In 2022, 648 people died in mass shootings—the second-highest annual tally ever recorded. Gun violence has since continued at a rate averaging at least one mass shooting per day.
Many politicians and influencers have attributed mass shootings to adverse mental health behaviors engendered by video games, citing vague research.
For example, Republican Speaker for the House Kevin McCarthy previously cited video games as a driver behind gun violence: “But the idea of these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals and others—I’ve always felt that is a problem for future generations and others. We’ve watched from studies shown before of what it does to individuals.”
The Stanford Brainstorm Lab’s research is focused on the intersection of technology and mental health. We spent months reviewing 82 medical research articles that encompass all the reputed literature and scholarship in the field for any studies with any sort of causal link between playing video games and violent behavior.
In short, current medical research and scholarship have not found any causal link between playing video games and gun violence in real life. Some studies have asserted an association between playing violent video games and “aggression,” here defined as any behavior intended to psychologically or physically harm someone and measured by self-reported surveys rather than recorded actions. Violence was considered any act that caused physical harm. Even when considering the range of actions that this definition covers—from a simple push all the way up to assault with deadly force—such studies did not find a causal link between video game use and violence.
Taking this inherently limited approach a step further, one innovative research group investigated whether changes in violent crime tracked releases of violent video games over time. Close analysis of the FBI’s annual aggregated crime reports and 30 years of violent video game sales did not yield any evidence that the latter caused increases in actual violence.
This will no doubt come as a surprise to many. After all, in a culture that fetishizes guns, video games surely cannot be excluded as a factor in gun violence? But this expectation of a causal relationship has been carefully crafted as part of a larger scapegoat narrative by vested interests for decades.
The same article that explored real-world violence data actually noted a decrease in violent crime following the release of popular, violent video games and went on to hypothesize that video games may serve as an outlet for violent tendencies rather than a catalyst.
Lastly, it is worth noting that while these video games are not a uniquely American phenomenon, relatively unfettered access to guns—particularly those specifically designed to kill people—is, at least in the developed world. This ease of access to guns remains the most compelling reason for American exceptionalism when it comes to our alarming, unnecessary, and continued proclivity for mass shootings.
The scholarship that we reviewed did not just indicate the lack of a causal relationship between video game use and gun violence. Recent research has also revealed many compelling benefits of playing video games.
At their core, games confront players with novel challenges and immediate feedback on player technique. This unique mode of tackling difficulty allows players to adopt an iterative approach toward gameplay improvement and a subsequent sense of accomplishment, thus aiding them in adopting a healthy outlook toward real-world problems.
Furthermore, many video games are intrinsically social. Scholarship on multiplayer online video games reveals evidence of improvements in self-esteem and cognitive and social skills along with concurrent decreases in depression, stress, and loneliness. Links between social well-being and online gameplay have been identified irrespective of player age or intensity.
Diagnosable conditions can also be addressed by video games’ positive effects. Studies indicate that video games could act as novel adjuncts or alternative treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and can have a role in the prevention and treatment of adolescent depression and anxiety.
Mental health stigma, a significant barrier to seeking mental health care, is another important challenge that video games have proven adept at overcoming. Hellblade is perhaps the most compelling example of a video game addressing stigma head on. This game was developed by Ninja Theory in collaboration with mental health experts, patients, and scientists who together moved against long-standing norms of inaccurate mental health portrayal by authentically weaving the experience of psychosis into their protagonist’s narrative.
What resulted was not a superficial, stereotypical depiction of schizophrenia but rather a nuanced, empathetic portrayal that left many players feeling that they understood the disease for the first time. Risk-averse game developers will be glad to learn that mental health messaging did not play a negative role in game selection, regardless of a player’s mental health status.
This is not, however, to label video games as a panacea for mental health. Any treatment or intervention carries risk with it. Video game addiction and correlated spending are very real issues that must be addressed. As with any addiction, video game addiction occurs in instances where players dedicate so much time and attention to video games that it detracts or imposes on other routine aspects of their life. Video game addiction affects as much as 8% of U.S. youth, a serious threat to the mental health, growth, and development of many adolescents afflicted by it. For this reason, the World Health Organization has gone so far as to recognize gaming addiction as a disease.
Despite these drawbacks, video games promise an exciting, new, and positive means of addressing the ongoing mental health epidemic. However, healthy gaming cannot reach its true potential until clinicians, developers, and the general public work together.
Clinical medicine must view the video game industry as an ally and a source of effective activism and novel treatments. The video game industry must recognize the value that physicians, mental health professionals, and patients stand to contribute to future video game design and development. The public needs to understand that video games do not cause violence, can substantially lower stigma and barriers to access, and hold the potential to inject wellness into our everyday lives.
Our studies have found that continuing to lambast gun violence as the end result of video game use has no factual or research basis. With the spread of collaborations between the gaming industry and clinicians, video games might even be part of the solution. In the meantime, our colleagues at Stanford and many others have routinely demonstrated that gun control is the most effective means of reducing gun violence.
Have an opinion for or against video games in mental health? Email the Stanford Brainstorm Lab at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Dupee, MD, MBA, is a resident physician in psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and the director of strategy at Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation. Varun Thvar is a research intern at Stanford Brainstorm Lab. Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and the founder and executive director of Stanford Brainstorm Lab.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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