The immediate aftermath of the Uvalde school massacre brought with it the ghoulish routines that have come to attend America’s frequent, high-profile mass shootings. Like clockwork, deflection to anything but the real issues at play — wide availability of guns, and the devastating cowardice of police on the day of the massacre — led to an old scapegoat. “We haven’t gotten into the why [motive],” said Texas Department of Public Safety chief Steven McGraw. “We know the individual was also into cyber gaming in that regard, and group gaming.”
The political right once again blamed video games as a cause of these killings, and they were rightly mocked for it. This time, however, some on the political left seemed receptive to the idea that a link might exist between such media and mass shootings, or at least they were willing to apply the tools of cultural criticism to games in a way that suggests one. Even some video game developers worried they might be part of the problem. Speaking to Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek, one Call of Duty dev said: “It’s hard not to be distracted on any news day but especially after events like these where there are clear parallels between U.S. gun culture and shooters’ contribution to that culture… And it does bother me and negatively impacts my mental health to contribute to games that I feel are culturally complicit.”
These game narratives are more about encouraging structural rather than interpersonal violence
On Twitter, some left-of-center users insisted that games were an influential factor. A public health educator tweeted at the Surgeon General, President, and Vice President to claim that the gun lobby was colluding with video game companies to “block public health research on video games and gun violence.” (It is true that, up until very recently, public health research on guns has been curtailed due to lobbying by right-wing gun interests; that research, however, was never about video gaming’s relationship to violence, which is well-studied.) More subtly, some suggest that video game forums are unique hotbeds of far right radicalization.
The strongest version of this vaguely progressive argument runs something like this: Our culture is saturated in violent imagery and narratives that glorify violence, presenting it as the epitome of heroism and the surest solution to problems. Therefore, it would be naive to deny it has a role in shaping the fantasies of mass killers, who frequently imagine themselves as warriors — even as knights! — and who were weaned on a gaming culture saturated with guns.
The problem with this critique is four-fold. One, it overstates the role of popular culture in these killings; two, it misunderstands the incredibly versatile role of violence in that culture; three, it runs the risk of obscuring more complex and specific problems in the gaming industry; four, it is heedless of the ideological “drift” of such arguments, which, however they’re phrased, inevitably abet conservative interests.
There is a rich body of research on the link between games and violence which, while somewhat divided, generally suggests that no such link exists. Nevertheless, moral panics about violent video games date back to at least the 1970s. A breathless 1976 New York Times article, describing the arcade game Death Race that awarded points for driving over little sprites called “gremlins,” quoted an article in the National Safety Council’s quarterly magazine Family Safety: “Sick, sick, sick.” The same article cited a lead researcher from the Council who earnestly observed, “Nearly 9,000 pedestrians were killed last year and that’s no joke… It’s not amusing.” (In 2021, nearly 7,500 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the United States; perhaps the fault lies not in popular culture, but in the design of our roads and our vehicles).
This history cycled on like a VHS tape on fast-forward, through the Satanic Panic of the 1980s that saw Dungeons & Dragons cast as a mortal threat to children’s very souls (leading to one of Tom Hanks’ earliest leading roles); to the frenzy around Mortal Kombat’s “fatalities” in the early 1990s; to the way that video games and “violent music” like Marilyn Manson’s were scapegoated for the Columbine massacre later in that decade.
After every single high-profile mass shooting — in a nation where they’re a routine occurrence — the influence of video games re-enters the discourse. Traditionally, such critics have been conservative; even the loudest Democratic exponents of such views have been from the right wing of the party, like former Senator Joe Lieberman, or Tipper Gore. The only difference now is that more left-leaning commentators seem open to the possibility that these games have to shoulder some culpability.
Part of the reason for this stems from a renaissance in gaming criticism over the last decade, which brought a sorely needed critical perspective on an influential medium. In this environment, feminist media criticism flourished, as did critique from scholars, journalists, and critics of color: I should know, as I was one of them. Our analysis took nothing for granted and opened up new fields of public discussion. But key to so much of it was the self-defensive insistence that all this mattered because media was influential in shaping society. This is true, so far as it goes. But it goes only so far. Certainly not as far as media being uniquely or directly causal of violence in our societies. The relationship is much more complex.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the right blames video games for mass shootings
This is a large part of the reason why any discourse about the role of video games in mass shootings, regardless of its political origins, is on shaky ground. Games are not immune from criticism, and there are rich critiques to be made of violence therein — which many progressive and leftist critics have made. Who is subject to the violence is a fascinating question, after all, when so many games depict explosive forays by white American or British protagonists into real or fictionalized countries populated by Black and brown enemies. But in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, blaming games for violence more directly simply plays into reactionary narratives.
Such games are a global phenomenon, as anyone willing to brave the wilds of voice-chat and LFG will tell you. Violent video games do not seem to lead to wild increases in mass shootings (or, indeed, similar violence with other weapons) in other countries. All around the world, violent video games remain a hugely popular pastime, yet the only clear independent variable that impacts rates of gun violence is the prevalence of firearms among the population. Whatever role popular culture may play, it is clearly not so decisive.
There is, of course, room for discussion about how violent narratives influence us. I myself have witheringly criticized the fact that violence is what I deemed the primary “idiom of progress” in video games: to kill is to advance, to strengthen yourself, to turn the page of the plot.
There are a myriad of reasons for this. One is that it’s easy: From Mario stomping a Goomba, to your first-person avatar blowing up demons in Doom, it’s the simplest way to literally code for progress. It needn’t always be so: Eastshade, by Eastshade Studios, presents an almost dream-like vision of an alternative — a Skyrim-like open-world roleplaying game in a fantastical world with virtually no violence. Progress is instead expressed through painting, the performance of tasks, rituals, and good old-fashioned exploration. Plenty of other independent games, including Dear Esther, Firewatch, Night in the Woods, and Tacoma go beyond violence-dependency; similar alternatives would just need more funding and promotion in order to truly flourish.
Another reason is the imitation of popular cinema, where similar symbolic languages prevail. Violence in media is very often cartoonish and rarely, if ever, accurate to its brutal and traumatic realities. For some, this is an indictment in itself. We see all the metaphorical glory and none of the reality: no PTSD or guts hanging out of a dying soldier’s body. But it is much more reasonable to worry about how social media desensitizes us to real violence. From police murdering Black citizens to the ongoing war in Ukraine, each supplying the world with short videos of grisly deaths, the larger problem there is that real killings are turned into entertainment, which social media is adept at creating.
This has been a problem for a long time, with reams of psychological research linking violent media to an increase in aggression and antisocial attitudes, while other, more recent studies have questioned this link. Aggression, however, is not violence itself, and that slippage has led to numerous misunderstandings over the years about the complex relationship between media and those who view it (to say nothing of the methodological limitations of many prominent studies — some needing to be retracted altogether). The ubiquity of violence in our media may contribute to desensitizing us to the violence of the modern world. But this violence conditions its own prominence in media — which reflects our world, as much as shapes it. Violence has become part of our storytelling toolkit, for better and for worse.
Violence in mass media serves a variety of narrative purposes. From Bugs Bunny to Terminator, it is almost always a symbol of something else. The recent film Top Gun: Maverick has been justly criticized for its Department of Defense-approved portrayal of American militarism; but what is persuasive to an audience is the normalization of the US’s imperial role on the world stage. The violence in the movie is merely semantic, a means to that end. It is not uniquely causal by itself, but instead a kind of rhetoric like any other.
Consider, by contrast, a clip from the peerless Lovecraft Country, in which the Shoggoth — a hellacious Lovecraftian monster — devastates a troop of police officers who were about to murder a Black man in cold blood. The Shoggoth’s terror feels less like evil than it does a grim kind of catharsis; as fiction, its meaning is shaped by the brutality of racist police violence in America. The scene’s symbolic power derives from resistance to that violence, and a willingness of a large segment of the audience to see Black Americans as something other than victims. It is neither literal, nor instructive.
So, what is Call of Duty and its like a symbol of? There are sharper critiques to make of imperialism here, and the cozy relationship between gun manufacturers, the American military, and video game and film studios. From Captain Marvel to Modern Warfare, such media is often deliberately designed as an advert for the virtues of American militarism. These narratives are less about encouraging individuals to become mass shooters than they are about normalizing a certain power structure — the pre-eminence of the military, say, or of the American empire. In a word, structural rather than interpersonal violence.
We’ve had media narratives that glorify violence — in particular, American imperialism and violence as problem-solving — for decades. Our media’s violence is, more generally, a reflection of the violence in our national culture, which is inscribed not only through visual means but through everyday ideology. The perverse incentives of social media haven’t helped, though they are rarely so obvious as when a number of Twitter users rather ghoulishly demanded that Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson write a school shooting episode of her sitcom. This indicates a desperation rising up from an exhausted populace that is, like ancients seeking a sign in the indifferent heavens, looking for its media to model a solution to this bloody crisis. Popular media is afforded a power that far outstrips its capability either to solve, or cause, the underlying problem.
Implying this causal link is a bid to distract from guns themselves, the role of police, and white supremacism
The particular plague of young men committing acts of domestic terrorism has been an accelerating phenomenon of the last 30 years, with deep roots in white supremacist resentment and entitlement. Our media reflects rather than incites this, and the violence of American society invariably becomes both backdrop and inspiration for much of our nation’s storytelling.
Media influences us, yes, but not in a way that significantly bears on such killings. How we cover mass shootings in sober news reports may, in fact, be much more influential; copycat killings are a real phenomenon, as high-profile mass shootings often cluster together. Worse, message boards that host extremists often seem to glory in the fame and attention lavished on mass killers, inspiring others to chase the same infamy.
The media can grant us neither absolution nor a culprit. But discourse about the media as the culprit carries other unavoidable risks: among them, mistaking what is, at worst, a symptom for a cause. These days, it’s hardly a coincidence that the right is taking the lead in blaming video games for mass shootings. They have much culpability of their own to deflect — from their cultivation of a gun culture that thrives on entitlement and irresponsibility, to a white Christian nationalism that prizes the murderous violence of people like Kyle Rittenhouse, to a political culture that venerates American military violence overseas.
In short, the right would love nothing more than to blame the scourge of violence they themselves helped to create on media that they did not.
Every political meme has a certain ideological drift. Regardless of the intent of the speaker, certain ideas are simply more helpful to specific ideological projects. Just as the “Lexit” movement (that is, the leftist pro-Brexit argument) found itself beclowned in the years since that fateful plebiscite, so too will any notionally leftist campaign that avails itself of talking points that are infinitely more useful to right-wing moral panics. The right’s vaunted “culture war” is taking on increasingly Nazi overtones, with some lamenting “degenerate art,” and Christian dominionists claiming mass media is a symptom of a sick, Godless society only they can fix. It is notable how they attempt to blame mass shootings on some kind of moral rot, caused in part by media — an argument they are gleefully extending to include queer media and representations of queer people. This is where such logic leads us.
Critiques should instead be targeted with precision — going after video game studios’ relationship with the military, for instance, or weapons manufacturers, rather than violence per se. They should address working conditions where the same developers are made to stare at the same renders of extremely graphic, extravagant violence in 4k hour after hour, day after day, rather than the portrayal of violence itself. They should also recognize that white supremacist attempts at recruiting from gaming forums are less about the games’ content than the sociology of the communities around them, using and reinforcing their existing exclusions and prejudices.
Media criticism is a vital tool, but it can, when taken too far, dramatically inflate the cultural significance and influence of any given work. Those of us who are professional critics would do well to remind the public of this. There are deeper, almost fractal issues with how violence is portrayed in our culture. To even imply a causal link between such representations and the most grotesque real-world violence is to do a disservice to the reality of that complexity. Worse, it contributes to a narrative that many on the far-right have desperately sought to amplify, in a bid to distract from far more pressing conversations about guns themselves, the role of police, and white supremacism in our society.
It’s worth noting that psychologists have already done research suggesting that people are more likely to blame video games when a shooter is white than when a shooter is Black. When we overindulge in any discussion that links games to shootings, we’re reinforcing that kind of racist deflection. It is a deflection not only of the shooter’s own culpability, but of the larger culture that creates and sustains impunity and entitlement around whiteness before handing it a rifle.