Researchers have been searching for a link between playing video games and acts of real world violence for decades, without much success.
But what if games help to actually reduce violent crime?
Researchers at Villanova University and Rutgers University have published a study comparing sales of violent video games with crime statistics in the United States. They found that when shooting game sales are at their highest, crime numbers tend to drop.
"Various measurements of video game use are related to decreases in violent crime such as homicide," said Patrick Markey, co-author of the study Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric Versus Data which is being published by American Psychological Association's journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
A look at the graphs do show that when sales and game-guide Google searches for violent games are highest, most especially during periods corresponding with the release of big games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, violent crime tends to dip.
"We always have to be careful with correlational data," added Markey. "Correlation doesn't mean causation. But we haven't just looked at sales of games and violent crimes. We have taken into account trends in the data. We remove stuff that typically happens, like a spike in murders during summer and high sales of games near the Holidays, and it's still negative. To me what is most amazing is that is never positive. It is always statistically negative."
Markey said there are a number possible explanations. He said that research does show that people who are attracted to violence tend to be among those who enjoy violent games, and that these games might act as a catharsis. But his favored "simpler" theory is that when a big game comes out, people who enjoy fantasy violence are more likely to be seated in front of a screen, where the potential for real world violence is decreased.
"It might be the best way to explain the data, if this negative relationship [between game sales and crime] holds."
A game like GTA 5 can sell tens of millions of copies in a short period of time, and take up dozens of hours. These games tend to be played by the same demographic that features prominently in violent crime, that being young men. If you take millions of young men out of the social milieu for a few days, it might well have a negative impact on crime statistics.
Markey has been studying games and violence for years. He said that, in his view, games have been given a bad rap because they are viewed as being something young men enjoy. And violent crimes are often committed by young men. Although he believes that potentially violent people enjoy violent games, it does not follow that violent games create violent people.
But his research suggests that violent people playing video games are less likely to be doing something else.
"If violent video games are causes of serious violent crimes, it seems probable that serious and deadly assaults would increase following the release of these popular violent video games," states the report, which compared the release of big Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty games against crime data. In fact, "aggravated assault... and homicide showed a decrease after the release of these games," and the effect last for up to three months.
Markey said that the huge popularity of these games "effectively removes [people who enjoy violent content] from the streets or other social venues where they might have otherwise committed a violent act. In other words, because violent individuals are playing violent video games in their homes, there may be a decrease in violent crime when popular violent video games are released."
He acknowledges that the data is not strong enough to make the argument that video games decrease crime, or that society becomes markedly safer when large numbers of people are indoors playing Destiny. But "what it definitely suggests is that there is very little evidence that they increase crime," he said.
The implication is that if violent games did not exist, the crime rate might increase. "It's a little too early to say, let's all play violent video games and make the world safer," he said. "But the data never flips into that positive range." He added that other studies examining ticket sales of violent movies against crime data have found similar results, even after other variables, like the state of the economy and demographics, have been taken into account.
Markey stressed that more research is required into the issue, possibly in other countries, and that the explanations he has attempted to attach to the data is conjecture. But the findings do appeal to common sense. "It's not unusual to find a person committing a crime who happens to be a 20-year-old male who also happens to be a college student who likes video games and that is why games get connected to violent crimes," he said. "But that goes both ways."