Do video games cause violence? The appalling murder of Ann Maguire has revived the old claims of a link; we report that the 15-year-old alleged killer played Dark Souls, “a violent video game marketed with the slogan ‘prepare to die'”; the Mail reports the same. Ever since the Columbine killers were found to be fans of Doom, and in fact for years before that, people have been keen to link violent video games to real-life violence.
The idea that there is a causal link between violent video games and violence is highly disputed. There have been studies which have shown a brief rise in aggression after playing violent video games, but it has not been shown that this translates to actual violent behaviour. It’s certainly worth noting that while video games have been getting more and more popular over the last couple of decades, violent behaviour has been dropping: the number of people who have required hospital treatment for violence has halved, from 0.8 per 100 people to 0.4 per 100 people, in the last 11 years.
That doesn’t rule out a causal link, of course, but it does suggest that if there is one at all, it must be weak, unable to drown out whatever other factors are involved in the long-term trend towards non-violence in Western society.
It is even stranger to link it to murder. Lots of people play violent video games; a tiny number of people commit murders. For instance, there were 550 murders in England and Wales in 2012. One famously violent computer game, Call of Duty: Black Ops, sold 2.6 million copies in the UK the same year. Even if COD, and COD alone, was the only cause of murders – if literally every single murder in Britain was directly caused by people playing COD – then the likelihood of any COD player you met being a murderer would be 0.02 per cent. You’d need to stop 5,000 people playing Call of Duty to prevent a single murder even if it was the only thing that caused murders.
But obviously COD – or for that matter Dark Souls – does not cause murders, certainly not in a straightforward way like that. The suggestion that violent video games are behind Britain’s murder problem is entirely ridiculous.
Of course, anecdotally, it’s easy to think of lots of murderers who played video games – Anders Breivik, Adam Lanza. But most murderers are young men, and most young men play computer games, so you’d expect an overlap. In the same way, you could almost certainly show that lots of murderers eat corn flakes, or wear T-shirts – but it would be ridiculous to suggest we can draw any conclusions from those facts.
It might be the case – we don’t know – that murderers as a group are more likely to play violent video games than the rest of the population. But even if that were the case, would it be surprising if violent fantasists are attracted to violent fantasies? That doesn’t imply that it encourages them to violence. As we’ve seen, there’s no good evidence that there is any causal link.
If I can offer an opinion, the frequently made claims of a link between video games and violence seem, to me, to be intended to imply that these killers are weird. They’re described as loners, outsiders; if they’re fans of angry or depressing music, like heavy metal or emo, or if they tend to wear “gothic” dress, that’s mentioned too. But lots of children are lonely outsiders, lots of children are fans of heavy metal and play computer games. It helps no one to suggest that these perfectly normal habits are in some way risk indicators for murder.