People have been blaming mass shootings on video games ever since it was discovered that the Columbine killers were avid fans of first-person shooter games. Following the Sandy Hook massacre, the topic came to the forefront of public discussion again when it was revealed that Adam Lanza spent much of his time playing violent video games.
For many people, the connection between video games and mass shootings seems too far fetched. After all, lots of people play violent video games, yet the overwhelming majority don’t go on to become mass shooters. Yet unlike many of the ideas developed out of pop culture, this one, rather surprisingly, actually has merit, and the link between video games and real world gun violence is a lot stronger than people think. Violent video games don’t +cause+ mass shootings, but they certainly play a role in enabling them.
How violent video games desensitize players to murder
To understand the concerns about video game violence, we need to take a quick trip through the recent history of military conflict. During the first World War, military leaders struggled with a counterintuitive problem: soldiers were reluctant to fire their weapon at enemy soldiers, because they looked like, well, people. Back in those days soldiers trained by shooting at round targets. But this didn’t prepare them mentally for shooting at an actual person. As a result, only 15% of rifleman in combat actually fired their weapons. So the military began using humanoid looking targets in training, and eventually moved on to simulators, which proved especially effective.
Simulators helped bring the firing rate from a paltry 10-20% during World Wars 1 & 2 to a whopping 95% during Vietnam. Similar results have been observed all throughout the world. In the Falklands War, Argentine soldiers who trained with bull’s-eye targets had a 10-15% firing rate. British soldiers trained in modern methods averaged more than 90%. “Thus we know that, all other factors being equal, 75 percent to 80 percent of the killing on the modern battlefield is a direct result of the simulators,” write Grossman and DeGaetano (1999, p. 74).
Here’s the thing: modern day video games are just as sophisticated as the simulators used by military and police agencies to train their recruits to kill. So when kids play a first-person shooter game, they’re being exposed to the type of desensitization training militaries use to turn ordinary people into killers.
There’s reason to believe this has helped train ordinary youth to become highly efficient killing machines, enabling the leap from fantasy to reality. It’s made it far easier for them to pick up a gun and kill. Describing the school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky, Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano (1999) note that “Fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal steals a gun from a neighbor’s house, brings it to school, and fires eight shots into a student prayer meeting that is breaking up. Prior to stealing the gun, he had never shot a real handgun in his life. The FBI says that the average experienced law enforcement officer, in the average shootout, at an average range of seven yards, hits with approximately 1 bullet in five. So how many hits did Michael Carneal make? He fired eight shots; he got eight hits, on eight different kids. Five of them were head shots, and the other three were upper torso. The result was three dead and one paralyzed for life.” (ibid, p. 4)
What allowed a 14-year-old with no experience with guns to become a more proficient killing machine than trained FBI agents? A lot of people believe the answer resides in violent video games.
Both of the boys in the Jonesboro, Arkansas shooting on March 24, 1998, were also avid video game players. So was Adam Lanza, as well as the Columbine killers. More recently, following the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, it was soon revealed that Salvador Ramos, the perpetrator, was also an avid online gamer. In fact, a penchant for violent video games–and especially first-person shooter games–is perhaps the most universally shared trait among mass killers.
Many video games are even more sophisticated than the simulators used by governments, and far more graphic as well. Companies certainly don’t shy away from graphic violence. As one ad in PC gamer read: “Gratuitous Violence is 200 Times Faster with a D-Link Network…No Cure. No Hope. Only Death…Destroying Your Enemies Isn’t Enough…You Must Devour Their Souls.” (ibid, p. 93)
Back in my youth, Duke Nuken was one of the most popular games. It involves a Mad Max type character running around killing amidst chaos on the streets. Bound women tied to columns plead to the gamer, “Kill me, kill me.” Bonus points are awarded for murdering prostitutes, many of them naked. The company also actively targeted kids, selling Duke Nukem action figures, which were popular with boys 8 and younger.
There was a game called “Postal” that awards points for “going postal” and killing as many innocent victims as possible while they beg for mercy. Worse yet, some games allow you to scan photos of your classmates and teachers from the school yearbook into the game. Their faces then show up on the people you kill.
Modern day games like Grand Theft Auto have carried on this violent tradition, celebrating all manner of violent debauchery. And although they’ve become much more taboo after all the recent mass shootings, there are still games one can download from the Internet where players assume the role of school shooter. The only difference is that today’s games are far more advanced, with gory graphics that are even more realistic.
Crime scene photos from Sandy Hook show Adam Lanza had duct-taped magazines together so that he didn’t have to reload–a trick featured in Call of Duty., a violent first-person shooter game that Lanza played compulsively. The game also happens to feature a shooter armed with the same Bushmaster rifle Lanza used, which was a product placement marketing device used by its maker, Remington. (The Week, 3-4-2022, p. 17)
Especially concerning are games that allow players to role-play real-world scenarios. Eric Harris had reprogrammed his edition of Doom so that it looked like his neighborhood, marking off the houses of people he hated. The growth of Internet gaming options has allowed all manner of realistic simulations, including games where players upload the pictures of people they despise so that their faces show up on the avatars they kill in the game. On the gaming site Roblox, there are Nazi-themed role playing games, and recreations of the Christchurch Mosque shooting. (The Week, 6-25-2021, p. 20)
Would Adam Lanza have been able to look a trembling 6-year-old in the eye and then shoot her in the face with a high-caliber rifle, before moving on to the next child, had he not been conditioned to kill by hours and hours simulating such an act by playing graphically violent video games? No one can answer this question for certain. But it almost certainly played a significant role, just as it plays a role in the performance of combat troops on the battlefield.
Pleasure and habituation
Another area of concern is the way games glorify violence and turn it into an act of pleasure. Playing such games releases adrenalin and increases a person’s heart rate, while delivering little shots of dopamine and endorphins–feel good chemicals that are basically the body’s natural version of cocaine and heroin. The pleasure derived from video games is significantly less than that induced by drugs, but it’s more than the pleasure of, say, eating a doughnut or candy bar.
When a person sits around playing violent video games for extended periods of time, especially graphic first-person shooter games, their brain is essentially being conditioned to associate pleasure with acts of violence. Just as is the case with drugs, over time habituation occurs, driving a person to seek out more intense content to achieve the same effect. It’s probably similar to the effect often seen in pornography addiction: What’s exciting at first loses its allure the more a person exposes themselves to the stimulus. It’s certainly possible that in a few select individuals who become particularly enthralled with shooter games, this desensitization and the desire for more intense experiences leads them to take the step from simulating to doing.