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Gamers, violence and a resurrected debate

The fatal shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed put the gun control debate on the national stage again and sparked widespread protests from the survivors and fellow students across the country.

Almost a week later, President Trump brought the violent video game debate back to life with his comments discussing school safety at the White House on February 22.

“We have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it, video games,” Trump said. “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

Image from Hollywood Reporter

Other politicians also voiced their concerns with video game violence in the days following the shooting.

“There are video games, that yes, are listed for mature audiences, but kids play them and everybody knows it and there’s nothing to prevent the child from playing them, that celebrate the slaughtering of people,” Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said.

Professor Michael Gerhard, who holds a doctorate degree in mass communication, said that there are several theories that attempt to explain how consuming violent media, in this case video games, affects people.

“It’s a complex topic that people tend to oversimplify,” Gerhard said. “You can find some small statistical correlations in some of the studies that suggest there’s a link between the two [media violence and real violence], but you have to remember correlation is not the same as causation.”

Image by Tt Shinkan

“I don’t discount any of them [theories]because there might be a grain of truth to all of them,” Gerhard said.

Rob Brookey, Chairperson of the Department of Telecommunications at Ball State University, whose research focuses on digital media convergence in gaming, DVDs and social media said that the links between violent games and real-world violence are nebulous.

“I know one of the things they love to do when there is a mass shooting is point out that the shooter played violent video games; that says nothing to the thousands, if not, millions of players that also play those games that don’t act out in those ways,” Brookey said. “I look upon that relationship with with great suspicion.”

Following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, President Clinton launched a federal investigation into advertising practices used by gaming and media companies that sold violent content.

“I know this stuff sells, but that doesn’t make it right,” Clinton said.

According to Newzoo’s Top 100 Countries by Game Revenues list, the gaming industry revenue in the US ranked second at $25.5 billion in 2017 while China was first and Japan was third.

Image from Newzoo

However, the US beats both of those countries in violent gun death rates with 3.85 per 100,000 people compared to .04 for Japan and .06 for China according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in 2016.

“It’s an easy target, and Bill Clinton in particular, at the time, felt there was, perhaps, no political risk to dump on video games and gamers, because they were all considered to be a younger demographic,” Brookey said. “It’s an easy go-to target for political blame.”

The University of York recently published a study where 3,000 participants played several types of video games, including more graphically realistic and violent ones. Following the tests, the participants completed word fragment completion tests to see if they were primed to violent thoughts and behaviors.

“We found that the priming of violent concepts, as measured by how many violent concepts appeared in the word fragment completion test, was not detectable,” lead researcher David Zendle said.

Brookey was also a member of the faculty at Northern Illinois University when there was a mass shooting in 2008 that involved five students and the shooter being killed.

“The next day talking heads on television shows were talking about video game violence as a cause even though that particular perpetrator had an extensive history of mental illness,” Brookey said. “I would conjecture, perhaps, the mental illness had more to do with it than video game play.”

Image from CNN

Emma Scott, a member of the Cardinal E-Sports Club’s Overwatch Team, has also researched the relationship between violent video games and real-life violence.

“I don’t think it does [relate]. The reason I don’t think so is because of all the other things that go into violence like mental health issues,” Scott said.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness website, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness that majorly affects their life activities.

“If you have mental health issues is one thing because you probably shouldn’t be playing those kind of games anyway, but if it’s a normal person that decides, ‘Hey I’m going to go out and rob a bank,’ I don’t think it’s going to have any correlation with them playing violent video games,” Scott said.

According to Scott, video game violence and its effects are minor compared to those of the environment someone is raised in and their mental health.

“Even though they’re pointing the finger at it, and they claim it’s the problem, it’s one of the smaller issues,” Scott said. “When I was doing my project I found that a lot of the times they would talk about how the studies were done, but then most of the studies I saw had flaws in them.”

The flaws Scott listed were the studies chose certain groups of participants to get the result they wanted, a low numbers of participants, or they did not run the study enough times and went off a single result.

“But if you look at the studies as a whole, most of the time there’s not going to be any correlation because it’s too hard to tell, because of all the studies being skewed,” Scott said.

In her research, Scott found that a majority of people were against the idea that video game violence causes real violence.

“I find that it’s more believable because it’s a smaller factor when there’s other major factors like with the shooting that happened in Parkland,” Scott said. “They didn’t really do any background checks and that’s a major thing that needs to come back. Instead, they’re pointing the finger at violent video games when the only reason they’re bringing it up is because there was a shooting.”

Image from New York Times

Gerhard, Brookey and Scott say that more focus should be placed on mental health for adults and children rather than gaming.

“There’s some things we could do to better mental health,” Gerhard said. “I think that’s probably the most effective thing we could do for the whole gun thing: help people identify and help the people who are mentally ill.”

“What we need to be thinking about is how these individuals with these kinds of histories play into it [gun violence]rather than someone’s video game play,” Brookey said.

“Children at a young age can develop mental health disorders and not know it. And the parents, the teachers and staff don’t pick up on it, but there’s also the issue of bullying in schools that trigger it too,” Scott said.

“It has to be a multipronged approach because there is no simple solution, there is no magic bullet,” Gerhard said. “If you ignore mental health, I don’t think you’re going to make any progress on that issue.”

Sources: Newzoo, Pew Research Center, Gun Violence Archive, CDC, HealthData, ScienceDirect, ESA, ScienceDaily. BBC, Washington Post, Polygon, CNN

Images: Hollywood ReporterNewzooCNNNew York Times

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