Since 1980, we've had 33 school shootings in the United States. Various political and social leaders, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, have argued that video games played a key role in causing these tragic events. This talking point has been in vogue for decades, even though the data doesn't back it up. In fact, this kind of rhetoric shifts attention away from genuinely productive conversations about ways to prevent gun violence.
At the same time, the persistence of this talking point limits our ability to have a useful discussion about the true effects of modern video games on people and their communities. Instead, we need to support research that fills in the gaps of our knowledge about how video games influence child development, socialization, and behavior.
Here I feel the need to confess my own biases: I am a casual gamer and have a particular affinity for all things Nintendo. But I am also a researcher who has spent her graduate school career learning and studying why individuals behave as they do, particularly in the realm of politics. The studies used to justify the narrative that video games cause violence are not capable of assessing this type of causal relationship, while those methods that are capable of assigning causality do not find support for the idea that video games inspire youth violence. I wouldn't argue that we shouldn't have a conversation about the effects of gaming. But we need to highlight (and support) the best research on the topic, and stop giving credence to the more sensationalistic accounts.
The current gaming environment is characterized by increased interconnectivity between players, both inside and outside a game. Gamers are no longer confined to interact with only non-playable characters (NPCs); in fact, the opposite is becoming a central part of many games. I can now enter the worlds of Red-Dead Redemption 2 and Fallout 76 and interact with a virtual character and with the human controlling them. Teamspeak and other voice chat programs allow players to have direct one-on-one conversations with other players without having to rely on clunky text-based chat programs. This ease of communication and interaction means that players are now experiencing virtual social situations that share a lot of similarities with real-world ones. But these virtual worlds arguably have fewer social rules and norms, which means there are more opportunities for interactions that are too mean, too personal, or simply inappropriate.
The idea of using video games to perform virtual versions of socially unacceptable behavior is not new; 19 years ago, The Sims encouraged us to facilitate drownings and house fires. But the targets of these behaviors are no longer just NPCs. It is not uncommon for female gamers to be harassed inside and outside games (see Gamergate). Indeed, some researchers are looking at the effects of such harassment, both for the harassed and the harassers. Unfortunately, this body of work is still small and has yet to explore how the wide array of games, with their different structures and styles of play, influence the social interactions available within them. It is not clear that the research on the World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto series would transfer to the increasingly popular Battle Royale and survival-style games (you may have heard of a little game called Fortnite). What is clear is that more research is needed on these types of social interactions.
While a lot of work remains to be done to understand the negative consequences of gaming, we know even less about its positive effects. For Adam Pelavin, a high school senior and avid gamer, "Video games teach [you] to overcome failure. 'Game over' is not the end of the road—it's another opportunity to get back on your feet and try again." Gaming can teach you what won't work and gives you the space to figure out what will. Games can also be useful tools for dealing with different types of social or mental-health problems. In my own life, gaming has provided a critical space for me to relax and release stresses and anxieties. During a spike of panic, I can quickly enter the world of Hyrule, removing me from my current reality and giving me a set of tasks that guide my time and thoughts long enough for that anxiety to subside.
Of course, there is also a huge community that comes with an interest in video games. In fact, massive multiple player online games (MMOGs), like World of Warcraft, are shown to provide players with social support and a sense of community. Put simply, researchers and commentators should not discount the potential benefits of video games.
Video games will not cause the next school shooting, but that's not to say that video games can't enable harmful behavior. It is equally likely that they'll expose people to cyberbullying, provide a sense of community, or a bit of both. Given this state of affairs, we need to separate the conversation about gun violence from the conversation about video games. It's important to focus on real solutions to gun violence, and also important to take seriously the various negative and positive consequences of playing video games. This research, and the conversations that can come from a more sensible approach to the topic, could help the next generation find support more readily from their peers—and it would give parents a clearer, truer understanding of whether and when they should be concerned with their childrens' gaming habits.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Is Generation Z More Scared Than Earlier Generations?
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Have Headphones Made Gen Z More Insular?
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There's a Crisis of Reading Among Generation Z
As young people read less and less, they may be short-circuiting their reading brains. Read more
I Helped Create the Internet, and I'm Worried About What It's Doing to Young People
At some level, we are all experiencing the Web's toxic possibilities. But as with other toxins, young developing bodies and brains are more susceptible. Read more
Can Artificial Intelligence Solve Our Problems With Harassment Online?
The right kind of A.I. can respond to any threat of violence, thereby encouraging bystanders to take action to maintain responsible online communities. Read more
Tumblr Helped Me Plan My Eating Disorder. Then It Helped Me Heal.
There are upsides and downsides to social media—and I'm proud to be part of a generation tackling these issues to create a healthier future. Read more