THE DEBATE OVER ESPORTS, VIOLENCE, AND GUNS
Updated: Jan 25
This article was originally published on August 28th, 2019.
Following two deadly mass shootings in as many days earlier this month, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, US lawmakers placed the blame squarely on violent video games.
This culture of blame serves as a reminder of the eSports industry’s vulnerability with issues around violence.
President Trump led the conservative push to correlate the recent violence to video games. A number of other Republican officials would go on to talk shows to echo the remarks.
Many of the most popular eSports titles in competitive play currently involve first-person shooter games. However, the industry is adamant that video games do not cause violence and points to research in support of that position.
The decision comes in the wake of the two shootings that prompted politicians, including President Donald Trump, to say video games that glorify violence could be contributing to the country’s shooting epidemic.
Part of the problem is that, like many myths, they are commonly repeated.
These myths become dangerous with they are repeated by people in power. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, would state in the wake of the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. “The idea of these video games, they dehumanize individuals to have a game out of shooting individuals and others,” said McCarthy. “I’ve always felt that is a problem for future generations and others.”
President Trump even talked about his solutions to combat gun violence. “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” he said. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.”
However, Trump is far from the first leader to argue that violence in entertainment can lead to violence in the real world.
Fiorello La Guardia, Mayer of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, made a similar claim that pinball, which was illegal in the city for over 30 years, was “dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality.”
The current argument that video games and other forms of violent media could be to blame for mass shootings became common after the Columbine massacre in 1999, when two students shot and killed 13 people at Columbine High School, outside Denver.
However, Andrew Przybylski (@ShuhBillSkee) a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford, who has studied why there is a stigma against video games, found that people who have never played video games before are more likely to have a bias towards them. He would state “You have a large slice, [of] mostly older Americans, who don’t have experience with games directly,” he said. “They might think Fortnite is violent or that people who play Mario are more likely to be aggressive towards turtles. But once you get the hands-on experience, you see that this is a pretty silly idea.”
Some of the earliest studies to examine the link between video games and violent behaviors followed specifically in the wake of the Columbine shooting. Some of the earliest research relied on subjective data. In one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers reported that violent video games could lead to “more aggressive behavior.”
The problem with that study and many like it is that it relied on self-reported data. As part of their study, the two researchers asked 227 college students to report on their own violent tendencies and video gameplay.
The issue here though is that self-reported studies often contain inherent biases that can skew results. According to one paper published in the International Journal of Behavioural and Healthcare Research, “response bias is a widely discussed phenomenon in behavioral and healthcare research where self-reported data are used.”
Therefore, studies that have shown links between video games and aggressive behavior have all been roundly criticized by other researchers. Other studies that have eschewed these poor research methods have shown results that demonstrate the exact opposite. The answers remain inconclusive and any attempt to paint a different picture is irresponsible.
Research has also gone into the link between video gameplay and actual violent crime. Here too, the relationship has been shown to be nonexistent.
“We found a whole lot of nothing,” said Professor Przybylski. “Basically, we found that having information about the kinds of video games people played, how violent they were, how much time they spent on them, there was no linear connection.”
Following the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, researchers writing in the journal Homicide Studies indicated that any links between mass murder and violent entertainment, including video games, was a “myth.”
“The entertainment industry has, at times, been used as a convenient scapegoat, and censorship as an easy solution,” the authors wrote. Any causal link between video games and violent behavior “has eluded researchers for many years.”
In Japan, about 60% of the population play video games on a regular basis, and almost no one is killed by a gun in the country, which bans possessing, carrying, selling, or buying handguns or rifles. In 2014, there were only six gun deaths in Japan, compared with over 33,000 in the U.S.
“More than 165 million Americans enjoy video games, and billions of people play video games worldwide,” stated a statement by the Electronic Software Association, a trade group representing the video game industry. “Yet other societies, where video games are played as avidly, do not contend with the tragic levels of violence that occur in the U.S.”
Trump’s finger-pointing echoes a persistent but largely meritless narrative. Numerous studies have failed to establish a link between video gaming and shootings. “Video game violence is not a meaningful predictor of youth violence,” found a 2016 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. “Family and social variables are more influential factors.”
Many of the most popular eSports titles in competitive play involve first-person shooter games. However, the eSports industry stresses that video games do not cause violence and points to research in support of that position.
Gaming and eSports executives have been vocal in defending video games over the past few weeks. Many point to studies that find no correlation between video games and violent attacks. Others have said that video games are popular in many countries that don’t have a mass shooting crisis.
“The whole blame game is a joke,” Andy Miller, part-owner of basketball’s Sacramento Kings and gaming franchise NRG Esports, said on Twitter. “Blaming video games is a ‘look over there’ move instead of a ‘look at ourselves’ reflection. Our leaders are an embarrassment on gun control. Time for the video game generation to stand up and do something.”
Indian Gaming League founder and AESF vice-president Lokesh Suji (@dAwesomeNinja) said problems such as mass shootings hadn’t occurred in Asia, where the vast bulk of eSports and gaming is focused.
“Tell me about one incident where this has happened in Asia,” said Suji, adding that drawing comparisons between gaming and violence “is the wrong perspective.”
“We’ve never had this in this part of the world. Why are things happening in the U.S.?” Suji added. “It’s very sad. Every time something like this happens in the U.S., people start blaming the video games. The bigger picture, the bigger problem is gun control.”
Jinmo “Tobi” Yang, a South Korean professional Overwatch player, believes the core problem lies elsewhere. “I think the mass shootings occur because you can easily access guns in the U.S.,” he says.
Indeed, gun sales in the U.S. have already topped $17 billion this year, according to a report from IBIS World, a research firm. There are an estimated 393 million guns currently in America, more than one for every citizen.
“As someone that has a career based on video games, this is really disappointing,” says Philip "Lowley" Olson, an Apex Legends player. “Not just because it’s my career, but because I feel like it brings so much joy and enjoyment to people. And I would hope that everyone that’s in a position to actually fix these issues would actually focus on the root of the problem.”
The ensuing speculation is something that became a major concern to those involved in the esports industry.
In the days that followed the shootings, ESPN announced that it would delay broadcasting Electronic Arts’ Apex Legends esports tournament.
Unlike more realistic shooters such as Call of Duty, Apex Legends is marked by a more cartoonish art style and does not feature blood or gore. It is rated T, for teen, by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
Walmart also made a controversial decision to temporarily remove all video game displays from its stores, even as it continues to openly sell guns.
With sponsorship a key revenue stream for franchised eSports teams, the industry is watching closely to see whether corporate America is swayed by the latest criticism of gaming.