As the nation still reels from the mass shooting tragedy in Parkland, FL, right-wing politicians have tread some familiar ground in their attempts to shift the conversation away from gun control. After claiming that “the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Donald Trump will allegedly be inviting “representatives from the video games industry” for a meeting at the White House. While the exact purpose of this meeting is still unclear, it revives one a favorite past time for conservative lawmakers: using violent video games to instigate a moral panic.
As discussed in a recent New York Times piece, video games have been involved in criminal litigation for over three decades. To acknowledge every instance of violence in video games being used as leverage in political debate would be virtually impossible, but suffice to say, the discourse on this topic is one of the longest-running and highly-scrutinized for a non-major policy subject in modern history. At the end of the day, years of research has failed to produce any conclusive, causal evidence of violent games causing violent behavior—and in addition, arguments supporting the role of video games in violent crime have just as cherished a history of being debunked.
The man in the video above is Jack Thompson, who took the video game violence issue into the mainstream as early as the year 2000. Famed for such quotes as, “In every school shooting, we find that kids who pull the trigger are video gamers” and “Murder simulators are not constitutionally protected speech. They’re not even speech. They’re dangerous physical appliances that teach a kid how to kill efficiently and to love it,” the former Florida attorney built a brand for himself arguing against the societal and artistic value of video games and became one of the most reviled characters in all of gaming.
Time and time again, Thompson was struck down in lawsuits throughout several states, where he continuously looked for opportunities to further his agenda. This includes a 2003 homicide case in Ohio, in which he attempted to insert himself in the proceedings after learning that the 16-year-old defendant would be charged as an adult and was an avid Grand Theft Auto III player.
Though he was not the first or the last to attack obscenity in gaming—and his personal attacks against defendants and “repetitive, frivolous” filings eventually led to his disbarment in 2008—he easily attracted the most attention the topic, something conservatives have run with since the start of the new millennium.
Academics like Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University have written critiques and held studies alleging causal evidence of violent video games affecting violent behavior, though the methodology and sources of funding have inevitably come under scrutiny. For example, Anderson’s 2005 works were sponsored by a conservative advocacy group, the National Institute on Media and the Family, which was excoriated by the ESRB for statements and methods that misled parents and the general public.
Anderson’s studies and similar research up through 2011 were roundly dismissed in the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn., which struck down a California law that prohibited the sale of certain violent games on a First Amendment basis. In a 7-2 decision, the court went out of their way to acknowledge that the alleged findings were “based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” It should be noted that this majority opinion was delivered by Antonin Scalia, one of the strictest conservatives in Supreme Court history.
Outside of the courts, academics and media critics have taken it upon themselves to defend gaming from these criticisms. In 2013, the American Psychological Association formed a media “task force” that would review existing studies on violence in video gaming, and in August 2015, they released a statement alleging that previous literature “demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”
However, before this task force even produced its findings, a consortium of academics, scholars, and psychologists numbering over 200 and assembled from institutions like Harvard, Yale, and the University of California came together to release a joint statement criticizing the APA. The open letter alleges a variety of wrongdoings, one significant matter being “that pressure to produce ‘positive’ findings is present throughout the review and publication process as well as in grant-seeking.” Like the NIMF before it, the APA’s research was likely undertaken with the express purpose of producing evidence for violent outcomes in video gaming—a severe and disqualifying bias.
As Trump continues the storied conservative tradition of blaming violent video games for the nation’s ills, it’s important to not lose sight of the many, many times this claim has proven insufficient—and understand why this issue continues to arise. For Thompson, it was an attempt to gain political points in a conservative state by leading a moral crusade. For Anderson, it was about producing the specific results that the sources of funding were after. And today, with school shootings abound and Republican lawmakers vociferously defending the NRA and Second Amendment, it’s about deflecting the focus to anything other than gun control.
To wit—Republican lawmakers to this day refuse to allow the CDC to study the effects of gun violence, including the role of violent video games in our school shooting massacres. President Obama called for this in 2013.
Media plays an indelible role in our social behaviors, and has absolutely been linked to violence in the past—John Lennon’s assassin was famously inspired by the book Catcher in the Rye. However, video games have simply not proven to be a uniquely damaging form. Keep this in mind as the debate over the role of firearms in our day-to-day society continues, as this will be far from the last time video games will be blamed.