Ohio St. professor on role of video games in mass shootings

Professor of communication and psychology Brad Bushman says "the problem is that people are looking for a yes-or-no answer...when there is none."


Ohio St. professor of communication and psychology Brad Bushman has weighed in on the ongoing debate regarding the role of violent video games in mass shootings. Writing an editorial on CNN just days after the Washington Navy Yard shooting that left 13 dead, Bushman said there is no simple answer.

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"The problem is that people are looking for a yes-or-no answer about the role of video games in violence, when there is none," Bushman said, acknowledging the media reports that suggested the Navy Yard shooter frequently played violent games. "Violent video games alone likely didn't cause [Aaron Alexis] to go on his rampage. But these games aren't harmless, either. Recent reports suggest he may have been mentally ill and had anger control issues. But it isn't hard to believe that video game use may have been a contributing factor."

A study conducted by Bushman and his colleagues found that "typical" college students who played violent games for 20 minutes at a time for three straight days showed higher levels of aggressive behavior every day they played.

"If that's what happens to typical college students, how might someone like Alexis react to playing for 16 straight hours? What if he does this for months or years?" Bushman said.

Bushman pointed out that other researchers have reached similar conclusions, with studies finding violent games not only lead to increased aggressive thoughts, but also decreased helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others.

"The effects occurred for males and females of all ages, regardless of what country they lived in," he said.

"In our research, we found that people who played first-person shooting games were more accurate than others when firing a realistic gun at a mannequin--and more likely to aim for and hit the head."

Bushman also acknowledged that Alexis was not the first mass murderer to reportedly be an avid fan of violent games, pointing to the Sandy Hook shooter, among others. In addition, he said not only do first-person shooter games cause players to be more aggressive, but also to be more deadly in real-world shooting scenarios.

"In our research, we found that people who played first-person shooting games were more accurate than others when firing a realistic gun at a mannequin--and more likely to aim for and hit the head," Bushman said. "Police haven't released details of the Navy Yard shootings, but it is possible that Alexis was a more accurate shooter because of the time he spent playing video games. That's an inconvenient fact that you don't often hear defenders of the games talk about."

Bushman also took issue with the argument that video games can't be dangerous because they are played by millions, the vast majority of which never act out in violent ways.

"No doubt, most players don't become violent. That's because they come from good homes, aren't victims of bullying, don't have mental health issues, and don't have many of the other risk factors for violence," Bushman said. "But what about players who already are predisposed to violence? Killers like Aaron Alexis aren't typical. They have a lot going against them, such as mental illness. Violent video games are just one more factor that may be pushing them toward violence."

Overall, Bushman said though it is difficult to control the factors that can lead to violent behavior, controlling violent video games is a simpler task by comparison through government regulation and educational campaigns.

"We can make it more difficult to get access to them. We can strengthen our laws against teens acquiring these games. Parents can keep the games out of their homes and help their children avoid them at friends' houses," he said.

"As a society, we should do all we can to make violent rampages like the one in Washington less likely, even if we can't stop them entirely. Controlling the use of violent video games is one step we can take to help protect our society from violence."

Bushman studies the causes, consequences, and solutions to the issues of human aggression and violence at Ohio State University. Some of his research has challenged several "myths" about human behavior, including violent media having a trivial effect on aggression.

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