One of the main problems with the discussion surrounding the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School by Adam Lanza - or any other isolated incident of mass violence - is that the broader picture is often missed in favor of playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to find a single culprit behind the tragedy (other than the person holding the gun). Movies, music, and video games have all had their time spent in the spotlight as potential causes of violent behavior.
However, it's essential to keep in mind that such violence is not part of a sudden epidemic; on the contrary, both youth violence and violent crime in general have been falling steadily in the United States for decades. As criminologists James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur pointed out in their article "Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown," the claim that mass shootings are on the rise in the US is a myth (the rate of such incidents has actually remained steady at 20 per year between 1976 and 2011).
But in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, it's all too tempting to feel like the world is becoming a more dangerous place - especially when hundreds of news outlets are collectively and fervently reaffirming this belief. Still reeling after the tragedy, both the public and the media demanded answers, and President Barack Obama obliged, calling on Congress to allocate $10 million to the study of a potential link between video games and real-world violence.
Some game enthusiasts and their publishers protested what they felt was a scapegoating of video games in order to take the heat off other issues - such as mental health and gun control - while others welcomed the prospect of a well-funded, peer-reviewed and quality-controlled study, believing that it would find no link and end the attacks on video games once and for all. Gamasutra has published an in-depth feature examining exactly what has become of those plans, over a year later, and the answer is... well, not much.
Mike Rose writes:
"It never actually happened, nor did any funding change hands. As discovered in my various talks with individuals and researchers close to discussions, any potential research efforts from Congress broke down fairly rapidly following the meeting with [American Vice President] Biden, and hardly anything has been said since."
The individuals interviewed include Dr. Chris Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University, who has been outspoken in the past about his belief that fears over violent video games are more symptomatic of a classic moral panic than of any credible harm they might be causing. Ferguson, who attended the meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in which the research was discussed, concurred with the reports of other attendees that nothing ever really came of it:
"As far as I know, no-one gave the CDC any money in the end. They might shift around some of their own money, but as you might have followed, that whole gun violence debate kind of fell apart anyway. There ended up being not much momentum on much of anything, quite frankly, as an end result."
This is not to say that no research into the effects of video games has taken place since Sandy Hook. One study, for example, found that teenagers ate more M&M's while playing Grand Theft Auto III than they ate while playing Pinball 3D, though it's unclear exactly what this proves. Maybe that more cut-scenes equals more hands-free time for snacking?
Another recent study, which was covered fairly widely in the media, surveyed 109 13- and 14-year-olds to find out their gaming habits and how they scored on the standardized Sociomoral Reflection Measure. The study, which was carried out at Brock University, found that within the group of 45 children who played violent video games, those who played three or more hours per day (Call of Duty titles and the Grand Theft Auto franchise were most common) scored lower on the test than those who only played for one or two hours.
In the headlines, this got translated as "Violent video games leave teens 'morally immature'" (BBC), despite the fact that Mirjana Bajovic, the assistant professor who conducted the study, made no such claim. In her conclusion, Bajovic specifically notes that, "the amount of time participants spent playing violent video games did not relate to participants’ attitudes toward violence," and that there was no significant different in sociomoral reasoning found between the group that played violent games and the group that played non-violent games.
One other interesting finding from Bajovic's study was that participants who did play violent video games generally stated that they were not negatively affected by doing so, while the participants who played only non-violent games believed that playing violent video games for long hours could be dangerous. This aligns with a few studies Game Rant covered last year - one with American participants and the other with British participants - both of which found that video games were believed to have negative effects primarily by people who had rarely or never played video games and knew very little about them.
The survey involving US participants was carried out by Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the University of Oxford, and when interviewed by Gamasutra he agreed that lack of knowledge about video games plays a large part in the way they are discussed by the media in the wake of a mass shooting:
"Anomie makes people really uneasy... In the face of tragedy people want to know why these things happen. For many in the press and society, games (outside of discussions around tragedies) are not a well understood thing."
Bajovic came to a similar conclusion in her own study, arguing not that violent video games should be censored or banned, but rather that parents and educators should take the time to learn about the video games that children are playing and decide for themselves whether they are appropriate or not:
"Prohibiting adolescents from playing violent video games is not realistic, but the awareness of what kind of video games their children are playing and for how many hours may allow parents to better understand the video games they play, to discuss the games, and to set time limits if necessary. Hence, there is a need for providing parents with the information about violent video games in general and the possible effects that those video games may or may not have on their children’s attitudes, behaviour, and moral development."
The general agreement seems to be, in Obama's words, that we don't benefit from ignorance. Making parents more aware of video game content, of the ESRB rating system, and of the importance of setting boundaries when it comes to video games are all worthy goals. It speaks volumes that around half of the eighth graders Bajovic surveyed were playing games that were rated M, for ages 17 and older.
International Game Developers Association chairman Daniel Greenberg, who also attended the meeting with Biden, sounded a bit more hopeful about the possibility of the CDC's research still going ahead, saying, "I believe at the time they did allocate some money, or allocate some resources within the CDC to do this." It's also important to note that any research that did take place wouldn't produce instantaneous results, and some studies can take years before completion and publication.
But is more research what's needed, or will it be as flawed and inconsistent as past studies have been? Should we assume that if a clear link existed between video games and real world violence, it would have been found by now? Is there even an urgent need to get to the bottom of what causes human beings to behave aggressively, with current violent crime rates falling? We're interested to read your thoughts on the issue, so let us know what you think in the comments.