A well-regarded expert on video game violence told the legislature’s Children’s Committee that there is no correlation between violent video games and mass shootings.
The expert was Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University. Ferguson participated in Vice President Joe Biden’s gun task force discussions this past January and on Thursday told the Children’s Committee that “focusing on video games is the wrong path.”
Sen. Scott Frantz of Greenwich introduced legislation in response to the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that would “create a task force to explore and identify any links between violent video games and violent behavior in youths.” According to news reports, the gunman involved in the Newtown shooting was known to play violent video games.
But Ferguson said the state shouldn’t waste its time or money on such an endeavor.
“During the years in which video games have become vastly more popular, not to mention graphic, youth violence has plummeted cross-nationally to 40-year lows,” Ferguson said in his written testimony to the committee. “There is no evidence for a correlation between societal violence and the media culture consumed by that society.”
In a recent article published in Time magazine, Ferguson said, “There is no good evidence that video games or other media contributes, even in a small way, to mass homicides or any other violence among youth.”
Frantz said it’s tough to believe that violence in video games doesn’t have an impact on aggressive tendencies among young people.
“Your gut tells you these things absolutely do affect behavior,” he said. “Maybe not for the rest of your life, but certainly for a period of time.”
Sen. Frantz, however, cited a 2010 study by Iowa University that found that exposure to violent video games increased the risk of aggressive behavior and decreased empathy.
“They’ve proven at least to a certain degree — what degree we don’t know — but it does have that effect,” Frantz said.
However, in his testimony, Ferguson said an aggregate of studies have failed to demonstrate a correlation between violent behavior and video games. He said studies have been inconsistent. Some suggest game violence increases mildly aggressive behaviors, some suggest they have no impact, others suggest video games may reduce those behaviors, he said.
“I’m aware that some activists, politicians and even, unfortunately, some parts of the scholarly community have tried to sell this research as consistent, but it is not. Thus, this pool of research doesn’t help us much,” he said.
Frantz said the task force his bill proposes to create would quickly compile existing research and recommend a legislative response.
“I’d like to see it fast-tracked because a lot of that information is out there and a lot of the research can be done by [the Office of Legislative Research] in, say, two weeks time,” he said.
With video games being a national industry, Frantz acknowledged there was little the state legislature could do to force the hand of the gaming industry. However, he hoped to educate parents with the task force’s findings.
He said the country will be looking to Connecticut for responses to the Newtown shooting, and people will want to see whether the state enacted stricter gun control laws or if the state also looked at other areas like mental health, school safety, and any other cultural factors that may have had something to do with the shooting.
“You could extend it to paintball games . . . and movies as well,” he said.
Frantz seemed confident there was some connection between mass shooters and video games. He said both the shooters who perpetrated the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School were avid gamers. He said some of the shooters in other incidents were as well.
“There are some interesting similarities here — overlaps. Video game players, 75 percent of them have been bullied, and they’re kind of social outcasts,” he said.
However, in his testimony Ferguson cautioned against a tendency to blame certain aspects of media for societal violence. He said that over the course of history, things like comic books, different genres of music, cartoons, movies, and even religious books have been blamed for violence.
“It is a normal human response to need something to blame that we could, theoretically, do away with, as this helps us to assert a sense of control over the uncontrollable and give ourselves the feeling that we are ‘doing something.’ These moral panics, as they are known, are well documented and often ridiculed retrospectively,” he said.
Frantz said it couldn’t hurt to educate parents about the violent nature of some games. However, he seemed reluctant to support a proposal introduced by Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, which would place a tax on video games rated for mature audiences and use the revenue to educate parents.
“I like the part of the idea of educating parents. Parents have so much to worry about these days . . . I like that component of it, whether taxation is the right way to get that funded I don’t know,” he said, and suggested charitable funding may be possible.
Frantz said he thought the task force’s findings could be a valuable resource for parents.
“I think a lot of people would pay attention to it because no one’s really come out with a headline banner saying ‘It’s been proven that at least for a temporary period of time, these violent video games affect kids,’” he said.
Ferguson said the legislature could find more productive ways to spend its time and resources.
“Indulging in this moral panic may actually do more damage than good, to the extent it distracts society from real causes of violence. I hope that the Connecticut General Assembly will remain focused on issues we know are important if we are serious in tackling societal violence, namely our mental health care system, poverty, and educational disparities,” he said.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.