The Lame Politics of Blaming Video Games for Violence

Whenever a violent tragedy happens in our nation, politicians immediately feel compelled to take advantage of the publicity to “do something.”  Or at least appear to be doing something.  That’s their job.  Right?  To “do something” when things go wrong?

So it came as little surprise that the president ordered the $3,000 suit and tie Vice President Joe Biden to “do something” about the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

So what is the Veep going to do?  Why, hold a meeting with gun rights advocates, gun control advocates, and.. video game makers.  Because, as usual, video games are getting blamed for these shooting deaths.

Despite ample evidence and research showing that this isn’t true.  But hey, who cares what science says when politics are at stake?  

Lets look at the tenuous links between gun violence like the Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado (aka “Batman”) shootings and video games.  I say “tenuous” because, well, they’re coincidental at best and most of the arguments used to blame them are used to exonerate less politically expedient things like guns or bad laws.

The Games the Killers Played

Adam Lanza, the killer at Sandy Hook, was reported to have an “eerie lair of violent video games” according to the NY Post, a paper well known for its objective reporting (not).  According to some guy who claims to have “worked” at the house, Adam had posters of guns, military stuff, and played a lot of Call of Duty.

The guy then goes on some more about the posters and graphics on Lanza’s basement walls and then says a few words about how he “should have killed him then” and how the young man wouldn’t answer questions when people tried to talk to him.  Oh, and for the conspiracy seekers out there, the paper also says that the “assault rifle” Lanza used to kill  his mother was then left at home when he left for the school.

Of course, Lanza was said to be autistic, which would explain his unwillingness to talk to people.  Nothing concrete has been said about his mental issues, though autism and Asperger’s (a part of the autism spectrum) aren’t linked to violence either – in fact, quite the opposite.

So, we know that Adam Lanza played Call of Duty, but we also know that he was said to be obsessed with militaria.  That obsession is likely what lead him to enjoy CoD.  How many of you playing video games (any game) have posters or books about those games hanging around your game space?  Heck, one look at the walls in my office here and you might assume, by this game=violence logic, that I am a burgeoning motorcycle drag racing, tractor-loving, truck driving, sword and sorcery-obsessed, map freak.  Because my walls have posters and pictures with the KillaCycle, Super Trucks cards, U.S. and World maps, and swords and knives hanging from them.  Don’t leave out the lava lamp either.  Oh and a map of the Lord of the Rings Online regions, an obvious link to my violent tendencies, which only manifest when my 6’3 frame is stuffed into Hobbit garb.

Turning to the Batman Shooter in Colorado, we have even less to go with.  Most of the links between James Holmes and video games are from his more distant past with nothing current.  He “played cards, video games and watch[ed] movies..” according to the LA Times Blogs.  Worse?  He played his games on the Wii, probably the least offensive platform available, though Nintendo is the violent source behind our cover graphic.

That’s it.  The only link for Holmes.  Not even a game title, just the generic “played the Wii” and “cards.”

Games Not Causing Violence

It’s easy to blame movies and video games for violence.  They have it in them, so they must be “indoctrination” for it.  Everyone who goes nuts and bloodies up the place watches and plays them.  Right?  Obvious link!

Well, not so fast.  In a letter to V.P. Biden this week, The Entertainment Merchants Association asked him to look at the evidence and research that’s already been compiled on the subject – and there’s a lot of it.

“EMA was sad — but not surprised — to see some blame gun massacres like the Newtown shooting on video games, motion pictures, and other forms of entertainment that contain depictions of violence. Make no mistake: blaming movies and video games is an attempt to distract the attention of the public and the media from meaningful action that will keep our children safer.”

Even the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with that, having shot down California’s attempted video game censorship bill that focused heavily on violence.

Early studies focused on the issue usually found video games at least partially culpable, but a study in 2007 by Dr. Christopher J. Fergusson of Texas A&M found that many of those studies had publication bias and none showed a causal link between violence in-game and violence in real life.

In 2010, Fergusson returned and teamed up with Dr. Stephanie M. Rueda with a study sampling 103 young adults with a “frustration task.”  One group played no games, one played a non-violent video game, one played as the “good guys” in a violent game, and the last played as “bad guys” in a violent game.  Their results?  The games (all of them) had no discernible impact on aggressive behavior.  In fact, the group with no outlet (non-gamers) were more aggressive than the others.

Now, consider this: the game industry is growing fast, which means more gamers, but the violent crime rate is dropping..  Correlation?

U.S. Violent Crime Rate Dropping

If you’re going to use the “games are played by violent criminals, so they must be causing the violence” logic, then you have to apply that same logic to these facts: game sales in the U.S. are up and violent crime is dropping.  Therefore, more games equals less violence.  Tell that to the NRA!

In 2008, video game sales had reached a peak of 11.7 billion dollars in the U.S., up from $9.5B the year before and $7.4B the year before that.  In 2011, they were $17 billion and while no numbers are in yet, it’s likely that 2012 will see another bump, though not as dramatic.

Violent crime, meanwhile, peaked in the U.S. at 758.2 per 100,000 back in 1991 and has dropped by nearly half, down to 386.3 per 100,000 in 2011 by FBI crime statistics numbers.  Interestingly, the 1990s were when the video game industry moved rapidly from arcade to home units with consoles and PC games.  Coincidence?

The same correlation has been made between gun sales and violence, between concealed carry permit issuance and violence, etc.  Both of those have risen dramatically in the past two decades while the violence rate has dropped.  Correlation?  Only if it fits your agenda, apparently, because the same people who claim that correlation will dismiss one involving video games.

The Real Problem Is People

No, the reality is that video games, guns, movies, etc. cannot be blamed for the horrific things that some people do.  What can be blamed?  People.  Throughout all of human history, we’ve had those who are off kilter and who do atrocious things.  Sometimes, they do it under color of law (think Hitler), other times they do it on their own (Lanza).  But they’ll still do it.

The focus should be on mitigation, not prohibition.  If we keep the people who have questionable or violent tendencies from being able to inflict great harm – i.e. stop them when they try – we protect ourselves.  When we make ourselves easy targets by attempting to prohibit behavior that can’t possibly be realistically stopped, we end up with tragedies.  When alcohol was prohibited, we saw the rise of Al Capone and friends.  When drugs were prohibited, we saw the rise of the Cartels and street gangs.  It follows that the same will happen if we attempt to ban guns, video games, or anything else as well.

Face it.  Creating “gun free zones” and making every owner of violent video games a suspect doesn’t solve the problem.  It just makes us feel “safer” without actually creating any safety.  It’s akin to putting a sticker saying “this car meets the highest safety standards” on a Yugo.  Just because it says it’s safe doesn’t make it so.

One Response to “The Lame Politics of Blaming Video Games for Violence”

  1. […] The occasional story about people with what are obviously serious problems – for which either games are blamed or are used as a focus – crops up in the media.  Parents in China letting their kids live in squalor and near death because they’re too busy playing games or some 400 pound mouth breather who has to be extracted from their home using heavy machinery because they’ve become almost literally glued to their chair playing some game.. these stories make headlines because they’re freak shows.  Nothing but pure blood and guts gets better headlines than a good, old fashioned freak show.  And even that is not immune from a game tie-in. […]

  2. IAmNub says:

    This is a problem with the US and has very little to do with games at all.

    Why is it that other countries can have the most graphic depicted games (Japan South Korea) yet have very little to no gun-related violence.

    Maybe it is due to the liberal state the United-States is in where those other countries are not as liberal.

    Let’s look at all the books television and game material out there available. If video-games and other entertainment were the source to blame then every single person would be a criminal for buying or playing those games right now.

    Not the case of course. What does suck in the US is it’s lack of addressing mental health issues. Seen a video on schizophrenia for instance.

    How is the US actually dealing with mental issues like this other than loading patients up on meds?

    Game companies should at least put introductory warning labels on any games which has explicit or violent material in it and warn that all content in the game is entirely fictional on the ones that may offend people. But they already do with the M-rating it lists whats in a game just not specifically what it is.