The Real Connection Between Video Games and Mass Shootings

It’s Gamergate.

Two people kneel beside a memorial of flowers, balloons, and religious items honoring the victims of the shooting. A sign says "El Paso is a family."
A makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday. Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Republicans have found a culprit to blame for this weekend’s dual mass shootings, and it’s not guns or white nationalism. It’s video games. The trend started with Fox News host Jon Scott, who speculated on Saturday that the shooter might be a young man who grew up playing video games. This thinking has since been picked up by others, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who suggested video games “dehumanize individuals,” and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who speculated that for the shooter, the murders were “a video game to him. He has no sense of humanity, no sense of life. He wanted to be a super soldier, for his Call of Duty game.” [Update, Aug. 5, 2019, at 10:30 a.m.: In his statement on Monday morning, President Donald Trump also blamed the shooting on, in part, the “glorification of violence in our society,” including “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.”]

The calls from Republicans for parents to stop letting their kids play games (Patrick), or to use gaming behavior to identify potential shooters ahead of time (McCarthy), seem desperate in their attempt to make the conversation about anything other than the availability of guns or the rise of violent white supremacy. But, although these Republicans probably don’t know it, there is a clear and obvious connection between video games, white nationalist terrorism, and the image board where the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto. That connection is Gamergate, the campaign of misogynistic harassment by aggrieved gamers that began in 2014, and which moved to 8chan from 4chan when the latter refused to allow Gamergaters to use that board for coordinated harassment campaigns and doxing.

8chan existed briefly before Gamergate, but its popularity as a place where manifestos are shared and racist violence is openly advocated can be traced back to the migration of Gamergaters, and to the specific need on the part of Gamergaters for a forum so absolute in its dedication to free speech that it would allow even harassment campaigns and doxing against individuals (specifically, individual women in gaming like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian). It was no longer enough to say terrible things on 4chan. 8chan’s Gamergaters needed to be able to plan and carry out terrible actions. Their flight created a core community around 8chan that had violence as its raison d’être.

Although some researchers have claimed to find a link between video gaming and aggression, meta-analyses suggest that this connection is weak or nonexistent. That makes sense, because the community of people who play video games is both vast and diverse, while the people who commit mass shootings are both few in number and overwhelmingly male. Nearly as many women report that they play video games as men, and there are no significant racial differences in who plays and who doesn’t. The picture does change somewhat when you ask whether someone self-identifies as a “gamer.” Self-identified gamers are predominantly male, but even then, nonwhite people identify as “gamers” more often than whites do, whereas among mass shooters, nonwhites are not so overrepresented (and are obviously quite underrepresented among white nationalists).

Because gaming is so vast, it’s clear that the specific grievances of Gamergate—that women should not be allowed to criticize games from a feminist perspective and that industry attempts to increase diversity are ruining games for “real” gamers—had to do with the entitlement of an angry subculture of men within gaming, not the content of the games themselves. This subculture of Gamergaters, who erroneously believe themselves to be the only true gamers in a world of phonies, is what made the culture of 8chan what it is. It was violent then, and it’s more violent now. It was misogynist and racist then, and all the more so now. Gamergaters wanted a safe space from which to attack the women they thought were ruining video games, and by that metric, their creation has succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings.

It’s not difficult to imagine that it could have been a different cultural moment that made 8chan what it is today, that the aggrieved faction could have formed in another subculture, of fantasy nerds, say, or sports fans. The result could have been much the same, down to the obsession with “high scores” that links the El Paso shooter with the Christchurch shooter, who posted his white nationalist “manifesto” to 8chan in March before killing 51 people at two mosques, or the Poway, California, shooting suspect, who allegedly posted a hate-filled white supremacist “manifesto” to 8chan in April before opening fire on a California synagogue. In other words, Republicans are right that there’s a strong connection between video games and the toxic environments that are radicalizing the young men who commit mass shootings. But the link isn’t the games themselves. It’s Gamergate.