Opinion: Making Sense of Video Games, Violence and Trump (Or Trying To)

In the wake of the tragic mass shootings in the US, video games have near-inevitably been blamed, even by the US president himself.

The two shootings came withing 24 hours of each other, collectively claiming 31 lives. At least part of the cause, Trump offered, might be “gruesome and grisly video games”. That was understandably seen as a distraction technique. Surely – many observers offered – the US’s seemingly lax gun control and over-the-counter assault weapons were a more immediate problem. Famously, of course, the anti-gun-control movement in the US has a powerful influence over government, particularly through the National Riffle Association. There’s lots of motivation not to blame guns. And the weapons business is a big business keen to keep its market.

It’s also worth noting Trump highlighted mental illness as part of the cause for these horrific acts. Mental illness, in fact, makes you more likely to be a victim of violence than more likely to be a perpetrator.

But as Hillary Clinton pointed out on Twitter, lots and lots of countries have video games. All countries, surely, also see mental health problems. And yet the rest of the world combined doesn’t have a mass shooting problem like the US. The viral Tweet on August 3rd asserting that the US had 249 mass shootings in 2019 compared to seven such incidents across 23 other major countries over the same time frame might actually not be entirely accurate. However, the US seemingly still has a significantly high number of mass shooting relative to the many other places where video games and mental illness exists. Which makes Clinton’s tweet rather powerful in its clarity of logic.

And, of course, Scientists have never found an entirely conclusive link between video games and real-world violent behaviour. The reality around the causal link between playing games and violent behaviour is, unsurprisingly, rather complex. Video games may in some people cause a very slight increase in aggressive social interaction, but that is not the same as violence. An example of the kind of aggressive interaction more likely in a devoted gamer would be the tendency to play music louder than a neighbour who is also playing music, so as to drown out the latter’s sound. It’s less than admirable behaviour, but it is not violent, and it is certainly not a mass shooting.

Many shooters that perpetrate such crime have played video games, but that is not to suggest a causal link. Simply put, when billions of people play video games globally, there’s a good chance that if you pick a person – especially in developed countries like the US – they will have played video games. Many shooters have played video games because many people have played video games.

So why the casual (not causal) association with games and violence? Well… a lot of video games do have violent themes. Genre’s like ‘shooter’ and ‘beat ’em up’ are literally defined and framed by violence. Guns, combat, war, melees and blades can be found in myriad games. It’s very hard to deny the fact that games and fictional violence share a close relationship.

Of course – just like cinema, books and theatre – games should be allowed to explore adult and violent themes.  It is not as if those other mediums do not give generous focus to themes like violence. And there are many, many non-violent games. Here’s a list of dozens and dozens.

But for decades now, games have been made a scapegoat when real-world violence needs explaining away, while other mediums draw considerably less blame. That’s in-part because games are still a relatively young medium. When comics, film, TV and recorded music were youthful forms of mass entertainment, they too drew flack for their devilish influence on modern society and the minds of the young.

Really, media is the scapegoat, and right now games are having their time as the focal point for criticism.

And maybe the games industry – and even articles like the one you are reading now, in all honesty – need to do more than highlight the fact that video games aren’t to blame. Video games aren’t to blame. But they keep getting blamed.

Why? A likely combination of habit, deflection, convenience and simplification of complex narratives. And there’s the fact that games are frequently violent in theme, even if they don’t inspire any real violence at all.

We need to think about how we respond to this perennial criticism.

And if you have any ideas, email our editor to talk about contributing an opinion piece to The Gaming Economy. We are always interested in sharing the insights and expertise of this industry’s people.