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After string of politically-motivated US shootings, violent video games are no longer the go-to scapegoat

Video Games have long been a high profile scapegoat whenever violent things happen. In recent months, however, the media's formerly favorite topic is nowhere to be found.

Last Friday, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear attempted to siege a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic with the intent of causing as much damage as possible. After several hours at odds with local police, Dear was taken into custody, having claimed three lives and wounding nine others.

A few days later, speculation as to the shooter’s motivation is still running rampant. Some theories claim that Dear was acting in opposition to legalized abortion. Still others indicate that the solitary man was motivated by a hatred of President Obama. What’s more, the Colorado Springs Police have pledged — at least for now — to keep Dear’s motivations a secret.

As gamers, we mourn the loss of life as much as the next person. Regardless of where we land on the political spectrum, last Friday’s shooting is a senseless tragedy. More often than not, however, in the wake of dire events such as the Planned Parenthood attack, video gamers are also forced to endure weeks of media speculation that run along the lines of “Video games made this guy a murderer!” For decades, violent media (and increasingly video games) have become a favorite scapegoat for the murderous acts of diseased minds. 

Until recently.

The way it used to be

Doom 2 screen cap; violent media in video games

As most gamers can tell you (usually with a roll of the eyes), whenever some crazy butthole (especially a young person) goes on a tear and ends innocent lives, Call of Duty is usually fingered as one of the culprits. This general notion is the reason the Internet is littered with lists like this one.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that video games are still very much an emerging art form. Like rap in the late 1980s and rock in the early 1960s, its newness makes it a target for unfounded scrutiny.

In spite of the fact that more than two decades of studies have failed to find any substantial causal link between video games and real-world violence, the undeniably graphic violence found in several of today’s most popular titles has made for an easy target when the news media (and politicians) go looking for someone to blame for terrible acts of violence.

In the past, for example, games have been blamed on all manner of crime for all manner of reasons. Who can forget Jack Thompson's war on gaming? The now defunct attorney famously claimed that violent video games were "basically murder simulators. There are people being killed over here almost on a daily basis."

Such inaccurate outrage has often caused issues for gamers. Just last year, Mass Effect endured a wave of incredibly harsh scrutiny because the initial (and incorrect, as it turns out) suspect in the Newtown shooting once liked the game on Facebook.

The new culprits and their motivations

As video games slide into the background, they have largely been replaced in the media's crosshairs by two major culprits: race friction and mental disorder.

When Dylan Roof walked into a prayer meeting and ended the lives of nine people, pretty much no one wasted any time wondering if a video game was the cause. They focused on his manifesto and the fact that he carried out his crime on a poor, predominately black congregation. When the murderer wrote that black people are, "the group that is the biggest problem for Americans," it's pretty difficult to start a conversation about what was in his Xbox.

These kinds of crimes are unsettling common in the country. Just five days ago, four men allegedly wounded 5 black activists protesting an earlier police-related fatality. As racial violence becomes a more reported upon facet of American life, the simmering decades-old tensions have become a focal point for those searching for a reason for the violence.

Before our next point, let's not neglect to mention that gun availability and lax gun laws are often cited as major factors in any mass shooting.

Mental illness is typically the other popular answer for talking heads across the nation.

Not all murderers are gamers or readers or even racists. But anyone who shoots innocent people certainly has a screw loose.

The most common profile for mass shooters can be seen in Chris Mercer, the man who opened fire on an Oregon college campus earlier this year. Like Roof, he left a manifesto, too. While that information has been kept confidential, insider sources indicate that the several page letter reveals Mercer to be an angry, self-obsessed masochist, the type of guy who feels like he's on the bottom rung of life and who's mad about it. Mercer is the archetype for mass shooters going back to Columbine (when Marilyn Manson took the brunt of the blame). These people have all had differing traits and different reasons for pulling the trigger, but they've all had one thing in common: it wasn't because of video games.

Of course, it's not like the mainstream media to actually wise up and change their minds about something. First, they need to get inundated with so many numbers not even they can spin the information. Now is when we turn to all those video game violence studies...

Science saves the day (or, at least our reputation)

Fortunately, for people who like to get down on some simulated violence (and only simulated violence), it seems that science is starting to favor the gamer. Earlier this year, a study from the American Psychological Association proved that violent video games can, in fact, be a risk factor for increased aggression - but did not show to increase violent action. 

If you stop and think about it, that absolutely makes sense. If you’ve ever thrown down in Call of Duty only to be spanked by some tween who’s cackling and calling you a tool in a foreign language, then you know that keeping your cool is a basic impossibility. You’re going to scream. And cuss. And maybe throw things (the cat had it coming, anyway). However, few are the people who actually take this increased aggression and channel it into straight up homicide. You wish death on the mysterious tween; you don’t actually carry it out. 

The APA’s study said basically the same thing. In more than two decades of scientific study, there is no conclusive evidence that links violent video games irrevocably to violent behavior. Instead, the APA believes: 

“No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently … Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor.”

In other words, it’s not one single thing that pushes a crazy person over the edge, it’s several things all piled on top of one another. Is it possible that violent media may be a contributing factor in cases where some a-hole unleashes murderous intent on a group of unsuspecting citizens? Of course, but the odds are good that Halo: Guardians wasn’t the sole contributing factor.

Aggression isn’t violence

Call of Duty dual wield pistols; violence in video games

So, it would seem that decades of scientific study have begun to get through to the media. Sure, video games may cause spikes in aggression, but that’s less due to violent imagery than it is to natural human competitiveness. Similar studies as the ones mentioned above have found a link between sports and aggressive behavior, too, but people don’t usually say the most recent mass shooting was due to too much time spent playing high school football.

The most important takeaway here is that a spike in aggression isn’t a guarantee of violence. Modern psychologists are beginning to espouse this theory, explaining that engaging in one, single risk factor for violence does not a murderer make. Instead, the kinds of horrible acts like last Friday’s Planned Parenthood are carried out by individuals exposed to several risk factors for violence, all exacerbating one another.

The upshot

Just Cause 3 violence in video game media

While there’s definitely nothing to celebrate when something tragic like last Friday’s shooting happens, perhaps gamers (and the public at large) can take some solace from the fact that the media isn’t wasting their time exploring one more baseless motivation for the violence. Hopefully, they’ll move on to more worthwhile pursuits in the aftermath of these acts of violence. 

Now that the conversation isn't about Grand Theft Auto, maybe we can get some real attention and action on important issues like mental health, gun control, and racially motivated domestic terrorism. You know, instead of scapegoating video games when there are real issues to tackle.

Whatever happens, fans of video games can breathe a tentative sigh of relief as their beloved pastime seems to have sunk into the background on the mainstream media’s post-violence checklist. It’s about time, honestly. Gamers have known the truth since the first accusations in the mid-eighties: games don’t create violence, crazy people create violence.

Published Nov. 30th 2015

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