Video games have been wrongly blamed for all sorts of violent behavior, including mass shootings. A new report suggests that not only is that mistaken; it’s based on deep-seated assumptions about race.
The paper, published today in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, draws its conclusions from a pair of experiments. In the first, researchers analyzed over 200,000 news articles about 204 mass shootings obtained from Stanford University’s Mass Shootings in America project over the last four decades. The other was a study in which 169 college students were asked to read fictionalized accounts of a shooting and then discuss what they thought caused it.
In the experiment with students, participants—who were 88% white and 65% female—read a fabricated account of an 18-year-old male shooter said to be obsessed with video games. Half the participants’ stories included a mug shot of an African-American male; the other half were handed a mug shot of a white male.
The students were asked to rank their agreement (1 being strongly disagree, 7 being strongly agree) with two statements: that the perpetrator’s history of playing violent video games probably played a factor in his committing the crime, and that the perpetrator’s crime was not related to violent video games.
Patrick Markey, a coauthor of the study and the director of the Interpersonal Research Laboratory at Villanova University, said he found a small but statistically significant difference between the number of people who strongly agreed that video games were a factor in the case of the white shooter and and those who said the same of the black shooter.
The second study, the analysis of media coverage, used LexisNexis keyword searches to analyze thousands of articles from the past 40 years. It showed that journalists painted different pictures of criminal intentions depending on a shooter’s race. In fact, video games were more than eight times more likely to be mentioned in a news article regarding a suspected shooter who was white.
“Both of these studies showed that … we see interest and discussion of video games of white perpetrators, but we are more comfortable looking at other explanations for other minority groups,” says James Ivory, a researcher at Virginia Tech and one of the paper’s authors.
What’s going on? Ivory says it’s a lot more complicated than simple racism.
“There are a lot of us out there who think we don’t have a racist cell in our body, but we are comfortable looking at certain explanations [for violence and crime] over others,” he says.
That, Ivory says, is implicit bias—the psychological phenomenon of unconsciously attributing some (usually unfounded) stereotypical quality to a specific group—“Asians are better at math,” for example.
Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, performed one of the most extensive meta-analyses of video games and violence in 2015 and found no conclusive evidence that violent video games led to mental health issues, increased anxiety or depression, or any other tendencies that could lead to violent behavior.
“The easy—but often wrong—explanation is video games made them do it,” he says.
Ferguson says this paper, which he wasn’t involved in, reminds him of the Grand Theft Fallacy, a concept he coined together with Markey. It suggests there is a tendency to link violent video games with violent crime, regardless of whether any evidence for such a link exists.
When this sort of thing shows up in a news article that speculates on the cause of why a shooter may have committed mass murder, it may not seem very important in the context of the crimes themselves. But a black person might face injustices down the line because of such stereotypes, including being dealt harsher sentences or being fingered as a suspect in the first place.
“For an African-American or Latino male, it’s not video games; it’s inner city crime or gang violence, and we’re supposed to expect this in these neighborhoods,” Ferguson says.
“But when you look at a white kid from a reasonably affluent neighborhood, we are more inclined to see external attributions for committing the crime,” he says. “People wonder, ‘What would make a nice white kid commit a crime like this?’ They think something corrupted them.”
Ferguson and Ivory each suggested it’s a red herring diverting attention from a real issue in mass shootings—gun control. “The conversation is not really about video games at all,” Ivory says. “Video games are brought up when they [politicians] don’t want to talk about other things, like firearm policy. When you hear discussion about video games and violence, it has more to do with what [politicians] want to not talk about.”
As hard as that’s been to stamp out from the conversation, though, the racial biases that people barely notice they have will be far harder to eliminate.