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After days of destruction, Macron blames a familiar bogeyman: video games

French President Emmanuel Macron the violent clashes that erupted after a teen was shot dead by police last week have been influenced, at least in part, by violent video games.
Ludovic Marin
French President Emmanuel Macron the violent clashes that erupted after a teen was shot dead by police last week have been influenced, at least in part, by violent video games.

Fueled by rage over the police killing of a teenager during a routine traffic stop June, throngs of young people in France have been lashing out against alleged racial profiling and calling for greater police accountability.

Over the last week, protesters have lit thousands of cars on fire, attacked schools, town halls, police stations, banks and businesses, and set nearly a thousand buildings ablaze. Some in the Paris suburb of L'Hay-les-Roses rammed a burning car into the mayor's home. Estimates of the damage have been projected to be about $1.1 billion. As a result, thousands of young people have been arrested since the rioting began in the days after 17-year-old Nahel M. was killed on June 27. According to France's Interior Ministry, the average age of those arrested is 17.

The crisis has exposed deep rancor within marginalized and often low-income communities over discrimination — Nahel is of North African descent — and a general lack of opportunity.

President Emmanuel Macron has mostly blamed social media for the devastation, but he has also claimed that video games have inspired copycat violence and vandalism.

"It sometimes feels like some of them are experiencing, on the streets, the video games that have intoxicated them," Macron saidin a press conference on July 1.

He added that protesters are using Snapchat and TikTok to organize themselves and spread "a mimicking of violence, which for the youngest leads to a kind of disconnect from reality."

World leaders turn to an outdated explanation

Concerns that video games promote shootings, massacres or rioting are now about half a century old; it has been traced back to the 1976 release of Death Race, an arcade video game which put players behind the wheel of a car to mow down humanoid figures for points. The argument gained renewed traction in the 1990s with the release of much more realistic first-person shooter games.

It is an old bogeyman that politicians have latched onto in the wake of horrific tragedies. But it has become less common as troves of studies have largely concluded there is no causal link between video games and violent behavior.

Still, that hasn't stopped world leaders from attempting to draw a correlation between the two. Just three months ago, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva blasted video games for "teaching kids to kill."

"I doubt there is a kid of eight, nine, 10, 12 years old, who is not used to spending a great deal of time playing this rubbish," he said at a conference to address hate speech on social networks. (His son later apologized for his father's remarks, saying neither he or his siblings had become violent as a result of playing video games.)

In 2019, following two mass shootings that happened just days apart — one in Dayton, Ohio and another in El Paso, Texas — President Donald Trump told America that "we must stop the glorification of violence in our society."

He added, "This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace."

Experts stress that video games don't cause violent crime

Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University in Florida who has studied the impact of such games on the public, said he is surprised at Macron's comments. The president is 45 years old and belongs to a generation raised with video games, so "seeing him mention this is almost anachronistic," Ferguson said, sounding perplexed.

"The evidence is very clear. Whatever may be going on in France, whatever violence is occurring, it certainly is not due to violence in video games."

Decades of research, especially long-term experiments spanning decades, have consistently found "that playing violent video games, do not cause even prank-level aggressive behaviors, let alone violent crimes," Ferguson said.

He also noted that the overall violent crime in the U.S. dropped significantly between 1993 and 2020, the same period during which violent video games soared in popularity.

And it's not just in the United States. A 2019 study out of Oxford University determined that early violent video game playing among British teenagers does not predict serious or violent criminal behavior later in life.

According to Ferguson, if video games were the cause of rampant violence, then countries like Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands, which consume more violent video games per capita, would be rife with bloodshed.

"Instead, they're three of the most peaceful countries on the planet in terms of violent crime," he said.

Ferguson explained that factors that can predict violent behaviors tend to be difficult family environments in which there is abuse or neglect, poverty and mental health disorders. "Just being in a bad neighborhood where your opportunities to get ahead and have an equal chance in society seem pretty remote," he said.

They are the sort of issues that require a deep policy and societal changes, he said.

"You could wave a magic wand and take all these people's video games away, and that's not going to have any effect in any way going to help their lives and reduce their aggression," Ferguson said.

So why do politicians turn to the familiar refrain? Ferguson said it is a way for elected leaders to shift the blame away from failing government policies.

"It gets people talking about the wrong thing. They're thinking about video games. They're not thinking about gun control or whatever inequalities are happening in France," Ferguson said.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.