Following reports that Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter, played violent video games between eight and 15 hours a day, the spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association has claimed that “numerous authorities and reputable scientific studies have found no connection between games and real-life violence.”
This is a cynical claim and blatantly untrue. The video game manufacturers’ stance is akin to cigarette manufacturers denying a link between smoking and lung cancer, a denial that began as soon as scientific evidence of the link began to accumulate in the 1940s.
Today, video game makers’ denials are a replay of the television industry’s successful effort against the 1972 U.S. surgeon general’s report of scientific evidence linking television violence and physical aggression. The denials also belie a 2001conclusion by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association that research points “overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.”
But what is the evidence connecting video games to violent behavior? Let’s begin in the 1990s: Calvert and Tan’s 1994 experiment showed that playing a violent electronic game enhances physiological arousal and aggressive thoughts to a greater extent than simply watching the same game.
So, while myriad studies have linked TV violence and aggressive or violent behavior, we should not be surprised that enacting virtual violence in a game has stronger effects on motivation and behavior than simply watching it on a screen.
A pair of 2001 studies by Anderson and Dill explored the connection between playing violent video games and aggressive or violent behavior in both the lab and real-life.
First, real life: College students who reported frequently hitting (or threatening to hit) other students or attacking others with the idea of seriously hurting or killing them in the last year were often the same ones who enjoyed violent video games and played them most often.
In the lab: Undergraduates pummeled their video game opponents with longer blasts of noise after playing a violent video game, compared with when they played a nonviolent game.
This effect was stronger for students who had been identified as having more aggressive personalities; individual differences are certainly alive and well. These two sample studies give a flavor of the research.
But let’s turn to research on a much larger scale — drawing on a research method called meta-analysis, which analyzes patterns over many studies. For the effects of video game violence, Craig Anderson at Iowa State University is the meta-analysis guru. In 2010, Anderson and an international team published a path breaking meta-analysis based on 136 studies around the world; they explored effects of violent video game play in the United States, Germany, Japan and China.
Their analysis showed that playing violent video games increases the risk of aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts and aggressive feelings.
Their meta-analysis also showed that violent video game play reduces the occurrence of both empathy and prosocial behavior. High aggressiveness with low empathy describes the psychology of a mass shooter.
This meta-analysis not only was the largest on record; it also was the first to go international; and the researchers found no difference in these violent video game effects on aggression, empathy or prosocial behavior between Eastern and Western countries.
But, if that is the case, why do we have video games all over the world, but mass shootings only in the United States? The answer is that video games can provide an opportunity to practice and learn how to carry out mass murder (”Call of Duty,” for example).
But a potential shooter still needs the tools. Our country is unique in making those tools available: We are the only country in the world in which AR-15s and other semi-automatic and automatic assault weapons are readily available to consumers.
So it is not violent video games alone, but the combination of video games with the availability in real life of the weapons used in the games that is the witches brew. This is the lethal combination, and it is unique to the United States.
In our country we finally recognized that cigarettes are a risk factor for lung cancer, even though not every single person who smokes gets cancer.
We need to do the same both for violent video games and for weapons of war, such as the AR15.
Both violent video game play and possession of assault weapons are risk factors for mass murder.
A risk factor changes frequencies; it is not a guarantee. So, anything our society can do to decrease these two major risk factors — violent video game play and the availability of assault weapons — will also lower our collective risk of mass murder.
Dr. Patricia Greenfield is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA and Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles. She has been studying the effects of video games and other media since the 1980s. Her latest collaborative research is on the effects of Instagram “likes” on the teen brain.