Following the high profile Sandy Hook schools shooting, the discussion immediately turned to causes and preventative measures. One of the places blame was laid was at the feet of violent video games and movies. Is there anything to back up these claims? I don’t think so.
There are a couple of ways to approach this. Comparing rates of crime in general over time and across jurisdictions can be problematic. There are a number of factors that affect most crime statistics. Crimes are most likely to be reported in situations where victims feel that the justice system will be effective. For example, many rapes in North America go unreported because of the negative attitudes victims face, and the situation is even worse in India and other countries. The same may not be true in Sweden where the rate of reported rape is much higher.
There is also the matter of classification of crime. Sticking with rape, the BBC has a comparison of the definitions of sexual assault in several countries. Not only do these vary across geo-political boundaries, they also change over time. For example, it is only relatively recently that non-consensual spousal sex was considered a crime. Then there is the means of reporting. Statistics can be based upon crime reports, arrests, or convictions.
The one crime that is most often used as a cross jurisdictional measure is homicide. These numbers may be distorted somewhat by conflation with suicides and accidents, it is the comparative statistic most used by criminologists.
Video games are a relatively new phenomenon, while homicide has been measurable over time. While some researchers claim that violent games increase aggression, the homicide rates do not correlate. While there are some differences across the developed world, most charts of homicides follow the trend outlines below in a graph from the FBI.
This seems to show that a decrease in homicides coincided with the advent of video games. I am not suggesting a causal relationship, merely that a relationship over time does not appear to exist.
The Washington Post ran a article on this topic and charted video game sales against gun-related homicides in ten countries around the world.
The author adds that the numbers are based on the assumption that the types of video games are the same in all countries. It is obvious from the graph, however, that unless there is an overwhelming difference between the US and the rest of the world in the level of violence in the video games played, there really isn’t any correlation.
Opponents of gun controls argue, fairly I think, that total homicides, rather than just gun homicides should be used. So I created my own graph to make that comparison. I used data from the UN for the number of homicides and estimates from several internet searches for estimates of video game sales. Again, the same assumptions on the type of game apply here.
My numbers on video game sales varied widely from the Post’s, undoubtedly due to different data sources, but the overall trend is the same. There really does not seem to be a relationship between the use of video games and homicides.
These numbers say absolutely nothing about other types of crime and video games. I am going to end on totally unscientific personal anecdotal evidence. The people I know who spend the most amount of time gaming are the least likely to get off the sofa to commit crimes.
All of the numbers I have seen, put the US in a class by itself as far as homicides are concerned. The reasons are complex, but I don’t think video games are part of the mix at all.