Race, Violent Video Games, and the Grand Theft Fallacy
Two horrific shootings occurred in Jacksonville Florida at the end of August 2018. Both tragic events occurred during football games, only about 5 miles from each other, and just days apart. The first shooting happened at a high school football game at Raines High School, where 99% of students are racial minorities. The shooting is believed to be gang related. The second shooting occurred at a video game football tournament in an open-air marketplace by a person from an affluent neighborhood. Following a predictable pattern, many on social media quickly faulted video games for the second shooting. Such concerns echo the blame placed on video games in the wake of other mass shootings committed by young males. For example, both President Trump and Hillary Clinton have explicitly blamed video games arguing that such games create “monsters” and the dangers of game are the same as “smoking tobacco is to lung cancer.”
After the shooting at Raines High School no one mentioned violent movies, television shows or video games. In fact, the overall media coverage of the high school shooting has been dwarfed by the coverage of the video game tournament shooting. Violence among racial minority kids in urban areas doesn’t seem to garner much attention. Acts of violence by white kids, who supposedly come from suburban affluent families, garner so much attention because they violate the prejudiced belief that youth violence is a racial minority/urban phenomenon. Scholars argue that such prejudices regarding the origins of violence lead us to seek out external explanations when white or affluent kids commit crimes. Therefore, if a minority youth commits a horrific act of violence, the public assumes he is full of rage or hatred. But when a “nice” white or affluent kid commits a mass shooting, he must have been brainwashed by something like video games.
The tendency to link violent crimes to the video game habits of the perpetrators is so prevalent that there is a term used to describe it: The Grand Theft Fallacy. The reason why individuals commit the Grand Theft Fallacy is the same reason many people erroneously believe it is bad luck to walk under a ladder or break a mirror. Such superstitions endure because we have a bad habit of overestimating the frequency with which two events occur together. When a gamer commits an act of violence, someone will publicly connect the violent act with the killer's interest in video games. What is missing from these accounts are the thousands of violent acts committed by perpetrators who did not play a violent video game or the millions of people who play violent video games and do not commit violent acts. When a crime is committed by a non-gamer, no one ever highlights the lack of a connection between violence and video games.
For example, newspaper headlines did not declare that the largest mass shooting in US history was committed by a 64-year old man who didn’t seem to play any video games. However, when a person who happened to play video games commits a violent act we see headlines like “Killer’s Basement His Eerie Lair of Violent Video Games” and “The Connection between School Massacres and Violent Video Games.” This discrepancy is responsible for creating an illusionary correlation between violent video games and real-world violence. The impression that mass shooters always play violent video games is maintained by simply ignoring cases that do not support this false belief.
Illusionary relationships are even more likely to occur when the events are particularly distinctive and memorable. Mass shootings are emotionally laden and easy for us to recall, so we overestimate how often people who play violent video games have committed these crimes. We misattribute the ease of remembering when gamers committed severe acts of violence as indicative of the frequency at which these events actually occur together.
In sharp contrast to the Grand Theft Fallacy, research strongly suggests that violent video games are actually related to reductions in real world violence. Violent video game use does not predict later bullying, conduct disorder, or criminal violence. Research by both the U.S. Secret Service and our research labs have found that school shooters show much less interest in violent video games than other adolescents do. As we document in our book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, violent video game popularity is actually related to decreases in acts of violence. In the U.S., an explosion in sales of video games during the past thirty years has been accompanied by an 80 percent decrease in youth violence. Even the release of very violent video games like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Call of Duty" are associated with immediate declines in societal violence.
The finding that violent games are related to decreases in violent crime is extremely robust and has been found multiple times by different scholars. The explanation is simple: Video games, especially violent ones, are popular among the young males most likely to commit crimes. Young male gamers spend a total of 468 million hours each month playing video games. During this time, these at-risk individuals are inside of their homes instead of on the streets where violent crimes are most likely to occur.
The tragedies that occurred at the high school football game and the video game tournament are examples of how some are quick to fall for the Grand Theft Fallacy when the perpetrators do not fit their image of a person who might commit a violent crime. It is time to retire theories of the violent effects of video games, particularly given how their application is so influenced by racial prejudice, and focus on the real issues that contribute to violence in society, such as socioeconomic status and access to quality education.
Patrick Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University, and Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University are the authors of “Moral Combat: Why the War on Video Games Is Wrong.”