Article co-written and researched by Steve Farrelly
1. Hate the Player, Not the Game
In the wake of the tragedy that befell Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School late last year, the US has been searching for answers to some very tough questions. The senseless violence that erupted at the school shook a nation whose (mostly) blissful ignorance of gun control and gun violence was jarred into a harsh and unwarranted reality. But rather than the tools of destruction, or the mental health of those in miraculous possession of them, the pro-gun agenda has been looking for almost anything else to blame; washing its hands of any undue conduct and laying the burden on almost all in its sights.
Videogames, as we rightfully explore here, are under siege by sections of the media and self interested groups (and individuals) that are uninterested
in dialogue where ‘blame’ on the US’ gun violence is concerned. Instead we’re left swallowing hyperbole, exaggeration, misinformation and sensationalism as a means to pursue an agenda that only serves to deflect blame, or as in the case of some media, create catching yellow-journalistic (read: sensationalist) headlines.
Let’s take a look:
- Wayne LaPierre - Executive VP of the NRA post-Sandy Hook press conference:
"Guns don't kill people... videogames, the media and Obama's budget kill people."
- Sen. Jay Rockefeller:
"Major corporations, including the videogame industry make billions on marketing and selling violent content to children. They have a responsibility to protect our children."
- Sen. Joe Lieberman:
"The violence in the entertainment culture — particularly, with the extraordinary realism to videogames, movies now, et cetera — does cause vulnerable young men to be more violent."
- Donald Trump:
"Videogame violence and glorification must be stopped — it is creating monsters!"
CNN got in on the action with the news that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza played StarCraft in a tech club at school. Brandishing "Video Game Concerns after Newtown" as an overlay while interviewing Prof. Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, who stated that evidence shows that "media violence is a risk factor, a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behaviour, including violence".
The veracity of Prof. Anderson’s statement cannot be denied, however, videogames are often the victim of clever bait-and-switch tactics, the example here being how "media violence" is used interchangeably with “violent videogames” and “causal risk factor” is assumed to mean a causal link. The mistreatment of scientific statements is the kind of hyperbole and exaggeration that makes open debate about complex issues difficult. Another issue is, of course, the segment on Adam Lanza playing videogames at school in the first place. If StarCraft -- the game Lanza allegedly played -- was a trainer of violent killers, South Korea would be in deep trouble and North Korea well could be the ideal utopia its leadership believes it to be. But as we know, this is not the case.
Videogames have, for quite a while, been a regular part of growing up yet the assumption is to suppose a possible link between playing games and violent crime automatically. A perfect example is cited in an article by Paul Tassi of Forbes when he recounts an interview with the roommates of the Virginia Tech killer:
Interviewer: What did he do when you were living with him? Did you ever see him playing videogames on his computer?
Roommate: No, he really just spent all his time typing in Word.
Interviewer: You’re sure? He never played any violent videogames at all?
Roommate: No, he just wrote all the time.
So let’s take a look at violence and videogames and investigate what has
been shown and what has not
been shown in regards to videogames and violence. First, do they cause violence? And if not then why the blame? Let’s examine that while videogames are given headlines for their violent content, they are used as an excuse, hypocritically, to boost business and detract from sensible legislation on acquiring guns.
2. Games and Violence
To put things in perspective people once said that reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
had a tendency to corrupt juveniles with its glorification of violence and descriptions of bestiality, a tenuous thread of association that is mostly laughed at in retrospect. In a similar vein, it’s ridiculous to think that if you read lots of fantasy books you want to uproot your existence to make like Don Quixote
. So why then is it assumed by so many groups and individuals to be fait accompli
for a person who likes games that are violent to they themselves be violent? It is a flawed and erroneous assumption countered well by this report by Forbes
, from April 2012, showing that even though videogame sales have incrased rapidly, the rate of violent crime has fallen.
Such a view is covered in more detail by Forbes in another article
using 2011 sales statistics showing the five biggest videogame markets in the world compared with firearm deaths. The biggest market is the United States ($13.6B) followed by Japan ($7B), China ($6.8B), South Korea ($5B) and the United Kingdom ($3B). This is compared with firearm deaths of 10.2 per 100,000 in the United States, 0.07 in Japan, 0.19 in China, 0.13 in South Korea and 0.25 in the UK. It should be noted with the high figure of the United States it is not clear if that reflects firearm deaths by suicide, a rate that in this article
is given as more than 50%.
There’s a lot that needs to be taken with a grain of salt in the above statistics given that it tracks overall videogame sales and not the specific sale of violent videogames. A pertinent distinction as games most often blamed for violent crimes such as Call of Duty
with Anders Breivik and Doom
and Wolfenstein 3D
with the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, are not big sellers in Japan. A quick look at vgchartz.com
(beginning of March in this case) shows that while Black Ops II
is No. 3 in Europe and the US, it only just breaks the top 10 in Japan, which is dominated by handheld sales. Yet the overall figure shows an interesting disparity between the United States and the other countries, a disparity large enough to exclude videogames as the soulless trainer of killers they are made out to be.
3. Games, Aggression and Gamers
If the ownership of videogames doesn’t have a causal link with gun crime, they must do something. Otherwise why would the NRA, politicians and media pundits be so forceful about the issue? The truth is that studies have shown that games can have an affect on the human brain.
A short summary of the issue by the Iowa State University Department of Sociology summarises the conclusions of a study researching the results of 35 separate studies on the issue. The former study from Psychological Science
in 2001 is reported as concluding: “Children who play violent videogames experience an increase in physiological signs of aggression” and “Children who play violent videogames experience an increase in aggressive actions”. Yet it is careful to point out that they don’t say it causes children to act out the violence they see on the screen. A fact emphasised by Prof. Anderson at Iowa University, who states that "none of these extreme acts, like a school shooting, occurs because of only one risk factor; there are many factors, including feeling socially isolated, being bullied, and so on".
That videogames can increase physiology in an aggressive way has also been researched by Brad J. Bushman of The Ohio State University who, based on his own findings, concludes that violent videogames increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal (ie heart rate and blood pressure) and decreases helping behaviour and empathy. Although he too is quick to point out that violent media is only one factor.
With all that in mind it’s still too early to get carried away by studies regarding physiological changes as they focus on internal changes rather than their application to premeditated violence. To begin, one could be flippant and say that if you keep getting killed by some cheating camper in CoD, you’re bound to get angry. Furthermore, however, the veracity of experimental studies and non-experimental studies of aggressive behaviour and thoughts has been challenged in literature review. Christopher J. Ferguson at Texas A&M International University in a meta-analytic review found “experimental studies of aggressive behavior, as well as for non-experimental studies of aggressive behavior and aggressive thoughts” have a statistical bias, he also indicated higher measurements of aggression were at times produced by less standardised and reliable measures.
What then shall we make of the summary of research available through the Entertainment Software Association
? A summary, we might add, that is available in plain sight and speaks volumes of the transparency of the educational and informative component of bodies helping to regulate the games industry and inform consumers of their choices and the content of all videogames submitted to the process.
It cites a number of studies that contradict or undermine the results mentioned above. For example:
"Structural equation modeling suggested that family violence and innate aggression as predictors of violent crime were a better fit to the data than was exposure to video game violence. These results question the common belief that violent-video-game exposure causes violent acts."
"It’s clear that the ‘big fears’ bandied about in the press -- that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world... -- are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form. That should make sense to anyone who thinks about it. After all, millions of children and adults play these games, yet the world has not been reduced to chaos and anarchy.”
“Most research on electronic play has focused on its possible negative effects for children and adolescents, and contextual factors such as socioeconomic status and culture are rarely considered.”
“The strong link between videogame violence and real world violence, and the conclusion that videogames lead to social isolation and poor interpersonal skills, are drawn from bad or irrelevant research, muddleheaded thinking and unfounded, simplistic news reports.”
That last quote, from the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Video Games and What Parents Can Do
raises an interesting parallel with the violent videogame and gun violence debate; are gamers the socially inept cretins they are made out to be?
Take for instance the stance by Bill O’Reilly
, host of The O’Reilly Factor
on Fox News and self-proclaimed tidal expert
around the time of the PS3 launch:
"Basically what you have is a large portion of the population, mostly younger people under the age of 45, who don’t deal with reality -- ever. So they don’t know what day it is; they don’t know what temperature it is; they don’t know what their neighbor looks like. They don’t know anything… because they are constantly diverted by a machine. Now what this does is it takes a person away from reality because they’ve created their own reality..."
Apart from the fact that such a point of view would be considered offensive to most gamers, it paints a picture of gamers as unable to think or reason for themselves and thus being highly susceptible to suggestion. In other words, it plays to the agenda that violent games exert an undue and unhealthy influence on the players that transforms them into violent killers. But just as a paid-up NRA member may not be spouting “they’ll have to pry this rifle from my cold dead hand” (see Americans for Responsible Solutions
and Richard Feldman
as examples) not all gamers are soulless vessels, incapable of reasoning and can, in fact, even survive in social settings.
4. Videogames and Political Expediency
For gamers, violent videogames are just that, videogames
. A slice of interactive action and adventure. But to others, it’s a different type of game -- a political game. Take for instance the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre when he said “law abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals”. This is the same Wayne LaPierre who blames videogames and Obama’s budget for killing people while remaining willfully ignorant of the fact that gamers also will not accept blame for the acts of violent of deranged criminals he allotted upon them. What most gamers will do is call for sensible policy debate on how to decrease such senseless mass killings.
That the NRA so steadfastly defends their Second Amendment right to bear arms is hypocritical with its stance on videogames, the distribution of which has become a First Amendment debate. Indeed an early lawsuit against the makers of Doom
and Mortal Kombat
by some of the victims’ families of the Columbine High School Massacre was unsuccessful on the grounds of the First Amendment right to free speech. More recently in June 2011, the US Supreme Court rejected a California law to restrict videogame sales as an affirmation of free speech in the digital age.
That an organisation will, without conscience, stick so adamantly to its position is, in a word, childish. The Second Amendment was affirmed in 1791, when flintlock ignition was the only weapon of choice, not the AR-15 assault rifle as used in both the Aurora Cinema Massacre and the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre. As recently documented on Foreign Correspondent, the NRA receives tens of millions of dollars in funding from weapons manufacturers and a ban on any type of weapons, or weapon attachments, such as high capacity magazines, would have a negative impact on business.
While there was an assault weapons ban in the US from 1994 to 2004, it only covered weapons manufactured after 1994. There was an attempt to reintroduce the ban as an attachment with the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act
, which protected manufacturers from being liable for crimes committed with their product but was voted down (although the act passed in 2005, with the assault weapons ban removed). While the NRA should not necessarily be held liable, that they make no effort to reduce their negative impact is shameful.
The NRA is against any type of gun reform or restriction as well as background checks, even with huge loopholes in the system. You do not require a license to sell weapons or ammunition at a gun show, or a background check to purchase one. In Baltimore County, Chief of Police James Johnson claims that “40% of gun purchases happen without background checks”. While an individual is not a criminal because they purchase a gun without a background check, cases such as this one covered by the Huffington Post
shows how mandatory checks may have prevented a senseless domestic violence death, by a man that was banned from owning a gun, but able to purchase one anyway.
Another one from Wayne LaPierre (we’re not picking on him, it’s just that he actually says all this) is “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. To avid supporters of the NRA such an idea makes perfect sense, yet studies show it is hardly the case. In an online article
for Princeton Election Consortium it’s shown that the three states with the highest rate of gun ownership -- Wyoming, Alaska and Montana -- have a gun death rate over four times higher than the three lowest states -- Hawaii, New Jersey and Massachusetts. It should perhaps be further noted that both New Jersey and Massachusetts have Child Access Prevention Laws that impose criminal liability on adults who negligently leave firearms for children to easily access. While a study way back in 1999 revealed that 75% of guns used in youth suicides and unintentional injuries were stored at the home of a victim, relative or friend, not all states have adopted the law, which an article
in the Fordham Urban Law Journal supposes is a direct result of the NRA’s lobbying power in Congress.
While Connecticut does have state law based on negligent storage, a so-called “sin tax” of 10% has been proposed by State Rep. Debralee Hovey (R - 112th District) on games rated “mature”. Reactionary legislation at best, it utterly fails to understand, first off, that over-taxing will simply create a bigger illegal and unregulated market, and two, that it fails to address the issues of gun access, socioeconomic, family and social links to youth violence that have been left out of the debate on violent videogames to begin with.
5. Learn From History, Don’t Fall From Pride
The significance of this report being researched and written by Australians (on an Australian games website, no less) should not go unnoticed by our friends across the Pacific. On April 28, 1996, Australia experienced its own tragedy at the hands of an armed individual who opened fire on unsuspecting tourists at a resort in Port Arthur, Tasmania with semi-automatic weapons. Martin Bryant killed 35 people and injured a further 23. In an 18-year period prior to the Port Arthur massacre, Australia experienced some 13 gun massacres (“massacre” being defined by four or more deaths).
Two weeks after the worst gun-related massacre in Australian history, newly elected conservative Prime Minister John Howard enacted a nationwide gun buyback scheme and passed bipartisan legislation for stricter gun-control laws that banned the purchase of semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, along with major overhauls on most laws involved with acquiring a weapon in the first place.
With one year left to equalise the 18-year period prior to the Port Arthur massacre and since Australia’s decisive call-to-action on gun reform after the event, there hasn’t been a single massacre on Australian soil. Moreover, a study
by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that the NFA (National Firearms Agreement) also “seems to have reduced firearm homicide outside of mass shootings, as well as firearm suicide”, pointing out that “in the seven years before the NFA (1989-1995), the average annual firearm suicide death rate per 100,000 was 2.6 (with a yearly range of 2.2 to 2.9); in the seven years after the buyback was fully implemented (1998-2004), the average annual firearm suicide rate was 1.1 (yearly range 0.8 to 1.4)”.
Additional evidence strongly suggests that the buyback causally reduced firearm deaths. First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.
The interesting point about all of the above is that violent videogames have only recently been granted an R18+ rating here in Australia (implemented in January of 2013), and prior to this and more recent bannings of particular games (specifically since Grand Theft Auto III in 2002), many games rated R18+ or equivalent in other countries, were sold in Australia as M or MA15+, often uncensored. So despite a clear decline in gun-related deaths since the implementation of the NFA, but clear access to violent games in that time, we still haven’t experienced an event of the magnitude of Sandy Hook or Port Arthur, drawing a clear line between plausible denial of blame in the latter (that violent videogames create killers), and empirical evidence for a causal link between lax gun laws and gun-related deaths (not taking into account socioeconomic or cultural factors where applicable in gun-related deaths).
6. What We’re Missing, What We’re Getting
The question could be asked of the NRA, staunch anti gun reform lawmakers and general immovable NRA supporters “what are you doing to create a safer environment?”. The answer would be “nothing”. Lobbying against any reform, even against NRA members in smear campaigns based on complete lies (again see ABC’s Foreign Correspondent
: Inside the NRA), makes it impossible to explore and address all the facets of a complex issue in America -- gun ownership and violence.
But while the NRA actively drives to resist change, the videogame industry has proven more adaptive through, in the United States, the Entertainment Software Review Board, a voluntary group. Different from legal regulation of content, the ESRB reviews and labels videogames that may contain offensive content, also categorising it fit for Everyone (E), Teen (T), Mature (M) or Adults Only (AO).
Such devices work to educate parents purchasing games, yet not all parents follow the ratings systems, and games can also be acquired in other ways that leaves the parent out of the loop. In some instances, as BIll O’Reilly so eloquently puts it “there are a lot of derelict parents and there are parents who don’t care and they use these videogames as babysitters”. Perhaps unintentionally, O’Reilly touched on an important point about media coverage of the issue made in an article entitled Do Video Games Kill?
“By focusing so heavily on videogames, news reports downplay the broader social contexts. While a handful of articles note the roles that guns, poverty, families, and the organization of schools may play in youth violence in general, when reporters mention research to explain the shooters’ behavior, the vast majority of studies cited concern media effects.”
It seems that whichever angle you take the heart of the issue is avoided; the heart of the issue being that gun violence has become epidemic in the United States.
In a straightforward call-to-action published on the Huffington Post
, pediatricians and members for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America state matter-of-factly that one child dies every three hours from gun violence. In the face of inaction as study after study shows that states with tougher legislation have fewer deaths from firearms.
Sadly, nobody sees that happening soon and as gamers we are left to shoulder, not just the blame for supporting such an “evil” industry, but for being so anti-social and removed from reality in the first place. Perhaps we can reflect on this line by Jane McGonigal in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World:
A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.
Or perhaps with matters videogame-related we can still turn to Mario creator, Shigeru Miyamoto -- “Videogames are bad for you? That’s what they said about Rock ‘n Roll”.