We've gotten used to headlines like this: "8-year-old shoots, kills elderly caregiver after playing video game." This time, the setting is a trailer park in Louisiana, and the game is "Grand Theft Auto IV" but the story has been told before with numerous variations on the theme.
The leap from video games to violence is irresistible to the media – it's catnip for debate and pageviews. But social scientists haven't yet been able to untangle the link between playing violent games and committing violent acts.
"If you look at the state of research right now, there isn't a causal link between violent media and violent behaviors," says Constance Steinkuehler, the former White House "video game czar."
"That's contested in some corners," she adds. "You have to keep in mind that in much of that work that's trying to assert there's a positive relationship, it's pretty tenuous – showing, for example, that after 20 minutes of playing a game subjects have an increased likelihood to fill in a letter in a word that is EXPLO_E as 'EXPLODE' rather than 'EXPLORE.' ...There are a lot of inferences that you have to draw in order for that to work."
Until late last year, Ms. Steinkuehler served as a senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology briefing officials including Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has wrestled publicly with the issue of games and violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
Although skeptical of much scholarship on the link between games and violence, Steinkuehler won't entirely dismiss the potential link between games and violence.
"If you want to hold the stance that games are a powerful vehicle for learning in subjects like social studies, or history, or science, or math, but not in terms of violence, or things that concern us ... I find that argument difficult to swallow," she says. "I have a hard time dismissing the concerns of the public over violent media."
However, "the thing that troubles me most is that we jump to variables like video games instead of the most obvious variables in the circumstances – there's a loaded gun in the house. There's an 8-year-old playing a mature title.... I find it an incredible distraction when something like this happens, and there's this incredible tragedy, that we jump to these variables that if they're part of the equation they're almost negligible," she says.
From Steinkuehler's perspective, the factors that immediately fade to the background when the media reports a video game-linked killing are exactly the factors that need the most examination.
"It's amazing how quickly we'll jump to implausible explanations when the obvious ones are right in front of us," she says. "[We focus on video games] instead of worrying about things like poverty, safety in the home, making sure there are two parents in the home, making sure the media children consume are developmentally appropriate, and keeping them away from loaded guns," she says.
Possible solutions for youth violence are both more obvious and more complicated than banning or further regulating games like Grand Theft Auto, Steinkuehler says.
"The obvious issues aren't as easily solvable and politically savory. You want to make a difference in children's lives? Address poverty, number one. Address the fact that children are homeless, and in unsafe environments. It's just not as politically sexy as claiming that GTA is murdering children."