Researcher Says Linking Video Games to Gun Violence Is a ‘Classic Illusory Correlation’

A group of 228 "media scholars, psychologists and criminologists" ask the APA to review a policy statement on video games.

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Wouldn’t it be easy if everything people thought was true was true? Aliens — they live among us! If you don’t forward that chain letter to 10 people — you’re dead! if you say Candyman three times into a mirror — also dead! If you play games where you shoot people — you’re going to really want to shoot people!

Everything nice and neat and tied off with a bow. If some guy who shot a bunch of people played shooters all the time — blame video games!

Reality’s harder. Sometimes A happens to be in the same room as B, with no other meaningful correlation, and certainly no causal one. Sometimes — most of the time, in my experience — you want a simple, definitive answer right now, even when there isn’t one.

Video game research is in its infancy. No one’s yet produced a study linking video games to violent crime, and where behavioral researchers claim to have found relatively weak links between violent video games and increased aggressive behavior, those studies fail to quantify or contextualize said aggression. More aggressive than playing (or watching) something like football? Drinking several cups of coffee? Engaging in other forms of gamesmanship?

All that ambiguity didn’t stop the American Psychological Association from issuing a pretty strong (and consequently controversial) statement in 2005 advocating, among other things, for “the reduction of all violence in videogames and interactive media marketed to children and youth.” Whether right or wrong (or simply misguided), you can’t just wave off the APA — it’s the world’s largest association of psychologists, with some 137,000 members, according to Wikipedia.

And so Stetson University researcher Christopher Ferugson recently signed and sponsored a letter to the APA — a letter cosigned by “an international group of 228 media scholars, psychologists and criminologists” — asking that the organization reevaluate its stance on the effects of media violence.

“Research shows there is not consistent evidence to support this statement,” Ferguson told Stetson University Today. Indeed, he says, the opposite may be true: “In my recent research [published here] we found that for some teens with a pre-existing mental health issue, playing violent video games seemed to be associated with less bullying.”

That didn’t stop the media from misleadingly linking video games to the Navy Yard Washington D.C. shooter. Ferguson — who’s much kinder than I’d be, given the media’s incentive to sensationalize — says that’s because of a classic psychological problem:

The impression that a link exists is a classic illusory correlation in which society takes note of the cases that fit and ignores those that don’t. When a shooter is a young male, the news media make a fuss over violent video games, neglecting to inform the public that almost all young males play violent video games. Finding that a particular young shooter happened to play these games is neither surprising nor meaningful.

On the upside, the APA now has its policy statement under review: “The signers of the statement to the APA welcome the APA’s initiative to look into their 2005 statement,” says Ferguson. “We hope that they will take up this opportunity to either retire the problematic 2005 statement or replace it with something that carefully reflects the debates and inconsistencies in this field.”

In other words, this isn’t about painting video games as harmless any more than it is critiquing their portrayal as harmful — it’s about doing good science and reclaiming the ball from the misinformed and ideologically motivated.