In December of 2012 people were searching for answers to why a 20-year-old Connecticut loner named Adam Lanza shot his mother, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary where he murdered 20 young children and six adult staff before taking his own life.
One possible clue seemed to be found when police discovered several video games in Lanza’s bedroom, including entries in the violent franchises Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. Media outlets reported Lanza “spent hours playing violent video games” and even claimed he used games to “train himself for his massacre.” NRA president Wayne LaPierre called video game makers “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people.”
The official report on the shooting released by law enforcement confirmed that Lanza did indeed have a video game obsession. By analyzing data from a GPS device on his car, police found that in the months before the shooting, Lanza went to a theater arcade near his home “most every Friday through Sunday and played the game for four to ten hours.”
The game was Dance Dance Revolution. It involves dancing to rhythmic onscreen cues, with no violence beyond the threat of a twisted ankle. The FBI found no evidence he viewed the shooting spree as a video game.
The narrative that violent video games contribute to real gun violence remains widely believed, including among the nation’s senior lawmakers. President Trump met with representatives of the video game industry after this year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the White House released a video montage of gory video game moments shown in the meeting.
Before he became president, Trump declared that violent video games “must be stopped” because they are “creating monsters!” As with Sandy Hook, some in the post-Parkland debate argued the real issue is not guns themselves but violent media.
“Everyone goes to the gun issue. To me the issue that never gets talked about is [violent media],” said Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan. “Ever watch movies? Ever watch video games? No one talks about the culture of violence that’s poisoning the minds of young Americans.”
Studies have found a surprisingly clear link between violent media and real-world violence. But it’s not the link most people expect — for whatever reason, more people playing violent video games is consistently tied to fewer violent acts.
“What we find is pretty much no matter which way you cut it, there always ends up being this inverse relationship where when people are playing these violent video games or at least consuming them, we actually see dips in homicides and aggravated assaults,” said Villanova University professor Patrick Markey.
In their book Moral Combat: Why the War on Video Games Is Wrong, Markey and coauthor Christopher Ferguson lay out how researchers have approached this question from different angles.
What happens in the period after a hugely popular violent video game, such as a new Grand Theft Auto game is released? The rates of violent crime drop from what would be otherwise expected. When Google searches peak for walkthroughs of violent games — a sign that people are currently playing them — there is a corresponding drop in crime rates. You can look at countries where the most violent video games are sold, or seasons when they are most played, and if you’re going to see any link, it’s a negative one. Researchers have found similar inverse correlations when popular violent movies and TV shows have been released.
Still, the idea that violent video games “train” people to commit violence is a tough one to shake. BuzzFeed News asked several United States senators if they believed there was a causal relationship between video games and real-world violence. Many said they were not sure if a link existed, but the ones who did believe in it cited a gut feeling on the issue.
“I think there probably is a causal relationship, but that’s more visceral than empirical,” said Republican Sen. Joe Kennedy of Louisiana.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson answered, “I think there is, yes. That’s just from my gut,” while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said, “as an intuitive matter it’s hard to dispute that such games desensitize young people to violence,” though he noted that the government should not regulate video games because of the First Amendment.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said presidents of video game companies should show their games to their own children before they show them to anyone else.
“It’s hard to imagine that you play these murderous games that the whole point of it is killing people, that you don’t learn some skills,” said Alexander.
Much of this public impression can be tied to media reports that highlight video games if the killer was known to play them, and ignore them if the killer doesn’t. Sometimes a link is invented altogether. Hours after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 people dead, lawyer Jack Thompson started appearing on major news networks claiming the killer used video games to train for the shooting. But when police searched the killer’s dorm, they found no video games at all.
One of the more striking research findings outlined in Markey’s book is that school shooters are less likely to play violent video games than their peers, not more.
In 1998, the National Threat Assessment Center studied school shootings to create a profile of the killers. Researchers found only 12% of school shooters showed an interest in violent video games. A more recent analysis of the 10 most violent shootings on school campuses since 1998 by Peter Langman, who studies the psychology of school shooters, found that only 20% of the killers played violent video games with any regularity. This contrasts with about 70% of male high school students who play violent games.
In some ways, this makes sense. Research shows school shooters are more likely to display abnormal behavior, said Markey, and like it or not, violent video games are a normal peer activity.
As for the larger link between violent games and a drop in real violence, Markey’s theory is simply these video games have become so popular that more people are indoors playing them, rather than outside interacting with other people. In other words, people are committing fewer violent acts because they’re busy playing video games instead.
“It’s not a very sexy explanation, but it’s probably the one that makes the most sense,” he said.
There have been studies that showed people who play violent video games experience temporarily elevated feelings of aggression afterward, but that has not been found to lead to an increase in violent acts.
There is also the fact that violent video games are a worldwide phenomenon, yet gun violence, and mass shootings in particular, occur in America at staggeringly high rates not seen in the rest of the world.
But when pressed on this question, Sullivan rejected the idea that violent media does not lead to an increase in gun violence. He called it “completely erroneous” and said, “I just disagree with you, completely, 100%.” When asked for his views on why other countries that consume the same violent media don’t have remotely the same gun violence rates, Sullivan ducked the question.
“I don’t focus on any other country, I’m focused on this one right now,” he said.
Before he became one of the leading debunkers of the theory that video games cause violence, Markey, too, once suggested that they could be the problem. A decade ago he published a study that showed people who play violent video games report a temporary rise in aggressive feelings afterward. His writing mentioned Columbine and speculated about the effects of video games.
It was after Sandy Hook, when he saw his research cited as evidence that video games cause actual violence, that he had a major change of heart. “That really changed my perspective,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I was one of those researchers that did that exact same kind of fearmongering.”
When asked shortly after the Parkland shooting whether he believed video games could cause violence, New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich said the link is not just false, but is a diversion.
“My kids play all those games. They understand very clearly that there’s a bright line between video games, or playing with their nerf guns, and using real firearms. I think it’s a diversion,” he said. “I think it’s a convenient thing to talk about right now rather than deal with the problem at all.”
After Parkland there was an initial burst of momentum to change laws to prevent future school shootings. But Congress ultimately avoided making any contentious moves, and little has changed.