Echoes of the Newtown Sandy Hook school tragedy are continuing to reverberate through the political atmosphere as politicians seek to shift some of the blame to violent video games, but scientists and even some high-ranking law-enforcement officials don't see the link.
President Obama has called on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine whether there's a link between violent video games and real-life violence.
In Connecticut, state Rep. Debralee Hovey, whose district includes the Newtown area, isn't waiting for the answer. She has introduced a bill that would impose a "10% sin tax" on violent video games.
But on CBS' Face the Nation yesterday, a former FBI profiler said she and her colleagues don't see the games as a cause of shootings and other violent crimes, although conceding that they may sometimes be use as a sort of planning tool for carrying out attacks.
"We don't see these as the cause of violence," Mary Ellen O'Toole said. "We see them as sources of fueling ideation that's already there."
Appearing on the panel with O'Toole was Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, who cautioned that national panics over violent incidents "can create junk science on video games."
Coincidentally, a new report published by Ferguson in the American Psychological Association’s flagship journal American Psychologist discusses the history of video game violence research, how video game violence research became politicized and dogmatic and the risks for this research in the future.
Stating that video game violence research has always been inconsistent and often limited by significant flaws, Ferguson's report charges that moral panics over mass homicides and historical patterns of culture war drove politicians, activists and some scholars to make extreme statements about the “harmfulness” of violent games that could not be supported by the actual data.
Although written before the tragic Sandy Hook shooting, the report highlights the risks that calls for research following Sandy Hook may become politicized, possibly compromising the scientific process.
"The risks moving forward are that these politicized calls for research may create a new wave of junk science that will only further damage the credibility of the field," Ferguson said.
NSF gets involved
It was just a few weeks ago that a Virginia congressman released a report by a National Science Foundation advisory committee that named violent video games as one of three major risk factors linked to mass shootings. The other two were mental illness and easy access to guns.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who had asked for the report and whose committee controls funding for scientific agencies, used the report to bludgeon President Obama for blaming gun violence on easy access to guns in his State of the Union Address.
"How can he in good conscience ... not acknowledge the fact that each one of the shooters in those events was mentally disturbed? How could he not acknowledge the role that violent media played in some of their lives?" Wolf asked.
In a ConsumerAffairs guest column, Ferguson responded that the NSF report was "not credible."
"It was a shame to see a credible group, the National Science Foundation (NSF), find its name attached to a report commissioned by a politician with a clear agenda that almost surgically avoided mentioning any research that conflicted with a highly ideological and alarmist view of media effects," Ferguson said.
He said the report "grossly misrepresents the field of video game violence."
Columbine set the stage
In his American Psychologist article, Ferguson traces much of the anti-video game fever to the Columbine shootings.
"In the political environment following the 1999 Columbine massacre some scholars made more and more extreme claims about violent media and games, and ultimately came to control policy statements made by the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics," he said.
"The result were policy statements that were filled with errors and omissions, and which continue to mislead the general public."
Ferguson's study calls for professional organizations and politicians to be more cautious and balanced in their approach to the topic in the future.