A long-standing debate over whether violence depicted in video games can trigger real-world violence has taken on renewed vigor in the wake of mass shootings in recent years.
The gunman who killed 22 people and injured 24 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 3 made a fleeting reference to video game soldiers, indicating that he was familiar with video violence, and many politicians were quick to blame video games for this and other mass shootings. Yet it seems clear that the El Paso gunman was primarily motivated by ethnic hatred.
His manifesto said the attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”. The main reason to worry about video games is a slew of studies claiming to find a link between violence in video games and real-world aggression, but countervailing studies have found no persuasive link. The main reason to be skeptical of a causal link is that video games have spread widely around the world without driving other countries to the levels of violence in this country.
Then there is the question of what can be done to sanitize video violence without violating First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, which the Supreme Court has applied to works of art, films, and video games that many might find repugnant. A Supreme Court decision in 2011 struck down a California law that sought to ban the sale or rental of violent video games to minors on the grounds that its vague and ill-defined language violated the First Amendment rights of the entertainment merchants.
I have no personal experience with violent video games but the amount of violence depicted in some current video games is astounding. The gore was graphically described by Justice Samuel Alito in a concurring opinion to the 2011 Supreme Court decision.
In obvious disgust, he wrote that victims are killed with every imaginable implement, including machine guns, clubs, hammers, and chainsaws, among others. Victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces.
They cry out in agony and beg for mercy. Blood gushes, splatters, and pools. Severed body parts and gobs of human remains are graphically shown.
Some games exploit antisocial themes, he continued. There are games in which a player can re-enact the killings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.
The goal of one game is to rape a mother and her daughter, of another game to rape Native-American women.
There is an ethnic cleansing game in which players can choose to gun down African-Americans, Latinos, or Jews. Fortunately, there is no hard evidence yet that such games lead to mass murders or grisly killings. Indeed, most correlation studies show at most a small effect.
The late Justice Antonio Scalia, writing for the majority in the 2011 Supreme Court decision, scoffed at the notion that violent video games cause real-world violence. Most of the research studies suffer from admitted flaws in methodology, he wrote. “They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”.