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Stop trying to explain mass shootings The claim that violent video games lead to real-life violence is utterly bogus

Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

March 20, 2019   5 mins

It’s natural, and human, when terrible things happen, to look for reasons for it. We can all agree that the Christchurch shootings were terrible, so we all look for reasons to explain it.

One of the reasons that some people appear to have settled on is that the shooter, who I won’t name, played violent video games.

The Daily Mail Australia made this claim on Twitter – he was bullied, so he “turned to violent video games”, and this sparked a “downward spiral”. Elsewhere, a parenting websiteclaimed that the killer “trained” on Fortnite, the multiplayer first-person shooter. Similar claims about Anders Breivik and the Columbine killers became part of the accepted narrative. It’s an argument worth nipping in the bud.

There are three things that need to be said. First, the claims are utterly bogus. There is no evidence of a link between violent video games and mass shooting, and, in fact, the evidence of a link between violent video games and real-world violence of any kind is extremely spurious, based on weak associations, bad proxy measures, and hype.

Second, it is easier for the media to point to video games than it is to acknowledge their own, far more plausible, role in encouraging mass shootings, through publicising and sensationalising them.

And third, although the need to explain things is powerful and understandable, it may be that – in one important sense – we don’t need to explain it at all.

Let’s start with the claims. There have been studies which find a link between violent video games and aggression. But they are all deeply problematic.

You can’t make someone play a violent video game and then give them a gun to see if they shoot people, so the studies tend to rely on a proxy measure. The subject plays a violent or non-violent video game. Afterward, they take part in a reaction-time test against an opponent; if they win they can blast them with potentially painful levels of noise. (The opponent is in fact imaginary.) If the player chooses to use particularly long or loud blasts, it is taken to mean that they are more aggressive.

But these studies are flawed in two ways. For one thing, the data has been sliced and diced to find positive results. You could measure volume of blast, or duration of blast, or volume times duration, or average duration over 20 blasts, etc, etc. A psychologist, Malte Elson, has observed that there have been 130 papers using this method, and that in them, the data has been analysed 156 different ways.

This is classic p-hacking: essentially, cheating. Elson has pointed out in the past that, if you take a normal dataset that you might get from a study like this, and you’re allowed to cut it up in any way you like, then you can usually get anything from an extremely positive result to an extremely negative one; but that doesn’t mean those results would be real.

For another thing, we don’t really care about whether someone is willing to blast someone else with noise. We care about whether they’re going to punch someone, or shoot them. And there’s no good evidence that these proxy measures relate to real-world violence.

“They’re measuring something,” says Dr Pete Etchells, a psychologist at Bath Spa University and author of an excellent upcoming book on the science of video games. “But whether that something is the same sort of thing as shooting someone, or even being mouthy, in the real world, I’m not buying it.” Elson told me a few months ago that no one has even done basic validation studies, looking at whether more aggressive people really do score more highly on these studies.

There are other good reasons to doubt them. Etchells points out that the use of video games has been going up, while societal violence has been going down. And Patrick Markey, a psychologist at Villanova University in the States, notes that there is some convincing evidence that violent video games reduce violence, by acting as catharsis, and that mass shooters are less likely to play games than the average young male.

It is just not reasonable to conclude that video games cause mass shootings. And yet people – or, rather, the media – continue to conclude that. It’s tempting to say that this is because it’s less painful than drawing other conclusions, which is that they, the media, are themselves complicit.

I don’t mean so much that the media fosters an atmosphere of anti-Muslim bigotry, although fingers have been pointed; I mean that whenever these things happen, the media turns it into a circus. The scene is reported breathlessly, with blue lights and sirens. The killer’s life and motivations are endlessly pored over.

At least one psychologist, Park Dietz, has argued in the past that this coverage is responsible, in an epidemiological, risk-raising sense, for copycat events. A study last year claimed that 58% of mass shootings could be explained as copycats inspired by the media; some other studies find comparable results (although I can’t vouch for how solid they are, and at least one was more ambiguous).

If you’re looking for explanations, this is a plausible one. But it’s not the sort of psychologically satisfying explanation that some people need, the sort of thing that says “our society is falling apart in these ways, and this is why”. A horrifying act like this somehow needs that sort of explanation.

But I don’t think we do need that sort of explanation. Mass shootings like this are extraordinarily rare. It’s worth noting that this took place in New Zealand – as far as it is possible to be from Britain while remaining on dry land – and yet, understandably, it has received saturation coverage in the British media. Our brain is made for communities of a few hundred. We are not set up to think in terms of a globe of seven billion people. But when you’ve got that many people, incredibly rare things happen from time to time, and we all hear about them, all over the world.

In fact, there is not much evidence to suggest that they are happening more often. The number of Right-wing terror attacks jumps around largely at random; some years there are lots of deaths, some years none. In western Europe it appears to have declined since 1990.

And although Right-wing populist movements have become more visible, in political parties such as the Sweden Democrats or Italy’s Lega Nord, the attitudes they espouse have not, according to Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

“Often what’s going on is that existing party structures of Left and Right have collapsed,” he says, “opening up the market for new actors.” That space is filled by more explicitly anti-immigrant, in some cases arguably racist, parties. So racist politics became more visible, even as racist attitudes continued to decline.

“Everyone got very excited about the Sweden Democrats, saying it was a backlash against immigration,” says Ford, “but it wasn’t. Sweden is still the most pro-immigration country; there was always a vocal anti-immigration group, but they used to vote for the Moderate Party.”

The same happened here with the rise of UKIP. It’s not that there are more people who are anti-immigrant – in fact there are appear to be fewer – but until recently they were mostly a vocally anti-immigrant group within a centre-right party.

Whether you call parties such as Lega Nord or UKIP “racist” or merely “anti-immigrant” is a debate about definitions, and as I have written before, largely pointless, but whatever you call them, racist attitudes appear to be on the decline. Nonetheless, there are still lots of racists, and sometimes they do awful, racist things.

As I said: it is natural and human to look for reasons for terrible things. And there are reasons: the killer was a racist; sensational coverage of mass killings encourages other mass killings. But if you’re looking for a reason why there are more of these terrible things than there used to be, then you probably won’t find it, because it’s not at all clear that there are.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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