prevented us from addressing and researching the actual issues that play a hand in gun violence. We need to look at how our society handles mental disorders and create systems to assist people with such illnesses.
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Bartholow, B. D., Sestir, M. A., & Davis, E. B. (2005). Correlates and consequences of exposure to video game violence: Hostile personality, empathy, and aggressive behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(11), 1573–1586. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167205277205
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