The Link Between School Shootings And Violent Video Games

The word Columbine has come to trigger thoughts of a school shooting and massacre in American culture. The date was April 20, 1999. Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, set bombs around the school in an attempt to destroy Columbine High School and those inside. They planned to wait at the major exits and shoot those who tried to escape. When the bombs failed to detonate, the pair besieged the school killing 12 students and one teacher, injuring 24, and eventually turning the guns on themselves. It is important to remember that the shooters intentions were not a school shooting but a bombing. Although many have speculated on various elements that could have contributed to the motivation of the shooters, the question of why this heinous crime occurred remains unanswered. When trying to make sense of this shooting, the shooters’ motivation has frequently been attributed to many factors, one of which is exposure to violent video games.

Following the Columbine shooting a debate arose about the effects of playing violent video games on one’s physical aggression because the shooters spent a great deal of time playing a game called Doom together. Harris and Klebold had even created their own level in Doom that they made to look like Columbine High School. In that level the player could shoot students and teachers in the halls. This feature of making one’s own levels was part of why the shooters played the game so frequently. In the “Basement Tapes” the Columbine shooters made Harris said on March 15th, 1999 “That fucking shotgun [he kisses his gun] straight out of Doom. Go ahead and change gun laws — how do you think we got ours?”. This could possibly indicate that he saw his shotgun as the one he played with in the game Doom. It is also interesting that he points out a determined shooter will find a way to obtain a gun even if it is illegal.

A recent longitudinal study examined just this by comparing the effects of violent video games on aggression levels in adolescents versus young adults. This 2015 study found that adolescents were more likely to display aggression if they played violent video games than young adults were. Researchers also found that the amount of time spent playing violent video games did not have an effect on aggressive behaviors. This means if they played very little or a lot did not significantly correlate with aggression. While these findings are important, they were found using correlations. Correlations do not show causation, therefore it could be that aggressive individuals are more likely to play aggressive video games. Because of this, the study cannot truly suggest that violent video games cause violent behaviors.

In another recent study, researchers looked at possible correlations between violent video game play and violent crimes. Researchers pointed out that even though the sales and distribution of violent video games had increased significantly in the past 30 years, violent crimes have decreased. However, in the immediate months following the release of a popular violent video game spikes in levels of violent crime can be detected. Perhaps there was some sort of link between the killer’s violent game play and their perception of reality that led them to commit the school shooting.

A similar thought was examined in a 2014 study. Researchers looked at ones level of fear of death in relation to violent video game play. Researchers found that those who played violent video games had lower levels of fear of death. This study also suggests that the time spent playing is not related to the results. Meaning those who played violent video games, whether it be once a month or once a day, were likely to have a lowered fear of death. While this study was more interested in the results to examine suicidal ideation, the fear of death should generalize to these school shootings that ended in suicide. The shooters game play could have desensitized them to death. This study has similar limitations on determining causation. It could be that those who have a lower fear of death are more likely to play violent video games rather than the games causing a lowered fear level.

While these findings should shed some light onto how Harris and Klebold committed such a gruesome crime, they do not explain all school shootings. It seems as though violent video games might be another small piece to the big puzzle of causation of school shootings. It is a common folly in our media to place the blame for horrific events on one factor when it is often a combination of many. 

16 August 2021
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