Researchers have repeatedly debunked the claim that playing video games makes a person violent.
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.
The trend of connecting mass shootings to video games gained steam in 1999, after two high school gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School. The gunmen had an affinity for violent video games. A Gallup poll conducted shortly afterward found that 83 percent of adults surveyed supported restrictions on the sale of violent media to children.
In a Senate hearing after the attack, Sen. Jeff Sessions, then an Alabama senator, called playing video games “a very intense experience” that causes “people to be killed.”
The criticism extended across the aisle, said Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at Oxford University and lead author of a January study that found there was no correlation between the time spent playing video games and aggressive behavior in young people. The study was published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Royal Society Open Science.
Przybylski said Democrats back then were just as likely to draw a straight line from virtual violence to real-world bloodshed. President Bill Clinton called for an investigation on how the advertising industry sold violent entertainment.
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.
Sentiments 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.”