OPINION: Why do we keep having debates about video-game violence?

The presence of video games in the online habits of perpetrators is one relevant piece of information

After the series of tragic mass shootings in El Paso, Tex., and Dayton, Ohio, and shocking murders in Ontario and British Columbia, all on the heels of the horrific events in Christchurch, New Zealand, we once again are having debates about the effects of video-game violence on society. We need to stop.

For police investigators, the presence of video games in the online habits of perpetrators may be one relevant piece of information. But for the rest of us, it’s another example of our emotional reaction trumping (and I don’t use that word lightly) evidence-based research.

I study emerging technologies and digital culture. In our field it’s well-established: major studies show no link between violent criminal action and violent video games.

There is some evidence for a possible increase in aggressive tendencies after playing games for a period of time. Surveys of children find similar short-term aggressive play when kids watch any violent media (like a Marvel action film) — yet all of this falls radically short of criminal behaviour and violence.

I don’t want to be an apologist for popular-culture media. We can and should make space to talk about the representations of gender-based violence and the representation of people of colour in video games (and in movies and on television). We should have a conversation about the online misogyny of Gamergate, and game voice-chats, as experienced by anyone who spends time in those online spaces.

But our conversations and our actions should be based on the real needs of society for representation and inclusion. They should be based on actual evidence, rather then a scapegoat used to score quick political points.

Trying to make sense of a violent world

When we hear about mass shootings in public spaces, we want something tangible to blame, so that we can feel that the world isn’t unpredictable and unsafe. We want to feel like there’s something we can do (as long as that “something” doesn’t seem complicated).

We don’t want to blame systems or cultures of violence, or talk about public health. Those seem unimaginably complicated, intractable and therefore won’t make us feel better.

In the United States, it’s hard to get funding to say anything real. Congress bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research into gun violence. This type of control leaves scholars worried that researching the wrong topic may destroy their careers.

And so journalists, politicians and pundits are left with a demonization of sub-cultures — in this case video-gaming — instead of talking about systemic issues.

I collect stories about media panics. In the 1800s, some demonized the novel, fearing it would drive women to ruin. And, going way back, Plato critiqued the invention of writing itself, fearing it would injure our memory. The earliest crusade against video-game violence I know of dates from the ’70s, for the game Death Race. If your stomach is strong, go online to see the game as archived at the Museum of Play.

But now video games are mainstream. Three-quarters of U.S. households have at least one gamer resident. This is no longer a fringe activity. Pay attention, politicians: those kids who played Death Race? They grew up to be parents and voters. And many still play games.

So if we can’t blame video games, what’s next?

Looking for solutions

We have to look deeper and with more focus. Rather than stigmatizing the mentally ill, researchers at The Violence Project are studying what we do know about mass shooters, looking at actual data from people and events. They identified four commonalities on the part of the shooters: previous trauma (abuse, neglect, bullying), a recent crisis (loss of a job or a relationship), social contagion (studying the actions of other shooters) and access to weaponry.

To fight the problem, The Violence Project suggests we should:

End the practice of media-attention/notoriety (discourage press coverage; don’t share or view videos or manifestos from the scene of a violent act).

Prevent the normalization of this behaviour (perhaps rethinking bulletproof backpacks).

Reduce access to the type of guns used in these tragedies.

Finally, the team found that most mass public shooters telegraphed their intentions in some way — perhaps on a message board, probably via social media. This seems like an area we can actively work to improve. If someone discloses violent action, people online might be uncertain about how dangerous the disclosure is. They may treat it as a joke or worry about damaging their social standing if they speak out.

We need more ways to refer people to help without punishment. Users could flag an online post for follow-up by moderators without thinking it will immediately result in a SWAT team being called. A paid trained expert, able to approach people without criminalizing them until deemed necessary could make that determination.

If we start with a community-based public-health approach to people in need, as expensive as that may be, we can perhaps help a wealth of issues at the same time.

Invest in mental health supports

While not easy, these are findings we can act on. We can change the way we cover mass-shootings stories in the press. We can name and combat racist, gender-based and anti-immigrant rhetoric where we find it. We can critique, not ban, a culture that supports violence, with our kids, friends and co-workers.

And finally, we can provide long-term interventions across a variety of contexts (in-person, online, international) to connect people with the mental and social resources they need.

Ultimately, a path ahead doesn’t exist solely in the realm of criminalization (red flag laws) and restriction (video-game bans), but rather, includes pro-social actions like public health policies and affordable, accessible, community-based mental health supports.

I’m one of the wrong set of experts to call when investigators discover that a mass-shooter played video-games. Bring in those studying mass violence or public health, and let’s put this red herring to rest.

Richard Lachman, Director, Zone Learning & Associate Professor, Ryerson University , The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Saanich offers free saplings to encourage residents to spruce up for National Tree Day

Giveaway to take place Sept. 21 in Glanford Park from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sooke RCMP searching for two people, reported missing on Sept. 10

Alannah Brooke Logan, 20, and Beau Richard Santuccione, 32, last seen on Otter Point Road

Victoria man plans 30-hour walk to raise funds for vulnerable youth

Take a Hike engages youth in intensive, clinical counselling and outdoor experiential learning

Opponent of proposed Sidney cannabis store calls on councillors to heed health authority advice

Council to consider revised application from Happy Buddha Cannabis on Sept. 28

New urgent, primary care health centre opens in Saanich come November

North Quadra area facility to provide same-day, ongoing care for folks without family doctors

3 new deaths due to COVID-19 in B.C., 139 new cases

B.C. confirms 40 ‘historic cases,’ as well

POLL: Do you plan on allowing your children to go trick or treating this year?

This popular annual social time will look quite different this year due to COVID-19

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

The court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington

Comox Valley protesters send message over old-growth logging

Event in downtown Courtenay was part of wider event on Friday

Application deadline for fish harvester benefits program extended

Those financially impacted by the pandemic have until Oct. 5 to apply

VIDEO: B.C. to launch mouth-rinse COVID-19 test for kids

Test involves swishing and gargling saline in mouth and no deep-nasal swab

Young Canadians have curtailed vaping during pandemic, survey finds

The survey funded by Heart & Stroke also found the decrease in vaping frequency is most notable in British Columbia and Ontario

B.C. teachers file Labour Relations Board application over COVID-19 classroom concerns

The application comes as B.C.’s second week of the new school year comes to a close

Man sentenced to 7 years for gas-and-dash death of Alberta gas station owner

Ki Yun Jo was killed after Mitchell Sydlowski sped off in a stolen cube van without paying for $198 of fuel

Most Read