Criminologists and Media Scholars

In the past seven years, the number of school shootings have been on the rise in the United States, with 290 school shootings taking place since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. In the aftermath of the school shootings, speculations surrounding the cause of the mass shootings, one of which being violence in the media, more specifically violence in video games have been on the rise (2018). Those speculations quickly spiraled into public outrage over the potentially damaging effects of violent video games. Without media such as newspapers, radio, television and the internet, the moral panic would have very limited effect on the public.

Moral panic refers to the feelings of fear and concern created by a certain group in society to impose their moral beliefs on the general public (Ferguson, 2010, p.70). Moral panic has led to the politically motivated research around the debate on violent video games. The political economy approach is used to understand the politics and power relationships between politics and economics imbedded in the development of technology (Flew and Smith, 2011, p. 65). Using the political economy approach, I will be focusing on the effect of violent video games on moral panic among the general public.

I will be using academic sources from 2010 to 2017 investigating the debate on video game violence. I will be addressing how violent behaviours such as incidents of school shootings sparked a public debate on violent video games. I will also talk about the ways media outlets have played a role in stoking moral panics over the potentially damaging effects of violent video games. This essay will explore the motives of politicians in spreading moral panic on violence in video games. I will argue that media exploitation through newspapers, television and the internet is used as a mean to create and spread moral panic, which negatively affects the public.

The real-life violence observed by the parents creates a fear from the fictional violence their children witness by playing video games. According to Markey, P. M. and Ferguson, C. J. (2017), although there is very limited scientific data about the relationship between violent video games and real-world violence, parents are in constant fear about the damaging effects violent video games have on their children. Parents have a “save to children mentality” when it comes to violent video games and they develop a defensive attitude in which “… questioning the panic becomes tantamount to not caring for children” (Markey and Ferguson, 2017, p.108).

This highlights the parents’ negative perception on youth culture and shows that parents are significantly affected by the belief system on violent video games which they defend emotionally rather than relying on scientific evidence. Instead, parents rely on short excerpts from the news in creating a preconceived notion on moral panic. The news media communicate information to the general public about events that take place, triggering different reactions some of which further exaggerate the event (Flew and Smith, 2011, p.30). Thus, what is reported in the news media significantly impacts the public’s perception on the effects of violent video games on children. People look at violent video games as the issue as is it an easier route when it comes to solving the “problems” violence is causing.

This diverts the attention on the real issues that is causing the increase in the real-world violence today such as mental illness, poverty and educational disparities (Markey and Ferguson, 2017, p.109). The parents’ fears on violent video games is distant from reality, which is that the video game moral panic is simply influenced by people of higher positions and of authority. Major stakeholders such as politicians are spreading the panic over violent video games through tactics of fear and the manipulation of parents’ emotions. Markey, P. M. and Ferguson, C. J. (2017) claim that “In the aftermath of three recent school shootings, nearly five thousand newspaper articles were published that discussed video games in the context of the events” (p.113). This emphasizes the role the scholars have in stoking moral panic through their work and leads to the assertion that the research linked moral panic is perhaps a way in gaining profits.

The publics’ fear on violent video games originates from the preconceived notion they have on gamers and gamer identity. “The moral panic wheel is spun, if you will, by general societal beliefs. These societal beliefs may be cultural, or religious, or may be supplied by society’s authoritarian political, scientific, and activist elements” (Ferguson, 2010, p.71). This shows that the societal beliefs play a major role in stoking moral panic, where people go as far as linking the events in a game to real world violence.

Ferguson claims that despite efforts made in linking violent video games to real-life violent crimes, evidence shows that “violent crimes, including youth crimes, generally are decreasing” (Ferguson, 2010, p.70). This indicates that crimes and video games are not causally related and that concerns over violent video games are exaggerated. According to Ferguson, violent video games negatively impact the public’s stereotypes on gamers and gamer identities (Ferguson, 2010, p.77). A gamer is defined as a person who actively makes sense of games and constantly reacts to the events witnessed in games. A gamer is actively involved in video game culture which is a worldwide new media subculture formed by video games that is about the interaction one has with the media and their participation in media activities (Shaw, 2010, p.412). There is a misconception that violent video games lead to anti-social behaviours among video game players.

However, Ferguson points out the positive effects of violent video games such as the increased social interaction and engagement of youth and emphasizes how the public pays very little attention to those effects. New media allows a realm of social interaction as it introduces multi-player online games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft, making both violent and non-violent video games a means of civic involvement (Ferguson, 2010, p.76-77). Therefore, there are many research efforts focusing on linking violent video games to real world violence and very few considering the positive effects of video games. Failure to thoroughly and objectively examine the effects of violent video games will result in producing a folk devil in the 21st century.

There are cognitive biases which affect scholars’ opinions on violent video games and the potentially damaging effects violence in games could have on youth. Different disciplinary approaches such as psychologists, criminologists and media scholars have different perceptions on the effect of media in shaping one’s behavior and how minor acts of violence are generalized to more serious aggressive acts in real-life (Ferguson, 2017, p.322).

Criminologists and media scholars have a positive view on video games, claiming that violence in video games is not linked to real world violence. Psychologists on the other hand, believe otherwise, claiming that violent video games do lead to aggressive behaviors among youth (Ferguson, 2017, p.321). This shows that different disciplinary approaches affect how academic researchers address the debate on violent video games and the type of information delivered to the public. Some of the information translates to news media coverage which is used to further fuel the moral panic. Ferguson, C.J. (2017) points out that “media effects theories are largely a product of social psychology…psychologists’ main advocacy organization, the APA [American Psychological Association], has promoted negative beliefs about violent video games, often to considerable controversy” (p.321).

The cherrypicked beliefs on moral panic encourages the flawed news on violent video games, which lead to scientific industries such as APA and American Academy of Pediatrics to produce false data that further strengthen these beliefs and further stoke the moral panic. Additionally, the more “policy makers” are seen as “doing something about the perceived crisis”, the more the news media receives views and “clicks” from the public, which translates into funding that further motivates researchers (Ferguson, 2017, p.310). This emphasizes the never-ending cycle of moral panic which negatively affects the public and creates damage to the reputation of a variety of fields of scholars that oppose to those claims.

The moral panic around violent video games is linked to culture and society. What is seen online and, on the media, influences our perception on violent video games. According to Raymond Williams, culture is a “whole way of life”. It is the formation, arrangement and organization of what we believe, value, feel and do. It is also a process that is constantly changing, and it is ordinary as it occurs within a variety of practices that constitute everyday life. Culture expresses dominant, residual and emergent values. The dominant values of culture refer to the commonly accepted values, whereas the residual features of a culture involve the unpopular beliefs. The emergent features are the new ideas and processes that constitute a culture (Slack and Wise, 2019, pp.6-7). The moral panic on violent video games is part of this culture. An example of a dominant value expressed by the public is that violent video games are perceived to be harmful and “cause people to be violent” (Dillio, 2014, p.111).

For instance, after the Sandy Hook school shooting, the public mobbed a Facebook page on the game, Mass Effect, thinking that it was the perpetrators favourite game. It turned out later on that the perpetrator did not play the game Mass effect and that the moral panic around the game was simply a misdirected public outcry (Dillio, 2014, p.111). The misdirected public outcry has led to the video game legislation in the United States which deemed ineffective. Dillio (2014) claims that violence in video games are not correlated according to science and the intervention of the government by censoring violent video games for minors is not guaranteed despite legislative effort. Therefore, the protection of children from the possible harm video game violence brings and the fear from violence in videos games are great motivators for the censorship, which is used as a way to help parents in controlling what their children consume in the media.

Violent video games are seen as a political object due to the relationship between the political process and the press. Media is used as a means to convey the message that violent video games are the main cause of incidents such as school shootings. The relation between violent video games and school shootings is established by politicians through the press. For instance, the German press coverage was mediated by the Emsdetten school shooting and “the press coverage was also a medium for the political process, which could be intensified due to the sudden press attention” (Sørensen, 2012, p. 976). According to Sørensen (2012), the Emsdetten school shooting incident was reported in four national newspapers in Germany, two of which are centre-left, while the other two are con¬servative papers.

The author found that “the measure most frequently discussed was a ban on violent computer games mainly demanded by politicians, but also discussed by other commentators” (Sørensen, 2012, p.968). Since there is not enough evidence for claiming that violent computer games are the source of violent youth behaviour, the focus should be on the political processes for regulating violent com¬puter games rather their ban. This highlights the mutualistic relation between politics and the press, where news fabrication on violent video games in the press and politics, both gain benefits.

Additionally, violent video games are used as filling material that add substance to the reports and to spread the moral panic. Sørensen (2012) mentions that the “material on violent computer games … appeared either in individual articles or were inserted into stories on a large variety of different issues” (p. 976). The implementation of violent video games as an “object of politics” is a form of moral identity that is achieved through its mediation in the press. Therefore, the reliance of politicians on the press to report their initiatives and the spread of the moral panic through news fabrication on violent video games has made violent video games an object of politics.

In conclusion, violent video games are politically revolutionary, and they have been used by politicians as a mean in spreading moral panic after incidents of school shootings such as Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in United States and Emsdetten school shooting in Germany. The widespread use of media including newspapers, television and the internet has facilitated the spread of fabricated news on the effects of violent video games and it has increased the negative effect towards the targeted public and the youth which have been disparaged and alienated in the process.

Moral panic over violence in video games has been a constant event in the media and arises from fear among parents that wish to protect their children. This moral panic leads to the negative stereotype on gamers and gamers’ identity, where the lack of an objective examination of the effects of violent video games may lead to a folk devil in the 21st century. The panic over violence in video games is integrated in today’s societal culture and its spread has been facilitated by cognitive biases and through news fabrication by politicians, which has been beneficial for both the political process and the press. Thus, the use of violent video games as a political object has been a dominant and enduring identity of the press coverage that fuel the never-ending cycle of moral panic.