clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
gta 5 review screen 2

Filed under:

A brief history of blaming video games for mass murder

Only a small number of school shootings have connections to gaming

Rockstar North/Rockstar Games

Last week, a letter appeared in the Grand Forks Herald, expressing sadness about recent school shootings. Written by a member of the public, the letter claimed that “horrid violent video games” are to blame, and that any focus on guns is a waste of time.

In the past few decades, video games have moved to the center of cultural life. And yet, they still carry the stigma of disapproval, of being an external force that’s at least partly responsible for modern ills, including real world violence perpetrated by deeply disturbed young men.

This week, the President of the United States played to this notion, tying video game violence to the recent murder of 17 people at a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida three weeks ago.

On Feb. 14, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and three adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz had a history of behavioral problems. He made hateful social media comments about minorities. He was also a keen video game player.

Yesterday, Trump hosted a roundtable discussion about games, but reports from the meeting suggest that Trump sees games as a threat. Politically, it’s in his interest to divert attention from the government’s unwillingness to address expensive or divisive issues like gun control or funding for mental health care.

The gun industry’s main lobbyist group, the National Rifle Association, which had already been to see Trump, regularly ascribes mass shootings to video games, most especially when they are perpetrated by young men. The NRA spent more than $5 million on lobbying last year. The game industry’s lobby group, the Entertainment Software Association, spends similar amounts, but it lacks the grass roots activism of gun owners. And although the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that games are protected by the First Amendment, guns are protected by the Second Amendment.

This sets the stage for a political stand-off, in which virtual entertainment worlds become the patsy for very real firearms.

Games have a long history of facing down blame for real world acts of murder. But we looked at the statistics and found that video games rarely play a significant role in the lives of mass school-shooting murderers.

Deadly school shootings

Of the 100 most deadly school massacres in modern history, 40 took place in the United States. The most deadly took place in 1927, in which 38 elementary school children and six adults were murdered by a man who wanted revenge for his failure to secure an elected position.

A total of seven attacks took place in the era before video games were a part of American life, leaving 33 school shootings between 1980 and 2018, in which more than one person was slain.

In four of those 33 mass murders, the perpetrators have been definitely identified as being fans of video games.

Given that games have been almost universally popular among boys and young men for the last 30 years, this does not seem at all extraordinary. Generally, other factors have been more obvious or notable to law enforcement officials and reporters, including anti-social or obsessive behavior and a history of mental health issues.

Columbine: On April 20, 1999, high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and a teacher. They both enjoyed playing games like Doom and Quake, which were popular at the time. Both the killers had wide-ranging cultural interests, including “dark” music, computers and drama. They were bullied, often in trouble. Both kept journals, either written or video-based, in which they detailed their plans. They were both intensely interested in bombs and firearms.

Heath High School: On Dec. 1, 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal shot to death three students. He had been a target of bullies and suffered from a variety of diagnosed mental illnesses. He enjoyed video games. The parents of the victims subsequently sued multiple organizations they saw as carrying blame for Carneal’s actions, including game companies. The lawsuit was not successful.

Sandy Hook: On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He was a loner with known mental health issues and a fascination of mass shootings. He spent a lot of time in his basement, playing a wide variety of games. His favorite game was said to be Dance Dance Revolution.

Parkland: Nikolas Cruz spent long hours playing violent video games, according to a friend. He was an unpopular kid who suffered from depression.

Some anomalies

Other killers have mistakenly been connected with games. In the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, it was reported that Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator who killed 32 people, was an avid fan of multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike. This was later debunked by his roommate, who said he’d never seen Cho play a video game.

Video games are mostly tied to school shootings, because they are generally perpetrated by young men who are (or were) at the affected school. Other mass shootings often take place in the workplace, or in public spaces. Their motives are generally tied to the beliefs, vices, professional failures, mental illnesses or broken relationships of the individual shooters, not to their entertainment choices.

But games are sometimes linked to these killers. Recent non-school mass murders include the 2012 Aurora cinema shooting. The perpetrator, James Holmes, played games. He also had a history of mental illness, including hallucinations. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian right-wing terrorist who murdered 77 people in 2011, said he played World of Warcraft to relax. He also made the dubious claim that playing Call of Duty games helped improve his marksmanship.

However, there are occasions when murderers confess, or claim, to some obsession with art. John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman had a strange connection with the novel Catcher in the Rye. John Hinckley Jr, the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, was obsessed with the actor Jodie Foster.

When teenage brothers William and Joshua Buckner pleaded guilty for the shooting and murder of a random motorist on a highway in the Smoky Mountains, they claimed to have been inspired by Grand Theft Auto 3. A lawsuit ensued, which was quickly dismissed.

Likewise, a murderous Oakland gang, the Nut Cases, spent hours getting high and playing GTA 3, before they ranged out on crime sprees, according to a 2003 report in the San Francisco Chronicle. But in the 2008 trial of one of their leaders, Leon Wiley, the judge preferred to focus on the weapons used in their crimes. “It is clear he is someone who treated firearms like people treat forks and knives,” said Judge Joseph Hurley.

Study first

An FBI research document on school shootings looked into “types of behavior, personality traits, and circumstances,” that serve as warning signs among students. Video games are one of many behaviors cited.

“The student demonstrates an unusual fascination with movies, TV shows, computer games, music videos or printed material that focus intensively on themes of violence, hatred, control, power, death, and destruction,” states the report. It goes on to say that “the student spends inordinate amounts of time playing video games with violent themes, and seems more interested in the violent images than in the game itself.”

A 2004 report from the Secret Service and the Department of Education researched 37 incidents of school violence and found that 24 percent of the attackers expressed an interest in violent books, while 12 percent were interested in games. 37 percent were interested in violence expressed in their own writings “such as poems, essays, or journal entries.”

There are many ways in which video games are subject to scrutiny. As an artistic and commercial form, sensible people surely agree that gaming’s effects deserve to be studied in detail. Human curiosity demands that we understand everything we can about how our minds interact with art. The ways in which games portray the world — and in which they support or subvert widely held beliefs and prejudices — are an essential task for academics, cultural students and health professionals.

But when a school shooting occurs, video games are usually a default part of the media’s blame narrative, at least until some more interesting angle emerges.

Reading through the grim stories school shootings, it’s notable how rarely games are mentioned in these awful narratives, and how often other factors are cited, again and again.

In almost all the cases in which a young person is the perpetrator, he is described as someone who has few friends, who has been bullied, who has been prescribed behavior-modifying medications.

It is often the case that the perpetrator has some fixation on women, minorities or religious groups. Journals are common. Parents are sometimes slain before the school shooting. And, of course, the killers have access to deadly weapons. Often, the killers are interested in weapons and in real-world violence, more so than in fantasy violence.

Endless loop

If you’ve been interested in games for a number of years, you’ll doubtless be fatigued by the same old arguments. But they bear repetition. Games are a central entertainment for most young people. When young people commit crimes, it is therefore highly likely that they have some history of playing video games.

Video games, like all art forms, sometimes deal with extreme violence. This has led to the germane argument that active participation in the violence might have more of an effect on real-world behavior than more passive forms of entertainment. Yet, as noted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its ruling protecting games under the First Amendment, decades of scientific study have failed to prove such a link.

As the years go on, as men and women who have lived with games all their lives obtain positions of power, the push to frame games as a social evil is diminishing. Like the video shown at the White House yesterday, this is a crude tool that looks like a diversion from the issues our elected officials ought to be addressing.