Welcome back, friends. We’re about to have that conversation again. The one that goes: something something shooter something something Call of Duty something something violent video games made him do it — the implicit question mark after “made him do it” being the journalistic equivalent of a get-out-of-jail card.
On Monday at around 8:20 a.m. ET, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis reportedly began firing a shotgun and later a semi-automatic weapon in the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters at the D.C. Navy Yard. Thirteen people died in the hail of bullets, including the shooter after a firefight with police.
Less than 24 hours later, the media raced to pull motivations out of the ether, chasing down associates of Alexis and outrage-mining. The Atlantic summarizes the issue, highlighting a Telegraph story titled “Aaron Alexis: Washington navy yard gunman ‘obsessed with violent video games’.”
Here’s The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos:
The Telegraph, for one, makes the connection explicit: “The Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis played violent video games including Call of Duty for up to 16 hours at a time and friends believe it could have pushed him towards becoming a mass murderer,” they write. Let’s take one moment to ponder that: The Telegraph has deferred to Alexis’s friend as an expert in the psychology of a mass murderer.
The list of outlets hopping on the video-games-by-implication train is disheartening. There’s Fox News (“DC gunman obsessed with violent video games, reports say”), the Wall Street Journal (“Friend Says Alexis Was Videogame Fan, Heavy Drinker”), the Houston Chronicle (“Report: Navy Yard suspect “obsessed” with video games”), The Mirror (“Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis heard ‘voices in head’ after playing violent video games up to 18 hours a day”) and dozens more pulling the video games quotes into their write-ups.
One person gets it right, and that’s Chris Ferguson, an associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University, who writes about the obsessive motive hunt in an op-ed for TIME:
…We can expect the usual hand-wringing about guns, and if Alexis so much as played Pac Man we can expect the usual warbling over violent video games.
But what we don’t realize is that society gives these individuals exactly what they want by tearing itself apart after each of these events. People are too quick to capitalize on these tragic events to promote their particular cultural agendas. Factions form, arguing that this or that is the real cause of mass shootings. Sensible people get angry at each other, and begin to view each other as enemies. Society turns on itself. Arguments are raised about which amendment, the first or second, would be more palatable to sacrifice. We begin to hate ourselves as much as these murderous individuals hate us.
It’s a shame that it keeps coming to this. And it’s a shame I have to keep trotting out this paragraph from another piece by Ferguson on violent video game research, but I will, until better research comes along:
Quite simply, the research just hasn’t panned out. For one thing, even while video game sales have skyrocketed, youth violence plummeted to its lowest levels in 40 years according to government statistics. Secondly, it has been increasingly recognized that much of the early research on VVG [violent video games] linking them to increased aggression was problematic: most studies used outcome measures that had nothing to do with real-life aggression and failed to control carefully for other important variables, such as family violence, mental health issues or even gender in many studies (boys both play more VVG and are more aggressive.) This was something the U.S. Supreme Court recognized when, after considering California’s attempt to ban the sale of VVG to minors in Brown v. EMA, it stated on June 27, 2011, “These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason.”