Video Games

Killing Pixels Is No More a Cause of Crime Than Reading Comics Turned Out to Be


Makes you want to kill? Really?

Our self-appointed betters have always deplored the corrupting influences of popular entertainment. For example, penny dreadfuls "were alleged to have encouraged anti-social attitudes and criminal behavior in the young during the last quarter of the nineteenth century." In his 1936 encyclical "On the Motion Picture," Pope Pius XI warned that the more popular the motion picture had become, "the more pernicious and deadly has it shown itself to morality and to religion and even to the very decencies of human society." In 1954, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings on the the influence of comics on rising teenage crime. And let's not forget FCC chairman Newton Minow's 1961 critique of television as a "vast wasteland" where viewers are subjected to a "procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons." The claque of moralizing scolds now wants to ban violent video games.

In his take-down of New York Times columnist Joe Nocera's silly anti-videogame op-ed, my Reason colleague Scott Shackford points out that banning videogames to prevent violence makes as much sense as trying to prevent troubled employees from "going postal" by making it illegal to fire such people.

Instead of relying on folk epidemiological insights of parents, Nocera might have chosen to bloviate on another topic had he had read the article, "Shooting in the Dark," in today's edition of his own paper. That article reviews some of the recent research that finds that playing violent video games at least temporarily ramps up mild aggression in players. But does playing such games produce any detectable effects on society at large? Not really. As the Times article acknowledges:

The proliferation of violent video games has not coincided with spikes in youth violent crime. The number of violent youth offenders fell by more than half between 1994 and 2010, to 224 per 100,000 population, according to government statistics, while video game sales have more than doubled since 1996.

Even more tellingly, the Times article cites recent research by University of Texas, Arlington economist Dr. Michael Ward and his colleagues that finds that spikes in the sales of violent video games coincide the declines in youth crime and violence: 

"We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes," said Dr. Ward, whose co-authors were A. Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Benjamin Engelstätter of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany.

No one knows for sure what these findings mean. It may be that playing video games for hours every day keeps people off the streets who would otherwise be getting into trouble. It could be that the games provide "an outlet" that satisfies violent urges in some players — a theory that many psychologists dismiss but that many players believe.

And why do "many psychologists dismiss" the theory that practicing fake violence may reduce the tendency to engage in real violence? Are there any data to contradict it? Not really, but once again our betters like Nocera just know better.

I suspect that the anti-video game researchers are largely succumbing to their confirmation biases. They should heed the advice offered by New York University sociologist Frederic Thrasher in his testimony at the Senate comic book hearings from way back in 1954:

"Expert students of mankind have always tried to explain human behavior in terms of their own specialities. This is particularly true in the field of adult and juvenile delinquency, where anthropologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists have been guilty of a long series of erroneous attempts to attribute crime and delinquency to some one human trait or environmental condition. These monistic theories of delinquency causation illustrate a particularistic fallacy which stems from professional bias or a lack of scientific logic and research, or both.

Most recent error of this type is that if psychiatrist Fredric Wertham who claims in effect that the comics are an important factor in causing juvenile delinquency. This extreme position which is not substantiated by any valid research, is not only  contrary to considerable current psychiatric thinking, but also disregards tested  research procedures which have discredited numerous previous monistic theories  of delinquency causation. Wertham's dark picture of the influence of comics is more forensic than it is scientific and illustrates a dangerous habit of projecting our social frustrations upon some speciflc trait of our culture, which becomes a sort of "whipping boy" for our failure to control the whole gamut of social breakdown."

Killing pixels is no more a cause of juvenile crime than reading comics turned out to be.