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Millions of gamers manage not to shoot people. #VideoGamesAreNotToBlame is for them.

Do video games turn you violent? A set of Twitter hashtags reveal that’s not the right question.

Gamers compete at the Evolution Championship Series on August 2, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In the wake of two mass shootings over the weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, public debate has broken out yet again over the societal role of video games — as manifested in two competing hashtags: #VideoGamesAreNotToBlame and #VideoGamesAreToBlame.

In an incendiary White House speech on the shootings on Monday, President Donald Trump blamed “gruesome and grisly video games” for part of the “glorification of violence in our society.” His words echoed those of other lawmakers following the most recent shootings — and, more significantly, revived an argument that Trump himself has used multiple times following previous mass shootings, including the 2018 Parkland shooting.

But blaming video games for gun violence is a longstanding political meme whose origins predate the Columbine shooting, 20 years ago. The moral panic over video games is part of a larger recurring wave of hysteria aimed at what’s seen as subversive culture, from rock ’n’ roll to the occult, that spans decades.

And as evidenced by this ancient Philosoraptor meme from over a decade ago, there’s also clearly no statute of limitations on using memes to respond to the debate over video games:

Equally full of comedy and frustration, the trending hashtags encapsulate the public’s exasperation with the whole topic. After all, we’ve heard both sides of this argument all before, and the recurring video game debate is part of a larger, frustrating cycle of political debate that leaves us nowhere on the main issue of gun control.

To many members of the public, especially the millions who love video games but have somehow managed not to commit mass murder, the accusations of video games’ contribution to our society’s ills never get more convincing or sophisticated. Instead, they always come off as highly absurd.

The main argument driving these dueling hashtags isn’t actually about whether video games are or aren’t to blame: It’s that, regardless of the root causes of violence, America needs stronger gun control.

Despite the debate’s frequency, there’s no known correlation between video games and real-world violence

But since you may still be wondering ... do video games cause violence? The science isn’t clear, but there’s not much evidence of a close link. The American Psychological Association announced in 2015 that while research shows that video games can contribute to increases in aggression, there’s hardly any research on whether video games result in an increase in lethal violence. An APA committee policy statement is even more blunt: “There’s little scientific evidence to support the connection, and it may distract us from addressing those issues that we know contribute to real-world violence.”

What does seem starkly clear, by virtually every metric available, is that effective gun control measures work to offset acts of violence, and that America’s gun problem is entirely unique, brought about by the country’s failure to enact meaningful gun regulations.

That argument certainly applies to the video game debate. As Vox senior reporter Alvin Chang recently highlighted, there’s no obvious correlation between video game sales and gun deaths in other countries. As Chang concludes, “The story isn’t that Republicans are blaming video games. Rather, it’s that they’re blaming anything other than lax guns laws and the huge number of firearms in this country.”

The aforementioned hashtags also do the work of illustrating an observable, well-researched trend: the tendency to frame domestic terrorism carried out by white men as instigated by something other than white supremacy or genocidal levels of race hatred.

The New York Times recently reported that researchers found that the media is “more than eight times as likely” to mention video games in an article on a mass shooting “when the shooter is white than when the shooter is black.” In other words, video games may be an excuse that white America, and the media, use to avoid discussing the real problem.

Of course, many Americans of color already knew that.

As we’ve seen with other politically charged social media hashtags, the #VideoGamesAreNotToBlame and #VideoGamesAreToBlame hashtags highlight the absurdity of conservative social anxiety. In this case, it’s a fear that seems to be substituting “video games” for a much deeper anxiety rooted in changing social norms and a fear of racial diversity. In addition to allowing those who are most impacted by that other, deeper fear to speak out, the hashtags are emphasizing the real issues at stake in the battle for gun control — and making it clear it’s never been about video games at all.