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We Know Games Don't Cause Real-Life Violence, But Why?

A candid conversation with a professor who's actually done the work.
Image courtesy of Activision

This article is part of a special series on the intersection of guns and games. For more, click here.

We usually take the notion that games don’t correlate to real-life violence for granted. But what’s the science behind that statement, how did we get there, and can we break the cycle where in a search for answers, games are blamed?

Like most of the country, all of us at Waypoint spent the last month processing the horror of yet another school shooting, while admiring the bravery of the student survivors from Parkland, Florida rising up, demanding change, and taking no bullshit.


In the lead up to this weekend’s March for Our Lives, Waypoint is publishing a series of stories this week about gaming’s relationship with guns. We’re not suggesting playing games, even violent ones, causes real-life violence, but as Austin said in a piece today, “that doesn’t mean that the way guns and violence are portrayed in our favorite hobby cannot test our consciousness or that we cannot be critical of their depiction.”

To learn more, I spoke with Villanova University professor of psychology Patrick Markey, co-author of the 2017 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong. It was a fascinating conversation, in which Markey explained why he used to be someone wondering if games contributed in a way that should worry us:

If you look at my first studies I did a decade ago, they are these studies looking at mundane forms of aggression. These were questionnaires—like, do you feel hostile playing violent video games? I was finding these links were right after you play a violent video game—your mood was temporarily changed. In the early articles [I wrote], I even talk about school shootings in the context of my findings, so I was very much in the camp of it.

But then what happened was Sandy Hook.

After Sandy Hook, I suddenly got inundated with calls from reporters and politicians and so forth, using my research as a suggestion that’s what caused it. It made me really reflect on the generalizability of my findings. Can we really take the stuff we’ve done in the lab and relate it to horrific acts of violence like school shootings? That’s when we started to look at real acts of violence—homicides, aggravated assaults, and so forth—because it was a much more direct comparison. It was that investigation where I started to change my mind on whether we should be using what we find in the laboratory to suggest there’s a link between real acts of violence.


How the evidence suggests countries that play a lot of games have less real violence:

One thing we found is that the countries that play or consume video games the most often tend to be the safest countries in the world. That’s even when we control for all types of variables. We find this correlation— and correlation doesn’t mean causation, there might be some third variable that might be causing it—so our job is to try and break it, to put in as many variables in that we might be explaining that relationship, and we haven’t been able to. No matter what we try to control for, it always stays negative, it never becomes positive. By negative, I mean the countries that consume the most video games are the safest ones. It never flipts in the other direction.

And how the stereotype that mass shooters play violent games is largely untrue:

We tend to remember the cases that fit our narrative. We have this illusionary correlation. We remember Columbine, we might remember Sandy Hook, the ones that fit our narrative. The ones that don’t fit our narrative we don’t relate to it, we tend to forget about. We create this false impression that there’s a relationship. And even the ones we tend to think relate to it actually don’t relate as much as we think. Certainly Columbine, they played Doom, and they played Doom a lot.

But if we look at other cases, like Sandy Hook, that’s a prime example. It was often said that he obsessed about violent video games and played them all the time. He definitely owned Call of Duty, there’s no doubt he owned it, but it’s this million unit seller, it’s not surprising an adolescent owned it. But actually what we know from what he was doing up until the killings was, based on the GPS in his car, he kept going to this movie theater, and it’s unclear why he was going. But what it turned out, the reason he was going to the movie theater was to play Dance Dance Revolution every single day. If he had an obsession with games, it was Dance Dance Revolution. Even interviews with his friends, his peers, when they were asked about his favorite game, they said his favorite was Super Mario Bros. He played video games, like most adolescent students, but the ones he obsessed about are not the ones we tend to link to violent crime.

Towards the end, we touch on the future of studying games, and whether the bigger danger for games is having them declared formally “addictive.” Oh, and loot boxes!

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