Researchers have long discredited the link between video games and gun violence—more specifically, mass shootings. But not only is the narrative false, like many other facets of American life, it’s also touched by race.
A new report, published Monday in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture (pdf), combines two experiments that come to similar conclusions: people are more likely to think video games triggered violent behavior if the suspect in question is white.
However, if the suspected shooter is black or Latinx, the assumption is that the violence is a result of their upbringing: the neighborhood they grew up in, or the way their family raised them.
As Technology Review writes, in one experiment, student participants were asked to read a made-up report about an 18-year-old male shooter “said to be obsessed with video games.”
Half of the participants received a mug shot showing a young black man, the others were given an image of a young white man. The students, 88 percent of whom were white and 65 percent female, “were asked to rank their agreement with two statements...that the perpetrator’s history of playing violent video games probably played a factor in his committing the crime, and that the perpetrator’s crime was not related to violent video games.”
According to Technology review, which cites Patrick Markey, the study’s co-author, researchers found “a small but statistically significant” increased likelihood that participants would link video game playing to violent white suspects than black ones.
Perhaps more meaningful is the second experiment, however, which used Lexis Nexis to search for keywords in the media coverage of shootings. Analyzing thousands of articles about shootings from the past 40 years, researchers found articles were eight times more likely to mention video games when a suspect was white.
James Ivory, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at Virginia Tech, cited implicit bias as a reason for the differences.
“There are a lot of us out there who think we don’t have a racist cell in our body, but we are comfortable looking at certain explanations [for violence and crime] over others,” he told Technology Review.
Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University explained it this way:
“For an African-American or Latino male, it’s not video games; it’s inner city crime or gang violence, and we’re supposed to expect this in these neighborhoods,” Ferguson says.
“But when you look at a white kid from a reasonably affluent neighborhood, we are more inclined to see external attributions for committing the crime,” he says. “People wonder, ‘What would make a nice white kid commit a crime like this?’ They think something corrupted them.”
Citing video games as a cause for violent behavior—particularly mass shootings—functions as a shield for many politicians and pundits; it provides cover for them to feign concern over the problem without doing anything substantive about it (read: gun control).
But it functions similarly on a racial plane as well: allowing the media and its consumers to buy into the narrative that violence among black and brown youth is pathological, while young white men are “corrupted” and unduly influenced into committing violent acts. This framing, however subtle or subconscious, supports one of the most pervasive facets of white supremacist ideology, holding whiteness as inherently virtuous before it is, ostensibly through some outside circumstance, defiled.