It’s a long-standing argument: do violent videogames increase violent or aggressive behaviour in real life? After mass shootings, the shooter’s video game habits are often scrutinised.
The research is inconclusive. In US cases, analysis shows videogames rarely play a significant role in the lives of mass school-shooting murderers.
But in the latest public shooting in the US – in Jacksonville, Florida on Sunday – the connection appears initially strong. The 24-year-old shooter from Baltimore, David Katz, was playing in a videogame tournament, and the two people he murdered with a handgun, Eli Clayton and Taylor Robertson, were both videogame contestants, winners of the tournament in 2017 and 2016. It was not clear if Katz knew them. Eleven others were wounded before Katz killed himself.
The shooting was at the GLHF Game Bar – short for “Good Luck Have Fun”.
Local media reported that witnesses said Katz was a disgruntled gamer who was angry he lost the tournament at Jacksonville Landing, a shopping and entertainment complex. Winners of the videogame contest go on to finals in Las Vegas, competing for a $165,000 prize.
But can we draw a connection here between exposure to screen violence and increased propensity towards real violence? Prof Gerry Moore, associate professor of psychotherapy at DCU, says the academic research about a link between gaming and violence is not firm, but research does show that gaming can reduce prosocial behaviour (voluntary behaviour that benefits others, and empathy).
He says evidence also suggests that if you are exposed to scenes of violence over time, whether in real life or in games, it desensitises the person to aggressive behaviour.
The American Psychological Association considers violent videogames a risk factor for aggression and says playing violent videogames can increase aggressive thoughts, behaviours and feelings, both short-term and long-term.
In 2017, it concluded violent that videogames can also desensitise people to seeing aggressive behaviour and decrease prosocial behaviour. However, it was not clear whether violent videogame exposure was linked to criminality or delinquency.
Research conducted this year at York University, using a large sample, backs other studies showing no direct link between games and violent behaviour. Nearly all children in the US play videogames, 85 per cent of which contain some form of violence.
According to the US National Center for Health Research – a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank – studies show the longer boys or girls are exposed to violent videogames, the more likely they are to have aggressive behaviours and thoughts.
It also says some studies have found competition between players is a better predictor of aggressive behaviour than is the level of violence, which could be relevant to the Florida shooting.
Gerry Moore at DCU agrees. He points out that even though Katz was, according to some reports, playing an American football videogame rather than an ostensibly violent wargame, “people get hyped up during games and it can increase aggressive thoughts and reduce pro-social behaviours”.
He says: “When there is competition, especially with young males – we see it played out on sports pitches every week – and something to be lost or gained, people may become aggressive because of it.”
Crucially, Moore says, “you have to add in the gun laws in the US. If you have access to a weapon it is easier to use it.”
It may be less that the shooter was playing videogames, and more about the competition, which hyped up aggression, with the added factor of gun culture, he says.