Adam Lanza played violent video games for hours at a time. The Columbine killers loved Doom. And Anders Breivik told a court he played a Call of Duty game to practice his hand-eye coordination.
The fact of three young men playing video games would not be noteworthy in any other context. But when mass murderers are at issue, it raises the question of whether our entertainment can affect our behavior, and if so what we should do about it. West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller says we need to regulate video games, though he has not yet offered specifics beyond calling for a federal study. Unfortunately, video-game restrictions are much like gun laws: More often than not, they’re unlikely to help, unconstitutional, or unfeasible.
As no one who pays attention to social science will be surprised to learn, research on game violence has proven little that is useful and nonobvious. For one thing, there is a “link” between a taste for violent video games and subsequent violent behavior — a fact that could mean simply that violence-oriented people tend to choose violent games. For another, playing violent video games can make people show more “aggression” in tame lab experiments that occur immediately afterward (subjects are often asked to commit such sociopathic acts as blowing an air horn to punish another player). Gaming seems to affect various kinds of brain activity. And children sometimes mimic the fighting moves they see in games.
But do video games actually cause serious violent behavior? It depends whom you ask. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, authors of the excellent Grand Theft Childhood and co-directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, are highly skeptical. They note that boys who play violent games more than 15 hours a week are at greater risk of getting into trouble — but so are boys who don’t play games at all, oddly enough, and such excess might be a sign of other problems. Meanwhile, Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson has long been a thorn in the side of the video-game industry, arguing that the link between game violence and real violence is causal.
The idea behind Anderson’s theory is obvious enough, and for that matter plausible enough: Children see violence in video games, become desensitized to it, and want to do it themselves. But that is not the only explanation that fits the facts.
For one thing, games can serve as an outlet for violent tendencies, thus relieving these urges rather than incubating them, according to some research. This raises the possibility that game violence and real violence are substitutes: There is a statistical link between the two because violent people like both of them, but taking away video-game violence would actually increase real violence, because these people would lose an outlet.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider that pornography and rape seem to interact this way. Few would doubt that men obsessed with violent pornography are more likely to rape, or that the Internet facilitates men’s pornographic obsessions. Yet the spread of Internet access was correlated with falling rape rates.
Relatedly, violent video games keep violent people occupied — every minute they spend with a controller in their hands is a minute they don’t spend hurting others. Some researchers claim that violent crime falls on days when a lot of people are in theaters watching violent movies; it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening when violence-prone teens stay at home with Saints Row: The Third rather than going out to run amok.
There is also the fact that games serve as a positive bonding and socialization experience for young males. One study shows that when people play a violent game that requires them to cooperate, they continue to be more cooperative in subsequent lab experiments. Kutner and Olson suggest that non-gaming is a sign of social exclusion for boys nowadays, and this may explain why non-gamers get into more trouble than moderate gamers.
Most reassuring, however, are the long-term statistics. Video-game violence has been pervasive for the last two decades: The 1990s saw the introduction of popular blood-spattering fare such as Mortal Kombat and Doom, and since then game graphics have inched ever closer to photorealism. Total video-game sales have soared, and some of the most popular series (Grand Theft Auto, God of War) are incredibly violent. The people most likely to be violent, young males, are disproportionate consumers of these games. And yet violent-crime rates in this demographic have fallen. If games inspire violence, the effect is overwhelmed by larger trends.
Even setting the empirical debate aside, it’s not clear what an American game-censorship policy would look like at this point. The industry has already created the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which rates games using a system similar to that used for movies. Many retailers, of their own accord, refuse to sell violent games to minors.
What else is there to do? Given the sales numbers, it seems safe to assume that no amount of public pressure will force game companies to pull gory titles from the shelves. Suing game makers for the actions of their fans has not been an effective strategy either. And when the Supreme Court took up the issue, it held not only that video-game violence is a protected form of expression, but also that the First Amendment prevents laws against the sale of violent games to minors. Only two justices defended this rather modest restriction.
Certainly, parents should police their kids’ video-game selections and play time. There is no reason for a child to spend 15 hours a week spilling digital blood. Schools and parents alike should keep an eye out for children who take an abnormal interest in violence, no matter how they experience it.
But blaming violence on video games is unfair — and, worse, unlikely to lead to effective policies.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.