Video Games and Social Media Are Not the Problem

Killing in games and hating on social media aren't real life

Realistic vdeo game character with a gun

 Getty Images

  • Violent video games are as old as PC and console gaming. After years of inconclusive studies, we have at least one that says violent games do not lead to violent behaviors.
  • Facebook and Twitter have spent years trying to rid their platforms of terrorists and their rhetoric, but still stumble on white supremacy.
  • Social media has huge pockets of hate, anger, and violence, and is a powerful tool for amplifying those sentiments, but research points to roots outside of digital media.
  • Digital media and entertainment might be filled with hate and violence, but they still have little impact on our core beliefs.
President Trump delivering his remarks on the recent mass shootings.
Getty Images / Alex Wong 

In the aftermath of two horrific mass shootings in the span of 24 hours, President Trump called for a reckoning on the “perils of the internet and social media” and “the glorification of violence in our society” through “gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.”

Wanting to blame these platforms for a pair of horrific acts that resulted in 31 deaths is understandable in the face of the helplessness so many of us feel. It is disappointing, though, to hear this call come from the leader of the free world, the one who should be setting the tone for introspection and understanding, not finger pointing. Especially when that finger pointing is largely off base.

Are My Video Games Still Cool?

Two gamers playing on a couch, controllers in hand
 Getty Images / John Howard

In the decades of study surrounding video game violence, we’ve witnessed a seesaw of inconclusive results. One thing is clear, however: The precipitous rise of mass shooting in recent years does not coincide with a recent rise of more violent video games. Video games have been violent for years and violent crime overall continues to fall.

A 2015 University of Oxford study compared teen aggression in over 1,004 14- and 15-year-olds in the UK with their level of video game violence exposure. They studied two key questions:

  • Did those teens who spent more time playing these games become more aggressive?
  • If they spent more than a certain amount of time with these games, did they then become more violent and aggressive?

In both cases the answer was no.

So, I Should Blame Social Media, Right?

Illustration of a Twitter bird saying
Getty Images / FARBAI

Ironically, the President might be on firmer ground when he goes after social media. Virtually every platform has pockets of trolls, hate-speech, unrestrained anger, horrifying imagery, and violent video. Of course, the web didn’t invent the dark corners of our digital universe. Even back in the days of BBSes and Usenet, there was adult and vitriolic content.

Trump also called on government agencies and social media companies to work together to identify potential domestic terrorists before they become a threat.

The truth is, Facebook and Twitter have been waging war on terror for years. In 2017, Facebook posted a stark blog update detailing “How We Counter Terrorism,” in which the company detailed it's programmatic, brute-force approach to identifying and removing this content.

Twitter has notably removed hundreds of thousands of terrorist accounts and bots in recent years.

However, both platforms have stumbled when it comes to white nationalists. The rhetoric is, it appears, harder for them to programmatically identify.

It Always Boils Down to Science

Young person using a smartphone in a darkened bedroom
Getty Images / tommaso79

In the first of a pair of recent studies, market research firm YouGov found that 27% of millennials have no close friends. Half of them have either no acquaintances or buddies. The study points to a high rate of loneliness and isolation and ties it, in part, to social media use.

In a second study, Scientific American partnered with the U.S. Dept. of Defense and the National Science Foundation to do the first neuroimaging study of a radicalizing population.

Most of these young Muslim men in Barcelona (studied after a terror attack there killed 13 people) held so-called “sacred values” like religious or social-beliefs that can lead to “unconditional cooperation for those who hold to such values as well.”

The researchers conducted a test where they played a game and actively excluded a portion of the test subjects from fully participating. What they found is that exclusion appeared to amplify these scared beliefs, making them more intractable. “Social exclusion appears to be a relevant factor motivating violent extremism and consolidation of sacred values,” they wrote.

Social marginalization, the study indicates, also appears to intensify these feelings.

What Do You Believe?

It’s possible that the Dayton and El Paso mass murderers held a number of sacred beliefs that overrode all short-term concerns about the consequences of their actions.

Violent video games don’t build such belief systems. They’re a playground of release, worlds in which religion and social mores only barely exist.

Social Media is an echo chamber for sacred beliefs and can serve to amplify the worst possible sentiment. But those sentiments are often written by people with an agenda. These can be cobbled together from bits and pieces found across the internet, but the seeds usually don’t live in that digital soil.

Instead, they’re brought in from the outside, from the dinner tables of America (and beyond) and then carefully planted in digital soil where others arriving with similar sacred beliefs can gather and commiserate.

It would be foolish to say that our digital experience hasn’t in many ways changed humanity, but, for better or worse, it’s done little to change our core beliefs. Technology and the internet have made many things, but I don’t believe they’re making monsters.