President Donald Trump is meeting today with video game makers to discuss whether violent entertainment somehow motivated Nikolas Cruz to slaughter 17 innocent people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Despite the absolute lack of any convincing connection between violent entertainment and real-world violence, Trump has a longstanding belief that the two things are intimately connected. Here he is, in a 2012 tweet, echoing arguments made over the years by Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole, Janet Reno, and others:
Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 17, 2012
Let's be clear about two things.
First, there is no causal link between playing video games, violent or peaceful, and becoming violent, much less a mass shooter. To wit:
"All we can really say for sure is that there does not appear to be a link at this time between violent video games and school shootings. And if there is a link, it goes in the opposite direction." [Villanova psychologist Patrick] Markey, co-author of the 2017 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, reports that only about 20 percent of school shooters play video games, compared with about 70 percent of high school students overall.
So what gives? For one ting, there's a generational bias. Older Americans such as Trump (who pointedly doesn't even use email) are unfamiliar with video games and blame them for social ills the same way their parents blamed Elvis and Little Richard for juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. There's also an ideological bias in the quickly debunked studies that claim playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty is creating killers. Ronald Bailey writes:
"If media violence is a precursor to societal violence the introduction of violent video games in the United States would be expected to precipitate increased youth violence rates." Yet as violent video game consumption has increased nearly eightfold since 1996, the violence rate among Americans ages 12–17 fell from 35 to 6 per 1,000 people.
How did social science go so wrong? Ideology. As one parses the research, it becomes apparent that well-intentioned liberal social science researchers engaged in inquiries they hoped would result in restrictions that would prevent school shootings, reduce the murder rate, usher in strict gun control, and, one suspects, elevate their fellow Americans' lowbrow tastes in entertainment. They continue to decry the alleged deleterious effects of violent media even as U.S. violence rates continue their steep decline. The old guard actually cannot see how their experiments and studies are a massive exercise in confirmation bias.
Second, there is a persistent gesture to direct attention away from the failures of law enforcement, the social welfare state, and the school bureaucracy, all of whom were clearly aware of Cruz's problematic and actionable behaviors. For liberals and Democrats, this typically takes the shape of demonizing the National Rifle Association and blaming it for resisting background checks even when existing procedures are not being followed. In the Florida shooting, conservatives and Republicans have uncharacteristically gone after a lawman, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, but that's only because Israel is a vocal supporter of gun control and has very publicly disowned any responsibility for his department's failure. Nikolas Cruz generated at least 30 police reports going back to 2011, had been investigated by Florida's Department of Children & Families, was known to the FBI, and was expelled from Stoneman Douglas for bringing a knife to school. As the shooting took place, four Broward County sheriff's deputies, including the school resource officer, did not engage Cruz but waited outside the school, inaction that "stunned and upset" other police as they arrived on the scene. Just this week, Acting FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich told Congress that (as The Hill summarizes it) "the FBI failed to follow its own protocol after it received a tip in January about the accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, and vowed to take corrective actions."
Figuring out the failures of state actors to prevent the Florida shooting in the first place or to minimize its casualties once it occurred isn't as easy as berating the video game industry for creating the 21st century's most popular and accomplished new art form. But given that none of the gun control measures that have been discussed would reduce mass shootings either, it would be a good start.
Related: "How Washington Learned To Love Video Games"