By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – In the wake of school shootings, people are more likely to blame violent video games for the crime when perpetrators are white than when they are black, a small U.S. study suggests.

Researchers analyzed 204,796 news articles about 204 mass shootings in the U.S. dating from 1978 – the year after the release of the Atari 2600 game console – to 2018. Video games were eight times more likely to be mentioned when the shooting occurred at a school and when the perpetrator was a white male than when the shooter was an African American male or the incident happened elsewhere.

“When a violent act is carried out by someone who doesn’t match the racial stereotype of what a violent person looks like, people tend to seek an external explanation for the violent behavior,” said Patrick Markey, a coauthor of the study and psychology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“When a white child from the suburbs commits a horrific violent act like a school shooting, then people are more likely to erroneously blame video games than if the child was African American,” Markey said.

A mass shooting was defined as having three or more victims, not including the shooter, and not identifiably related to gangs, drugs or organized crime.

Video games were mentioned in 6.8 percent of news articles about school shootings with white perpetrators, compared with 0.5 percent for school shootings with black perpetrators.

When mass shootings happened in a non-school setting, however, video games were mentioned slightly less than 2% of the time for both white and black shooters, according to the report published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

To further test the potential for racial bias to color the perceived role of video games in mass shootings, researchers also did an experiment asking 169 mostly white college students to read a mock newspaper article describing a fictional mass shooting by an 18-year-old male who was described as an avid fan of violent video games.

Half of the participants read an article featuring a small mug shot of a white shooter while the other half saw a mug shot of a black shooter.

Questioned afterward, participants who read the article with the photo of a white shooter were significantly more likely to blame video games as a factor in causing the teen to commit the school shooting than those who saw a black shooter.

“Our results don’t provide hard and fast answers regarding why media and research participants consider video games more salient in school shootings committed by white perpetrators than black perpetrators,” said James Ivory, a coauthor of the study and communications researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

“Our best explanation for such a pattern of results is that with longstanding racial stereotypes regarding crime, it’s likely that people may simply be more comfortable looking for explanations (or partial excuses) for crimes committed by white perpetrators than black perpetrators because black perpetrators fit the perpetrator stereotype better in their minds,” Ivory said by email.

One limitation of the study is that the experimental portion only surveyed a small group of students at one university, and results might be different elsewhere or among different age groups.

In addition, the news analysis looked only at mentions of video games, shooting location and race of the perpetrator, but did not have data to determine the reasoning behind the observed differences in video-game mentions.

Still, the findings suggest that many Americans may have a long way to go in addressing conscious and unconscious stereotypes that shape how they think about race and crime, said Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.

“As much as we can, we hope that attitudes and perceptions to people and their behaviors are based on objective science and not myths and stereotypes that create division,” Piquero said by email. “Parents can encourage their children to engage in careful, critical, and objective thinking and to encourage them to see the world not solely through their eyes and lived experiences, but to think about things from all persons’ life situations and world view.”

SOURCE: Psychology of Popular Media Culture, online September 16, 2019.