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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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