Skip to main content

Video games didn't cause Newtown rampage

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Special to CNN
updated 9:43 AM EST, Wed February 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Consistent accounts indicate that Adam Lanza played a lot of violent video games
  • Christopher J. Ferguson: There is no evidence linking video games to mass shootings
  • He says people tend to see an illusion of correlation when there is none
  • Ferguson: Even if we can regulate violence in games, it wouldn't stop mass shooters

Editor's note: Christopher J. Ferguson is chair of the psychology and communication department at Texas A&M International University. He is the author of the novel "Suicide Kings."

(CNN) -- Speculation continues to swirl around the potential involvement of violent video games in Adam Lanza's rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. The official investigation has yet to release its report, but consistent accounts indicate Lanza was an enthusiastic player of violent games.

On Monday, CBS News raised eyebrows with a report citing unnamed law enforcement sources conjecturing that Lanza was motivated in part by violent video games as well as Norway shooter Anders Breivik. The investigating Connecticut police later said that's "all speculation."

According to the Hartford Courant, we know that when the police searched Lanza's home after the shooting, they found thousands of dollars' worth of violent video games. We also know that Lanza's mom let him play games while she traveled.

News: Report -- Sandy Hook shooter tried to emulate Norway massacre

Christopher J. Ferguson
Christopher J. Ferguson

But just because violent video games seemed to have been a part of Lanza's life, as with many young men, we cannot jump to conclusions.

The reality is that there is no evidence linking violent games to mass shootings. We tend to return to this particular element, and it's interesting to see how quickly people like to latch on to this noncorrelation as if it were truly meaningful. The notion that mass homicides are linked to violent media was debunked as far back as 2002 by the U.S. Secret Service, which found that school shooters didn't consume high levels of violent media.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Lanza obsessed with mass murders
'Raising Adam Lanza'

But as a society we tend to focus on video games because it's easy to do so. For example, in the recent case of Nehemiah Griego, a 15-year-old boy accused of killing his family in New Mexico, the police seemed to have been obsessed with violent games during a press conference. The police representative shifted a reporter's question about illegal drugs to video games, the gist of which seemed to be that the boy enjoyed talking about "Modern Warfare." However, other reports suggested the boy's access to violent games or television had been restricted by his family.

In the weeks since the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre, there have been a host of high-profile crimes committed by older men. William Spengler, 62, shot and killed two firefighters and apparently killed his sister in New York. Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, killed a bus driver and kidnapped a 5-year-old boy in Alabama. And Douglas Harmon, 70, killed two people at a Phoenix law office, police said. These older men don't fit the profile of video game players, yet they all did something horrible.

Zakaria: Don't blame the video games

Curiously, no one seems interested in investigating the effects of media popular among the elderly. Our attention to video games in the cases of some shootings but not others is what psychologists call confirmation bias, and it creates the illusion of a correlation where there is none.

It's worth asking ourselves why we keep returning to video games despite the lack of evidence to support its link to violence. Of course, this kind of association is not new. Some scholars blamed television for the crime wave of the 1970s and '80s, which has since vanished. And comic books in the 1950s were blamed by psychiatrists for not only delinquency but homosexuality (Batman and Robin were secretly gay it seemed. I'm not making this up). In hindsight, these strands of associations look ridiculous, but in the moment they served a purpose.

Opinion: NRA's video game smacks of hypocrisy

Rare though they are, mass shootings often strike at schools, malls, churches, theaters -- places we all go in places we all live. One of the questions asked repeatedly after the Newtown shooting is why Lanza did what he did.

To say that he was an evil young man who cruelly inflicted suffering on others simply because, in his mind, life had given him the shaft is not satisfying. We want to control the uncontrollable, predict the unpredictable. We want to understand why an impossible to understand event happened and give ourselves some illusion of control. If violent video games were some small but critical component of Lanza's motivation, why we could just get rid of such games and make this whole problem go away. It's a tempting belief but absolutely wrong.

Tech: After Newtown, shoppers think twice about violent video games

If we could make it legal to regulate violence in games, would that have stopped Lanza or any of the other mass homicides through history? No, not a one. We should not be distracted from looking for the real contributing factors to societal violence.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher J. Ferguson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT