OFF TARGET: Experts question connecting video game violence to shootings

In the recent uproar over gun safety and laws, video game violence is in the public eye once again. The question that many critics of video games have asked is, do video games make people more violent?

Dr. Shawn Harmsen, communication professor and media researcher at Coe College said, “Mass communication research has been going on for the better part of a century asking about the impact on youth from movies and comic books to television and video games. but results have been conflicting and inconsistent. What I think we can say is that all media has some effect on all of us, and there is reason to believe media that includes visual, audio and participatory elements has the ability to make a greater effect, but the problem lies in trying to pinpoint what those effects are and how widespread they are.”

American culture influences teenagers to be intrigued with video games, yet video games are just one part of the media environment.

Harmsen said, “Americans exist in an entire culture that is more than just video games. If you look at all kinds of media products, you see a lot of violence. In fact, violence, even graphic depictions of violence, is tolerated much more in things like television programs and even films than are depictions of things like nudity.”

According to a study by Whitney DeCamp from Western Michigan University, 90 percent of boys will already have played violent video games by high school years.

Critics argue that in other countries in the world, the same video games are played and seen by the same age groups of people without the same level of gun violence. The amount of gun violence in America results in eight times more gun deaths than Canada, yet the same video games are available in both countries.

“This ties in with our culture, is the prevalence of guns in our country,” Harmsen said. “Whether it’s a domestic assault with a gun, suicide, an accidental shooting or a mass shooting, it’s just easier to get a gun in our country. I suspect these factors play off of each other in America because they exist in here in ways they don’t elsewhere.”

Despite critics that video games do not affect gun violence, President Trump blames the video games as a factor for recent gun violence. “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Trump said after the Parkland, Fla., shootings.

Yet Harmsen argues that video games are not a major factor in school shootings. “I think if we were to line up valid and likely reasons for school shootings, at the end of the day video games would be way down the list,” he said. “I am not sure even connecting them makes the most sense or will yield much benefit. That said, there are just good arguments for being wise consumers and gamers when it comes to amount of use. Games are fun. They are designed to be fun, and even psychologically addicting. That’s a different issue.”

Harmsen said that video games can be fine, but like any media content, parents should monitor the content to make sure it’s healthy and appropriate for children.

“My opinion of ratings is that, again as a parent with a 9-year-old who loves video games, that they are helpful as I decide what games to allow him to buy,” Harmsen said. “I think there are good and valid reasons why limiting video game playing time is a healthy life choice to make. There is some legitimately problematic content in video games, from violence to misogyny to racial stereotypes. This isn’t exactly unique to video games in our culture.”

Video games are consistently an easy target for criticism, yet accusations against video games often mask the true factors of America’s problems with gun violence.

Harmsen said, “I enjoy video games myself, but as with any activity or hobby, too much is never a good thing, so, for a variety of reasons, it’s necessary to not overdue the gaming time. I’m just not sure ‘They might make you become a mass shooter’ is one of them.”

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