Hours after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, brought the weekend death total to 29, following a Saturday massacre in El Paso, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered his take on what helped fuel the latest round of unspeakable violence: Video games that “dehumanize individuals.”
Echoing similar sentiments from Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), McCarthy suggested that games have led to increased violence by young Americans.
“I’ve always felt that it’s a problem for future generations and others,” McCarthy said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “We’ve watched from studies, shown before, what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.”
From Jeff Sessions in 1999 after the Columbine shooting to President Trump last year following the Parkland attack, lawmakers have long blamed video games for sparking some of the country’s deadliest violence.
The problem, however, is that researchers have repeatedly debunked the claim. The notion was even dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2011, when Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that violent video games had a similarly minimal effect on children as cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner.
“It’s become a script,” James Densley, a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “People have said it so many times that because we have so many of these tragedies, it’s become routine by now. The same old tropes keep getting revisited.”
This time, Patrick was among the first prominent politicians to point a finger at video games. Appearing Sunday morning on “Fox & Friends Weekend,” the Texas lieutenant governor noted that “Call of Duty,” the popular first-person shooter, was briefly referenced in a manifesto authorities believe was posted by Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old charged in the attack.
“We’ve always had guns. We’ve always had evil. But what’s changed where we see this rash of shooting?” Patrick said. “I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”
Asked about Patrick’s comments later that morning, McCarthy agreed that video games, in general, play a role in mass shootings. “The idea of these video games, they dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals and others,” he said.
That message has been repeated for so long because it’s easier than addressing politically charged issues like gun control, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist who has been writing about the topic for almost four decades.
“Video games are an easy scapegoat,” said Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University. “They don’t lose votes by blaming the video-game industry. You can lose votes blaming the gun industry, which is why some people choose not to do that.”
Experts say there is little evidence linking video games to violence, and ample evidence to the contrary. Researchers at Oxford University earlier this year found that there was no correlation between the time spent playing video games and aggressive behavior in young people.
“When we talk about games in this way and take them this seriously, it really risks trivializing what we know leads to other violent behavior,” said Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at Oxford and lead author of the January study, which was published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Royal Society Open Science.
The trend of connecting mass shootings to video games gained steam in April 1999, after two high school gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School. The gunmen had made casual comparisons between “Doom,” one of the most popular games of the ’90s, and the mass shooting they would eventually carry out. A Gallup poll conducted shortly afterward found that 62 percent of adults nationwide believed entertainment was the major catalyst for the tragedy and that 83 percent supported restrictions on the sale of violent media to children. President Bill Clinton even called for an investigation on how the advertising industry sold violent entertainment.
In a Senate hearing after the attack, Sessions, then an Alabama senator, called playing video games “a very intense experience” that causes “people to be killed.” But the criticism extended across the aisle, Przybylski said, with Democrats just as likely to draw a straight line from virtual violence to real-world bloodshed.
“If you were Mario and you jumped on turtles, you were more likely to kill turtles in real life,” he said of the approach to mass shootings and video games at the time.
Even after a 2004 report conducted by the Secret Service and the Education Department found that only 12 percent of perpetrators in more than three dozen school shootings showed an interest in violent video games, lawmakers and public figures continued to blame the industry. In his 2008 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney cited “pornography and violence” in media, such as video games, as an inspiration for the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people.
In 2011, the Supreme Court weighed in after Democrats in California passed a law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors. The court’s 7-2 decision found the law to be unconstitutional, with Scalia offering a majority opinion.
“Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively,” Scalia wrote. “Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”
That ruling did not lead to an end of calling out video games after massacres. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 26 children and teachers in 2012, Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, said the video game industry was a “corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people,” the New York Times reported.
Fox, the criminologist, dismisses this idea, pointing out that sales of video games have gone up as the rate of youth homicides have dropped since the ’90s. In the case of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, Fox said that while he did enjoy video games, “they didn’t make him into a killer,” noting Lanza’s particular affinity for “Dance Dance Revolution.”
“If video games are driving people to kill, then we’d be in a lot more trouble than we already are since it’s a big industry,” he said. “If it’s as dangerous as people say, we’d have far more mass killings than we already do.”
Trump also blamed video games for real-world violence during a roundtable meeting last year with lawmakers after the Parkland shooting, saying, “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”
Such claims muddy the discussion, said Densley, who has been studying the life histories of mass shooters in the U.S. since 1966 in a project funded by an arm of the Justice Department.
“The easy thing is to point at violent video games . . . and that’s a distraction from the reality of the gun culture in United States,” he said. “We have many young people who are in crisis for various reasons and are struggling with their well-being, and we have to be more attuned to with those struggles to do something about them.”
Sentiments like McCarthy’s and Patrick’s might eventually go by the wayside, Przybylski said. Recent research from Pew found that more than half of Americans ages 18 to 49 play video games with some regularity. When the activity becomes the norm, unlike in an older generation that did not grow up with video games, leaders may be less likely to blame them for society’s ills.
“As the average age of gamers rises, using video games in this way is going to be like blaming socks,” he said of the mass-shooting excuse. “It’s going to become a silly thing to discriminate against.”