In the wake of a pair of deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio over the weekend, many conservative politicians pulled out an old scapegoat for the violence to avoid any discussion of gun control: video games. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick appeared on Fox & Friends to say “we've always had guns, always had evil, but I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also appeared on Fox, saying “these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals and others — I've always felt that is a problem for future generations and others. We've watched from studies shown before of what it does to individuals. When you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.”
President Donald Trump mentioned games in his address from the White House. “"We must stop the glorification of violence in our society," Trump said. ”This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace."
No one should take any of these statements in good faith. As with mental illness, video games are a convenient distraction cited by politicians desperate to avoid any gun control measures. Even, apparently, at the cost of game makers’ First Amendment rights of free speech. It would be worrying if there were any chance these reactionary bits of nonsense would translate into action against the medium.
The El Paso shooter’s manifesto, which was uploaded to the site 8Chan, was obsessed with “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Such invasion talk is a favorite of Trump’s, from his remarks saying Mexico was exporting rapists to his characterization of Central American migrants as a military-esque attack to laughing when an audience member at a rally in May suggested murdering border-crossers.
Medhi Hasan at The Intercept compiled a list of more than a dozen Trump-inspired attackers in 2018, and that was before Christchurch or Chris Hasson. The president’s recent statements about putting to death people convicted of hate crimes or not tolerating racism are in-congruent with his past rhetoric or his reaction to people who commit atrocities while using his favorite hashtags.
Somehow, the right wants us to believe that video games have some sort of effect on potential murderers, but that political speech does not. This is not only hypocritical, it’s deeply unscientific.
Cultivation theory is the idea that the media we consume affects us in significant ways (there’s a great video on the subject by Ian Danskin). If you remember the ‘90s and various moral forces trying to hang increases in violence on Mortal Kombat and Doom, you’re familiar with what happens when politicians take a social science and ignore the data for their own agenda. Despite that, it’s a widely accepted phenomenon with no real disagreement of its existence in scientific circles. Cultivation theory is why advertising works, and it’s why Russia poured so many resources into its attack on American democracy through social media. They did it because it works.
There is a lot of data on the effects of violent media on attitudes towards violence. In general, there is no evidence that playing Wolfenstein or Bioshock Infinite will turn a non-violent person into a butcher who mows down racists by the hundreds, but there is a lot of evidence that regular exposure to violent media, including games, makes people more aggressive, less sympathetic to the pain of others, and more fearful of the world around them. The American Psychological Association makes it clear that there is reason to believe that violent media can be a factor in real-world criminal behavior.
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By shining a light on video games as a cause, the right is tacitly admitting that cultivation theory is real and that media can and does affect people, possibly emboldening them to murder. But any real conversation about the effects of media on people must include the effects of racist, violence statements by the president and his supporters. It would be relatively easy to study, and I would welcome the CDC or other bodies engaging in the pursuit. We would learn a lot about responsible content and the de-escalation of violence from research.
Pretending that video games are some magic category of media that has more weight than the constant barrage of racist language by Trump is ridiculous. Why would a game be more influential than, say, a YouTuber ranting about white genocide or an incel message board lauding misogynistic killers? Especially when so many killers reference these exact sources far more than the games they play.
Most importantly, why should we look at gaming to explain racist attack motives? Mainstream shooters don’t typically cast invading minorities as their villains. It’s mostly Nazis, aliens, and whatever the hell is happening in the Atomic Heart trailer. Why would those affected by the games draw only from play but not the narrative?
If you want to have a conversation about how much gun violence in video games young minds are being exposed to, I am all for it, but you can’t hide the fact that those same minds are being blasted with constant messages about monstrous hordes from below the border. Video games are just media, no different from the president’s tweets or the latest John Wick film. Pawning off games as the real cause while washing hands of the media the right produces is dangerously disingenuous. It either both or neither. Any other conclusion is wrong.