GTA riots link an "expected moral panic"

Media reports shift blame, say experts.

The link between violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto and the riots that have gripped the UK this week are entirely predictable and part of a cycle of moral panic, according to experts.

On Monday, following a weekend of unrest in the capital, the London Evening Standard's front page linked Rockstar's open world crime epic to the real world violence.

"Go home, get a takeaway and watch anything that happens on TV," one constable advised the paper. "These are bad people who did this. Kids out of control. When I was young it was all Pac-Man and board games. Now they're playing Grand Theft Auto and want to live it for themselves."

The paper changed its story for the West End final edition, but not before it was roundly criticised by specialist press and gamers.

According to Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor at Texas A&M International University who has researched the link between violent video games and violent behaviour, this kind of reaction does not come as a surprise.

"According to Moral Panic Theory, this in fact is rather expected," he told Eurogamer last night. "Many moral panics focus on crime particularly among youth, and typically the broader society searches for 'boogeymen' who can be blamed for real or imagined (most often imagined) violent 'epidemics' among youth.

"Western society has a long tradition of media-based moral panics from the Greeks to the present day. Everything from Greek plays to dime novels, comic books, Elvis Presley, Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter and video games (I suspect social media may be the next boogeyman in line).

"It's a fairly predictable cycle, yet we keep repeating it. The UK would do better to examine their economic and social policies (as would the US) rather than wasting time focusing on video games."

There is no evidence to suggest a link between video game violence and real world violence – a point made to Eurogamer by a number of experts on the matter last night.

While some studies indicate a link between aggressive personality and gameplay, the causal direction is not clear. And while studies do indicate that individuals pre-disposed to aggression are more likely to find the violent contents of games motivating, there is no scientific evidence that supports the claim that playing violent video games, for example, playing GTA, is linked to violent behaviour in the real world.

Indeed violent crime has plummeted in the UK and other countries as sales of video games have risen. And some research indicates that video game play may have a cathartic effect, that is, they relieve frustration and aggression.

"If you plot the sales of violent realistic games over time, and the number of events of youth violence, the correlation is negative," Dr Andy Przybylski, research fellow at the University of Essex, said. "On a societal scale, levels of youth violence have been negatively related to increased video game play."

"It's probably time to retire this belief as the data just never was there," Ferguson continued.

"Obviously rioting occurred long before there were video games. Most often these situations, rioting, is due to a disconnect between a group of (primarily) young men and the society they feel has failed to provide them with adequate avenues for advancement. Trying to shift blame onto video games seems like a distraction from the more pressing societal issues that may be behind these riots."

"They are a new form of entertainment that many are not familiar with," Przybylski concluded. "Although the median age of a gamer is 34 years old, many people haven't finished GTA IV - and learned what happens to people who murder."

Rockstar is yet to comment on the story.

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About the author

Wesley Yin-Poole

Wesley Yin-Poole

Deputy Editor

Wesley is Eurogamer's deputy editor. He likes news, interviews, and more news. He also likes Street Fighter more than anyone can get him to shut up about it.


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