Skip to main content

Don't link video games with mass shootings

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Special to CNN
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Fri September 20, 2013
The FBI identified Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor from Texas, as the perpetrator of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and Alexis -- were killed in the shooting. The FBI identified Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor from Texas, as the perpetrator of the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. Authorities said at least 12 people -- and Alexis -- were killed in the shooting.
HIDE CAPTION
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
Navy Yard gunman
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christopher Ferguson: Video games often come up when there is a shooting
  • Ferguson: Violent video games are not a commonality among rampage shooters
  • He says an op-ed about games may have crossed the line from science to advocacy
  • Ferguson: What society should focus on are issues like mental health care reform

Editor's note: Christopher J. Ferguson is chair of the psychology department at Stetson University. He is the author of the novel "Suicide Kings."

(CNN) -- The horrible shooting at Washington Navy Yard adds to the recent litany of mass shootings in the United States. Much attention typically focuses on what we, as a society, might do to prevent similar events in the future. Unfortunately, the line between reasonable reflection and cultural crusade can sometimes be blurred, with activists drawing in shootings to advance their particular axes to grind.

Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, that issue has often been violent video games. So it should come as no surprise that we have already seen some speculation about whether the Washington Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, may have played violent games.

Earlier this week, an op-ed by Dr. Brad Bushman may have crossed the line from science to advocacy.

Christopher J. Ferguson
Christopher J. Ferguson

I respect Dr. Bushman and understand that he speaks in good faith about his concerns regarding violent video games. Yet, the field he portrays in his op-ed is not one that I recognize. Research linking violent video games to even mild acts of aggression has been, at best, inconsistent and, as the Supreme Court noted in 2011, often methodologically flawed.

That's not to say some good research isn't being done, but it's not possible for the research to clearly link playing violent games to mild aggression, let alone societal violence. Implying that laboratory research conducted with college students, no matter what the outcome, can be generalized to mass shooters is irresponsible.

Even the studies Dr. Bushman refers to are not as clear-cut as he suggests. For instance, in discussing his meta-analysis, he implies that the 136 articles he reviewed on video game violence were consistent in outcome, which, in fact, they were not. He also neglects to mention that, in his own meta-analysis, video game effects dropped significantly when only a few controls were included.

For instance, in his analysis of long-term outcome studies, video game violence effects dropped to nearly zero when simply gender and prior aggression were controlled. Furthermore, at the time his meta-analysis was published, colleagues including John Kilburn and myself expressed concerns in the same journal that Dr. Bushman and his coauthors had neglected to include many studies finding no links between video game violence and aggression in their analysis.

Expert: Video games don't trigger violence
Ex-profiler: Video games erode empathy

Dr. Bushman also refers to one of his studies suggesting that college students who played an action game were more accurate with a lifelike pistol. He extends this research to imply that mass shooters may be more accurate due to playing video games. This also, to me, seems a considerable overreach. Alexis had actual military training which would seem more relevant than video games, and shooting unarmed civilians typically requires no great feat of marksmanship. It's important to note as well that Dr. Bushman's study is, as of yet, unreplicated.

Dr. Bushman also neglects to mention considerable research that conflicts with his views. For instance, in a recent study my colleague Cheryl Olson and I found little evidence that violent video games had negative influences on children with pre-existing mental health problems. It would seem this study would bear on speculation that some mentally ill individuals may be susceptible to video game effects, so it is curious it went unmentioned.

Contrary to Dr. Bushman's suggestion, violent video games are not a commonality among mass homicide perpetrators. The impression that a link exists is a classic illusory correlation in which society notes the cases that fit and ignores those that don't. When a shooter is a young male, the news media make a fuss over violent video games, typically forgetting to inform the public that almost all young males play violent video games. Thus, finding that a particular young shooter happened to play violent games is neither surprising nor meaningful.

However, we've seen a rash of high-profile gun violence committed by men over the age of 60 (William Spengler, Douglas Harmon, Jimmy Lee Dykes, etc.) in past months. Since these incidents don't fit the common social narrative of the mad gamer, they are simply ignored.

Lastly, Dr. Bushman advocates legal restrictions on violent video game access. However, since the Supreme Court's Brown v EMA ruling (2011), which also criticized much of this research field, such efforts are clearly in violation of the First Amendment.

In a recent appearance on CNN, video game researcher Patrick Markey cautions scholars not to be irresponsible in extending research in our field beyond where it can go. I echo his comments here. In the 1950s, psychiatrists testified before congress that comic books caused not only delinquency but homosexuality because, they claimed, Batman and Robin were secretly gay. We have to be careful not to repeat these mistakes.

The picture that is emerging of Alexis is one common to most mass shooters whether young or old, man or (rarely) woman -- a resentful man full of anger and struggling with mental health problems.

Making big claims about video games contributing to societal violence runs two risks -- damaging the credibility of the scholars who make such claims, and distracting us from real issues such as mental health care reform.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 10:59 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT