After Mike Rufail graduated from college in 2001, he turned to video games as a cheaper alternative to nights out, buying an Xbox 360 paired with popular first-person shooter Call of Duty 2. “I realized I was one of the better players pretty quickly,” says Rufail, 36. He was right. Rufail went on to become a professional esports athlete and, later, founder and CEO of Envy Gaming, an esports squad that competes in tournaments for games like Fortnite, Overwatch, and, yes, Call of Duty. “I was a fairly good athlete, and played sports my whole life,” says Rufail, who retired from competitive play in 2013 to manage Envy’s roster. “But I also had a love for gaming.”
But in the past few days, Rufail’s profession has been criticized by politicians and pundits who argue that violent video games have at least in part fueled America’s mass shooting epidemic. After a pair of shootings left 31 people dead and dozens more wounded in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio last weekend, everyone from television news hosts to President Trump pointed to games like Call of Duty as a factor. “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Trump said in a Monday statement. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youths to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
Trump’s finger-pointing echoes a persistent but largely meritless narrative. Numerous studies have failed to establish a link between video gaming and shootings. “Video game violence is not a meaningful predictor of youth violence,” found a 2016 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. “Family and social variables are more influential factors.” Meanwhile, violent games are popular in other countries that aren’t dealing with a mass shooting crisis, like Japan, where gun-related incidents are rare. “More than 165 million Americans enjoy video games, and billions of people play video games worldwide,” said the Electronic Software Association, a trade group representing the video game industry, in a statement on Tuesday. “Yet other societies, where video games are played as avidly, do not contend with the tragic levels of violence that occur in the U.S.”
Corporate America is also being skittish about video games following the shootings. The Disney-owned ESPN has rescheduled the broadcast of its Apex Legends tournament, while an internal Walmart memo circulating Friday instructed stores nationwide to remove depictions of “violent images and aggressive behavior” (the retail giant is still selling guns.)
For gamers like Rufail, accusations and insinuations that gaming is somehow related to the senseless deaths of dozens of people simply don’t add up. “I played [Call of Duty] about eight hours a day on average for six straight years,” he says. “And I have never felt the need to enact any kind of violence in my life.”
Professional Apex Legends player Tim “Dummy” Olson agrees. “I just feel like I have seen nothing but positivity from the video game community, and there’s so much it adds to,” says Olson, who joined the California-based esports team Gen.G earlier this year. “I have a really good work ethic from video games. I’ve met a lot of my friends through video games.”
Gaming has “done nothing but bring positivity in my life,” he adds.
Others in the gaming world say they at least understand why video games get criticized after horrific moments of real-world violence.
Many online gaming communities, like other online forums and chatrooms, are grappling with unwanted toxic behavior, ranging from insult-flinging to “swatting,” a phenomenon in which someone falsely reports a gun-related crime at a victim’s address. The consequences can be deadly; in 2018, Tyler Barriss was found guilty of manslaughter after he swatted 28-year-old Andrew Finch, an innocent man who was killed by police when he opened his front door. The El Paso shooter posted a manifesto on 8chan, a largely unmoderated forum where users discuss gaming, among many other topics.
“There is, one hundred percent, a larger issue in the gaming community that people do have to realize exists when it comes to racism or sexism or misogyny,” says Rod Breslau, a longtime esports reporter. He believes gamers need to more actively report bad behavior, while community leaders, like top players and streamers, need to set a better example. “[Gamers] haven’t been told, ‘this shit isn’t funny,'” says Breslau.
Emily Buck, a writer and game designer, says the gaming world has become “incredibly easy to scapegoat” for two reasons: the interactive element inherent to the medium, and the fact that the stereotypical “gamer” is often seen as a young, perhaps disaffected male — the same demographic as several recent mass shooters.
As Buck points out, games require active participation, unlike movies or music. In Call of Duty, or any other shooter, gamers are the ones pulling the virtual trigger, making those titles easy to characterize as murder simulators. Still, enjoying video games “does not translate to being violent in the real world,” says Buck, who has worked on games like Batman: The Telltale Series and the role-playing game Together Strong, developed to help veterans who are struggling to readjust to civilian life. “Numerous studies have shown there’s no link between playing a violent video game and becoming a violent person.”
Meanwhile, several of the suspects in recent mass shootings fit the popular but increasingly incorrect stereotype of a gamer: young, white and male. In actuality, nearly half of video gamers are women, according to a report from the ESA. Furthermore, roughly half of the American population now plays some kind of video game; it’s unlikely they all pose the risk of becoming violent.
Jinmo “Tobi” Yang, a South Korean professional Overwatch player, believes the core problem lies elsewhere. “I think the mass shootings occur because you can easily access guns in the U.S.,” he says. Indeed, gun sales in the U.S. have already topped $17 billion this year, according to a report from IBIS World, a research firm. There are an estimated 393 million guns currently in America, more than one for every citizen.
“Video games are the easiest answer for politicians to say when looking for solutions to this matter,” says Yang, who plays for a team called Seoul Dynasty and was in South Korea’s Army until 2015. During his mandatory military service, his high shooting accuracy led him to become a drill assistant. He says that his time spent playing shooting games made him a more accurate shot, but not a violent person.
For Rufail, there’s a generation gap at play. “Most people watching Fox News or watching the President address something on television aren’t people who play video games,” he argues. With the median age of Fox viewers hovering around 65 — the average gamer is about half as old — blaming society’s latest ills on a younger generation’s chosen form of entertainment is easier than confronting difficult topics like gun control or white nationalism.
“As someone that has a career based on video games, this is really disappointing,” says Olson, the Apex Legends player. “Not just because it’s my career, but because I feel like it brings so much joy and enjoyment to people. And I would hope that everyone that’s in a position to actually fix these issues would actually focus on the root of the problem.”