It's been a little over 24 hours since Aaron Alexis allegedly opened fire at the D.C. Navy Yard and allegedly killed 12 people. And in that short time, Alexis's video game consumption, along with the toxic notion that violent video games kill people, has already been trotted out.
"Aaron Alexis: Washington navy yard gunman 'obsessed with violent video games'" blares the headline from The Telegraph. That headline implicitly hints that violent video games is one of the reasons Alexis killed people. Good Morning America and The Mirror are running similar stories, as is The Blaze.
The Telegraph, for one, makes the connection explicit: "The Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis played violent video games including Call of Duty for up to 16 hours at a time and friends believe it could have pushed him towards becoming a mass murderer," they write. Let's take one moment to ponder that: The Telegraph has deferred to Alexis's friend as an expert in the psychology of a mass murderer.
The race to pin the blame of mass shootings on video games has become a convenient and successful trope. Newspapers were quick to point out that Norway mass shooter Anders Breivik played World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, played video games like Call of Duty, too, which the NRA will never let you forget. And, yes, these shooters do have video game play in common — but that doesn't mean that video games are to blame.
After all, think about how prevalent video games have come in recent years. Think of the millions of people who play World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and similarly violent titles. If video games were really the root of all evil, then logic would suggest that there would be more violent gun crimes as at least a partial result. That simply isn't happening. The Washington Post's Max Fisher looked at video game consumption around the world in the wake of the Newtown shooting:
In fact, countries where video game consumption is highest tend to be some of the safest countries in the world, likely a product of the fact that developed or rich countries, where consumers can afford expensive games, have on average much less violent crime
The U.S., which doesn't spend as much on video games as countries like South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, is actually an outlier when it comes to gun violence.
So maybe everyone in South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands is just playing non-violent games like Little Big Planet or NBA 2k13? They're not, but let's just assume that for the moment. The Entertainment Consumers Association, the lobbying arm of the video game industry, specifically points out that the U.S. industry has been dominated by shooter games in recent years. And in those years, the crime rate has actually gone down:
While video game sales have increased, violent crime has been steadily decreasing according to FBI statistics. In 2011, video game sales increased to over $27 billion dollars and violent crimes nationwide decreased 3.8 percent from 2010. Since 2002, violent crime has decreased 15.5 percent. This is all during the time when games like Call of Duty and Halo have dominated sales.
Couple that with Fisher's findings and it's more evidence that the correlation between video games causing your average gamer to go on a rampage are slim. And yet, these video games do seem to be the common thread between Lanza, Breivik, and Alexis ...
Back in 1999, in the wake of the Columbine shooting, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to figure out if there was a connection between shootings and violent video games. It was part of the Missing, Exploited, Runaway Children Protections Act. What that study found is that children, by and large, aren't affected by the fantasy of video games. Katherine Newman, the Johns Hopkins professor who headed up the study, concluded the following in her book on the subject:
Millions of young people play video games full of fistfights, blazing guns, and body slams. Bodies litter the floor in many of our most popular films. Yet only a minuscule fraction of the consumers become violent. Hence, if there is an effect, children are not all equally susceptible to it.
This gets at the idea of causation versus symptom. What if, instead of looking at video games as the cause of Alexis's, Breivik's, and Lanza's violence, we look at their video game obsessions as symptoms of deeper problems?
There have been studies that show that there is a link between depression and obsessive video game use. This is not to say that depressed people are mass shooters, but that video game usage can be a sign that someone may need help. Even then, however, saying video causes depression is too simple. "Depression and pathological gaming seem to be truly co-morbid. Where they make each other worse," Iowa State University's Dr. Douglas Gentle told the site Rock Paper Shotgun.
That brings us back to Alexis. Here's Alexis's friend's "diagnosis":
He could be in the game all day and all night. I think games might be what pushed him that way. He always had this fear people would steal his stuff so that's why he would carry his gun all the time. He would carry it when he was helping out in the restaurant which scared my customers.
Buried underneath that video game theorem is an anecdote about how Alexis carried a gun on himself at all times — a legitimately disturbing fact that seems much more relevant to Monday's horrific shooting than the video games he played.