Once again politicians are claiming video games are a cause of mass shootings. In doing so, they are making an argument that dates back at least to Plato. In the Republic, Plato argues that exposure to certain types of art can have a corrupting effect on people, making them more likely to engage in wrongful behavior in real life. While Plato focused mainly on the corrupting influence of tragedy (which could, he contended, cause people to fall victim to inappropriate sadness) he also discussed the corrupting influence of fictional violence. As he saw it, exposure to fake violence could cause a person to be more inclined to engage in real violence. Plato’s solution to the threat presented by such art was to ban it from his ideal city.
This argument is not without appeal—people are influenced by their experiences and it certainly makes sense that repeated exposure to fictional violence could impact how a person feels and thinks. It also makes sense that exposure to non-fiction, such as hateful speech, writings and tweets could influence a person in negative ways. The critical question is whether the influence of video games can be a causal factor in a person engaging in violence, especially a mass shooting.
Determining whether video games are a causal factor in mass shootings involves assessing causation in a population. The challenge is showing whether there would be more mass shootings in a population if everyone played video games than if no one did. If there is a statistically significant difference, then video games can be rationally said to have a causal influence on violent behavior. So, let us consider this matter.
If video games were a statistically significant causal factor for mass shootings, then we would expect to see the number of mass shootings varying with the number of video game players in a country. While the United States is a leader in both video game revenues and mass shootings, other countries also have large populations of gamers, yet do not have a corresponding level of mass shootings. As such, video games would not seem to be a significant causal factor. To use an analogy, if it were claimed that smoking caused cancer in the United States, yet other countries had large populations of smokers with little or no cancer, one would suspect that smoking did not really cause cancer.
This does not prove that video games are not a factor—it could be that video games combined with other factors do cause mass shootings. In this case, we would need to look at the differences between the United States and other countries to see what factors combine with video games to cause mass shootings. This does suffice, however, to show that video games are not the primary driver of mass shootings. Now, suppose that video games do have a role to play in causing mass shootings. The question that now arises is the extent to which they cause the shootings.
About 67% of Americans play video games of one form or another. But the concern is not with video games in general but with violent video games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. While most Americans do not play these games, millions of Americans do. The overwhelming majority of people who play these games never become mass shooters. As such, if violent video games do have causal influence, it must be incredibly limited—otherwise mass shootings would be more common. This does not, of course, prove that violent video games do not have a causal influence—but it does show that there must be other factors in play. As such, it is an error to claim that video games are a primary cause of mass shootings. But perhaps a case can still be made for it being a factor.
Some politicians have tried to make use of the method of difference to argue that video games are causing mass shootings. This method involves comparing cases in which an effect has occurred to similar cases in which the effect did not occur and finding a plausible difference that could be the cause. This method is certainly reasonable to use but must be used with due care to avoid falling into error. The gist of the argument is to conclude that violent video games cause mass shootings because mass shootings increased when violent video games were created.
While it is true that the number of mass shootings does correlate with the number of violent video games available (both have increased over the years), correlation is not causation. After all, the number of tech startups has also increased, yet it would be absurd to conclude that they are causing mass shootings. To simply assert that since mass shootings increased as more violent video games appeared would be to commit the cum hoc fallacy—that because two things correlate, there must be a causal connection. This does not entail that violent video games do not play a role, but more is needed than mere correlation. As argued above, there seems to be no significant causal connection between violent video games and mass shootings; they merely happen to correlate as do many other things.
While blaming video games has political value, it does nothing to address the problem of mass shooting since there seems to be no meaningful causal connection between real violence and video games.