On Video Games and Mass Shootings

Fox News recently published an article provocatively titled ‘Training simulation:’ Mass killers often share obsession with violent video games. Based on the title and the article itself, readers are presumably meant to infer that violent video games somehow cause people to commit mass murder. And, presumably, we can prevent most mass murders by getting rid of (banning?) violent video games. Mass shootings are back in the news in light of the recent Navy Yard shooting (which, incidentally, appears to have no video game connection) and multiple news organizations are talking about the connection between shootings and video games (e.g., CNN’s Opinion: Don’t link video games with mass shootings) so it’s worth a look at the possible connection between video games and mass murder.

The author of the Fox News article claims that the following multiple murderers have been linked to violent video games: Evan Ramsey (killed and wounded several with a shotgun at his Alaska high school), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (of Columbine fame), Anders Breivik (the Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 thanks to “gun control”), Seung-Hui Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter), James Holmes (the Aurora, Colorado theater gunman), Jared Lee Loughner (the Arizona shooter who targeted U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords), Adam Lanza (the Connecticut shooter who murdered 20 children), Devin Moore (an Alabama teen who killed three police officers trying to escape the police after being brought in on a minor traffic violation), and Michael Carneal (a 14 year old who shot at some of his high school classmates in Kentucky). Video games are said to either “warp” the murderers’ sense of reality or help them train for murder.

As an example that video games “warp” one’s sense of reality, the article cites Evan Ramsey:

I did not understand that if I…pull out a gun and shoot you, there’s a good chance you’re not getting back up. You shoot a guy in ‘Doom’ and he gets back up. You have got to shoot the things in ‘Doom’ eight or nine times before it dies.

There are several problems with the idea that video games so thoroughly “warp” one’s sense of reality. First of all, it apparently occurred to no one that these murderers are going for an insanity defense. In a mass murder case it’s usually obvious who did it, so the murderer’s only defense is insanity: the video game made me do it! Maybe the murderer really was insane and influenced by a video game, but it seems more likely to me that the murderer is just lying in an attempt to get a reduced sentence or acquittal by reason of insanity.

Secondly, as realistic as video games are claimed to be (and actually are), there are still significant differences between video games and reality. If a video game is truly successful at warping a person’s sense of reality to the point that he thinks people who are shot just “get back up” (as Ramsey claimed above) then he would also believe all of the other unrealistic aspects of the game. For example, in most modern shooters (Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc.) knives actually take fewer hits to kill than firearms – in Battlefield you can kill an enemy with a single stab yet most firearms require multiple bullets to kill an enemy, and Call of Duty is famous for ridiculous one-hit-kills with tomahawks (even at long distances). If a person actually believed these games were real they would all be wielding knives instead of guns (not only are they apparently more deadly, but they are far easier to obtain in real life). As another example, most shooter games have medical packs to heal yourself and allies who have been shot — often returning you from the brink of death to full health after only a few seconds (and all while you continue fighting as if in perfect health). Given this knowledge, you would think that a mass murderer with a truly warped sense of reality would be carrying around a bunch of bags with medical crosses on his person to heal himself in case he is shot. Yet I know of no mass murderer who opts for knives and tomahawks instead of firearms and tries to heal himself with “med packs”, so it’s doubtful that video games can truly warp one’s sense of reality as much as claimed.

The Fox News article also provides examples of mass murderers who claimed to use video games for training. For example, the article quotes a psychiatrist:

Anders Breivik said he actually used his video game ‘Call of Duty’ to train for mass murder. He called it training simulation. And certainly there were some reports Adam Lanza saw Breivik as a rival, and he was also engaged in shooting games and even the same one.”

You may have noticed that the same game on which Anders Breivik and Adam Lanza “trained” — Call of Duty — is the one which is so realistic that you can simply lob a tomahawk up in the air and it will kill someone standing on the next street when it hits his foot. With such superb realism it’s a wonder why all the world’s military forces don’t simply use Call of Duty for all their training…

Sarcasm aside, anyone who plays “violent video games” and has also actually fired a gun in real life (such as myself) knows that the two experiences are very different. In real life there is no aim assist or on-screen crosshairs to help you hit your target, and real guns are much louder and have more recoil than any gun in a video game. In a video game you can “fire” a gun by simply holding a lightweight controller from the comfort of your couch whereas in reality you have to hold up a potentially heavy weapon and position your body correctly. Trying to “train” for shooting with a video game is about as effective as “training” to be a surgeon by playing the game ‘Operation’.

Ultimately, the article attempts to show a correlation between violent video games and mass murderers in the hope that the reader will infer that violent video games cause mass murder. This, of course, is a logical fallacy: correlation does not imply causation. Instead of correlating violent video games with mass murderers, the article could have been retitled to any of the following:

  • Mass killers often teenagers or young adults
  • Mass killers often male
  • Mass killers often mentally unstable
  • Mass killers often social rejects
  • Mass killers often attack in “gun-free zones”

Among the above correlations, some are so general that they are useless (e.g. most mass murderers are young and male) and some are obvious (most are mentally unstable or are outcasts). The correlation between mass murderers and their choice of “gun-free zones” for location has policy implications, and a strong case against “gun-free zones” can be made using the same murderers cited in the Fox News article: Evan Ramsey, the Columbine shooters, Anders Breivik, Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and Michael Carneal all committed their crimes in “gun-free zones”. Only Jared Loughner (whose location was dictated by where he could get close to his target) and Devin Moore (who was trying to escape police custody and could not control his location) committed their crimes outside of a “gun-free zone”. Moreover, the recent Navy Yard shooting (which occurred after the Fox News article was published) and many other mass shootings occurred in “gun-free zones”.

In any case, the correlation between violent video games and mass murderers is tenuous at best. For all the millions of violent video game players very few of them commit mass murder. To get a rough idea of the percentage of violent video game players who commit mass murder, first note that the article cites 10 mass murderers. Next, assume that the number of violent video game players is approximately equal to the number of copies of Call of Duty Black Ops sold (about 18 million). This is an underestimate of the total number of such gamers because, while Call of Duty is the most popular first person shooter franchise, not everyone plays it (such as myself: I play games like Battlefield but not Call of Duty). Using these numbers (10 mass murderers out of 18 million gamers) we get a miniscule figure of < 0.00006% of murderous gamers. One would expect a much higher percentage (and many more mass murderers) if violent video games are truly able to warp a gamer’s sense of reality.

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