Following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that claimed 31 lives, Donald Trump called out “gruesome and grisly video games” for contributing to the “glorification of violence in our society”. Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas, went further, saying the gaming industry “teaches young people to kill”. Games have long been blamed for degrading young minds, with violent games being prominently implicated in US mass shootings such as Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook in 2012.
The hashtag #VideoGamesAreNotToBlame soon started trending on Twitter in response to Trump’s statement. But looking at the science, does playing violent games actually encourage violent acts? Academics have shown varying results, but slowly a consensus is forming: several recent studies, including a compelling report from the Oxford Internet Institute, found no connection between violent games and aggressive behaviour in teens. Another useful perspective is to compare national statistics: no correlation is apparent between video game spending per capita and violent crime. If there were, countries such as Japan or South Korea, where more money is spent on games per capita, would have similar rates of violent crime to the US. In fact, their violent crime rates are among the lowest in the world.
Games are blamed for real-world violence because they’re an easy target. In these recent shootings, they have again become a scapegoat, distracting from more complex and systemic causes of youth violence. In particular they shift the blame from the prevalence of real guns to virtual ones. This aligns neatly with the interests of the US gun lobby. The NRA’s chief executive Wayne LaPierre once called video games a “callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people”.
Even if they don’t cause mass shootings, the ultra-violence of contemporary games still warrants scrutiny. Today’s virtual gore is more realistic than ever, with series such as Mortal Kombat delighting in spine-shucking, organ-slicing fatalities. Grand Theft Auto has been criticised for its moral ambiguity, allowing players to steal, murder and mow down pedestrians by the dozen without significant consequence — one American detractor called the game “the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio”. Meanwhile some military shooters such as Call of Duty are so committed to ballistic authenticity that they pay firearms manufacturers for the licence to feature their weapons in-game. When players buy these titles, more money flows into the arms trade.
These games are created to satisfy a demand: clearly millions of players love to hack, slash and slaughter. While this desire might be considered unsavoury, it can also be understood as an outlet for our aggression and darker desires, in a safe fantasy world where nobody dies forever.
Violence is often the central mechanic of progress and reward in games. Given that developers can create anything they like from computer graphics, defaulting to combat demonstrates a striking lack of imagination. It’s not as if gamers aren’t interested in non-violent offerings: there is a healthy appetite for sports, puzzles and simulation games. There is also a community of gamers retooling violent games to pacifist ends by removing enemies, allowing players to roam unimpeded and admire the scenery, which is often intricate and imaginatively designed. Assassin’s Creed: Origins even provides an educational mode for schools, where students can explore Ptolemaic Egypt and learn more about the game’s historical context.
Perhaps the future is not games that encourage violence, but those that interrogate it. Series such as Hitman and Dishonored reward players who navigate their missions without bloodshed. Certain games have been praised for challenging the player’s willingness to commit violence. Spec Ops: The Line, a subversive shooter that nods to Heart of Darkness, leads players into chaotic battles where they may kill civilians, even with chemical weapons, and must then bear the responsibility and emotional fallout. In the neon-soaked Hotline Miami you slaughter hundreds of thugs until the music screeches to a halt, leaving you to retrace your steps on a path strewn with corpses in eerie silence. These titles don’t provide an alternative to violence, but they do question the thoughtlessness with which we pull the trigger.