Last month, The Mirror ran a report blaming Call of Duty for a massacre at a Washington Navy base. Professor Mark Griffiths, the director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University explains why the media needs to stop blaming games...
The issue of video game violence has once again arisen following allegations that Aaron Alexis, the man who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, played violent video games for up to 18 hours a day.
I was asked to comment by various national newspapers on whether the playing of violent video games had any role in the subsequent killings.
While there's a growing body of research (particularly in America) that claims there's a link between the playing of violent video games and subsequent behaviour, the problem with most of it is that it doesn't follow people over a long period time. In short, most of the research is what we researchers call ‘cross-sectional' – it only examines players at one particular ‘snapshot' in time. As a result, I don't think that there is any scientific research shows a definite link.
Furthermore, much of the research that has been carried out has been experimental and conducted in non-ecologically valid settings (i.e. in a laboratory setting). In fact, all of the measures used to assess ‘aggression' are proxy measures that are not related to actual violent actions, because it is unethical to try and induce actual violent acts within a research experiment.
The published survey studies – including my own – are mostly of a correlational nature and none of these demonstrate causality (only that, at best, there may be an associative link). One of the major problems with all of the research is that studies typically fail to take into account all the other types of violence that individuals are exposed to day-to-day: the violence they see on the news, the violence they see in films and television, and the violence seen in their own lives and local community.
"One of the major problems with all of the
research is that studies typically fail to take
into account all the other types of violence
that individuals are exposed to day-to-day:
the violence they see on the news, the
violence they see in films and television,
and the violence seen in their own lives
and local community."
Another problem is that many academic journals only publish studies that show statistically significant findings (meaning that they are more likely to publish a study that suggests a link between playing violent video games and subsequent aggression rather than those that do not).
Personally, I believe people like Alexis were pre-disposed towards violence to start with and there was probably something inherently wrong with him in the first place (particularly as some reports claim that he often heard hallucinatory voices suggesting some kind of psychosis). Therefore, someone like Alexis would choose or seek out the most violent video games to play, and to watch the most violent and bloodthirsty films.
Someone like Alexis may have had an inherent trait towards violence that meant he sought those particular activities out. Video games may have had an influence in informing how he might do something and give him ideas, but they are unlikely to be the root cause of any actual violence. If I played those games all day every day, I really don't think it would turn me into a homicidal maniac. Alexis may have been exposed to violence when he was younger because research shows what we're exposed to in our childhoods has a great influence in later life.
I must have watched thousands of violent events (both fictional and real) and I have played the occasional violent video game but it hasn't changed my behaviour in any way (at least I don't think it has).
Saying that, I'm a father to three screenagers and I don't let them play violent video games. Just because I don't personally think the evidence shows there's a link, that doesn't mean there isn't any effect. It's just science has failed to demonstrate a conclusive cause.
It's not about putting the blame on the game. At best, playing violent video games is at best a contributory factor to violence. But it shouldn't be a scapegoat because all individuals have to take responsibility for their actions.