Social Science

People blame video games for mass shootings more often when the shooter is white, study finds

How Americans explain the cause of mass shootings points to a broader race issue in society, researchers say

November 19, 2019
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – a first-person shooter game – at Gamescon in August 2019. Some people have blamed first-person shooter games for causing mass shootings. Credit: Dronepicr on Flickr

People have often blamed violent video games for mass shootings, and a recent study revealed that they are more likely to do so when the shooter is white.

“The clearest implication of our study is if we look at video games as an explanation for one ethnic group, we may be trying to find excuses for that one ethnic group more than others,”  James Ivory, a communications student at Virginia Tech University and co-author of the study, says.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychology of Popular Media Culture, examined how racial bias affects how people perceive mass shootings.

Negative stereotypes about other races lead people to accept school shootings committed by black perpetrators without seeking external explanations, Ivory explains. “So our finding is not so much about video games, but about race and crime in society. Video games [are] just a symptom.”

The research team based its conclusions on a bias test of 169 college students, as well as a content analysis of 204,796 news stories about 204 recent mass shootings that took place in the U.S. The testing showed that students were more likely to blame violent video games for a shooting when the perpetrator was shown as white than when they were black. The analysis of news stories, meanwhile, found that when the shooter was white, video games were mentioned eight times more often (6.8% versus 0.5%).

As of October, there were 419 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot) in the U.S. in 2019. Violent video games were widely blamed for contributing to some of the deadliest ones, including the 2019 El Paso, Texas shooting at a Walmart where a white gunman shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 others.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace,” said U.S. President Donald Trump at a press conference following the event.

Yet in 2018, after the Parkland shooting in Florida, the Trump administration had the Department of Education and the Secret Service complete a report about school safety, and their recommendations did not reflect the president’s views on video games as a motivation for violence.

“It is true that some mass killers have enjoyed video games – not a majority – but some have,” says James Alan Fox in a podcast, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who has written extensively about mass murders, and was not involved with this study. “But it shouldn’t surprise us that a violent individual [would] enjoy violence in their spare time.”

Blaming video games for mass shootings is not uncommon. According to Pew Research, 82% of surveyed adults in America aged 65 and older believe video games contribute to a great deal or fair amount of the country’s violence – that’s double the percentage of those aged 18 to 29 (42%).

This belief that video games can cause violence in real-life has been researched. In 2012, a paper published by Jodi Whitaker and Brad Bushman, a researcher at The Ohio State University, argued that there might be some effects of first-person shooter video games on players. But two outside researchers – Malte Elson, a behavioral psychologist Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and Patrick Markey, a professor at Villanova University – noticed statistical inconsistencies in the paper’s findings. After a long dispute about the quality of evidence, the paper was retracted in 2016.

Bushman still appears on TV, and is interviewed whenever video games and mass shootings becomes a national topic of discussion.

Though study after study has shown that playing video games is not related to mass shootings, Bushman argues that ethical standards in research prevent researchers from finding out if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between video games and violence.

And while Ivory agrees that some online communities are very strongly associated with hate speech and hate behavior, he says this is true more about the community than the actual games. Radicalization of young white men on online games is not because of the content of the video games, but because of whom they are talking to online, he says.

Despite the overwhelming data, why are video games blamed far more often than they should be? The researchers conclude that it may be because people don’t want to talk about other far more pertinent topics like mental health and gun control.

Eventually, the storyline will switch and video games will fade as a scapegoat for violence, predicts Chris Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University who researches video games and violent behavior, and was not involved with the study.

“This study will help to change the narrative, but it’s probably going to help younger people,” he says.

“We’re not concerned about rock music from the ’80s and comic books [any more]. We don’t worry about Ozzy Osbourne. People just move onto new things,” explains Ferguson. “What tends to happen is that old people die. And that’s when the conversation [about violent video games] will die”.

Though Ferguson thinks that the sample size is too small to confidently generalize about its findings, he says the study is still valuable and can change how the media discusses perpetrators of mass shootings – starting with treating races the same.

Ivory hopes his study will help change the media conversation. “The unique contribution of this study is that it can tell us what we’re not talking about when we do talk about video games,” says Ivory. “Popular discussion about video games distracts from the things people don’t want to discuss – like firearm policy in America.”

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