Video games, violence, and a false premise

Politicos and media experts of various stripes and credibility have predictably implicated violent video games in the Sandy Hook tragedy.

In fact, it’s far from clear what, if indeed any role violent games, TV, or movies have played in the wave of public massacres besetting America – including the Sandy Hook slaughter. A complex cybernetic exists between game players and game makers, film viewers and film makers.

Debate about media-related aggression is hardly new. During the silent era, several commissions within and outside the film industry agreed that the new medium could have poisonous effects upon children, as well as on women and immigrants.

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In the 1930s, with the advent of sound, worries further escalated that gangster films like “The Public Enemy” (1931) and “Little Caesar” (1931) might encourage youth and other vulnerable populations to turn even more savage (including those ever-suspect immigrants. After all, concerns were already high that immigrants would have a negative impact on the country’s social fabric). In this setting, the power of the Hays Office to monitor on-screen morality exacted a heavy toll on Hollywood’s creativity. Ham-fisted censors decreed that a married couple in a screenplay could occupy a bed only if at least one foot of each partner were planted firmly on the floor.

In 1954, concerns were voiced before the Kefauver commission about the corrupting influence on youthful minds of lurid horror comics like EC Comics’ “Tales From the Crypt.” Withering criticism by sachems like child psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham led EC’s CEO Bill Gaines to close down the shop. He went on to use EC’s artistic talents to create MAD magazine. Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” went on to become a prized comic collectible. And so it goes.

Today as in the past, any connection between public violence and violent media continues to be a highly vexed question. Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D., of Texas A&M International University, Laredo, an expert on the impact of media violence affiliated with, conducted an exquisitely sophisticated analysis of research projects purportedly proving that violent video games provoked aggression in youthful players. Dr. Ferguson, and John Kilburn, Ph.D., discovered that every “definitive” study was in fact profoundly flawed (J. Pediatr. 2009;54:759-63).

In a prospective study of 603 mainly Hispanic youth, Dr. Ferguson found that the best predictors of aggression and violence were depressive symptoms and peer delinquency (J. Youth Adolescence 2010;40:377-91).He and Dr. Kilburn concluded that violent video games and TV do not cause youthful aggression, major or minor. I agree – with the caveat that I’d be willing to change my mind if reliably designed future investigations were to demonstrate otherwise.

I know of no defendant who has ever beaten a murder rap by blaming violent media of any sort. Furthermore, our cascade of Newtowns, Auroras, and Columbines simply do not exist in nations across the world, whose youth are as devoted to videogaming as are our kids (even more ardent fans can be found in places such as Japan and South Korea.) Addiction to videogaming, per se, across the world is quite a different and very serious, DSM-worthy problem (Pediatrics 2011;127:e319-29).

After Columbine-type incidents in the 1990s, England and Canada enacted stringent gun control laws. No further Sandy Hooks have occurred in those countries since those laws were enacted.

An immense amount of writing has been done – fictional or academic – probing the uneasy articulation between the thirst for liberty, individual rights, and salutary violence in shaping the national character. [I especially recommend "Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America" (New York: Atheneum, 1992) by culture critic Richard Slotkin]. For a host of reasons, Americans have always prized guns, and we now own more of them than any nation on the planet.

Gun-making is enormously profitable, from manufacture to point of purchase. Personal arsenals now routinely include infinitely more formidable weapons than colonial musketry, including the popular Bushmaster, capable of spitting out scores of bullets in seconds.

As the familiar saw goes, guns do not kill people. People with guns kill people. The more guns, the more people die, singly or en masse (a fortunately rare occurrence). If only legal authorities carry guns and certifiable hunters carry standard single-shot weapons, then fewer homicides would occur. It’s that simple.

But what am I to do without my Glock when a bad guy sticks his Glock in my face? Criminals will indeed always find guns, but it’s quite possible that they won’t get them as easily if fewer are around. In any case, consider the yearly harvest of noncriminal citizens who become criminals by using legalized firearms.

For instance, if you tote your legal gun into a bar, an athletic event, or a problematic marriage, it will be easy for you to pull it in either instance when drunk and disinhibited, if your inclinations run strongly in that direction. Because the gun is there. If you’re a seriously disaffected, disturbed young man who’s easily procured a Bushmaster, you’ve been enabled to act out your frustrations or delusions by mowing down a schoolroom of children. No Bushmaster, no Glock, no Sandy Hook. It’s that simple. (One might use other means, fire, explosives, but it wouldn’t be easy.)

I certainly support any measure that would provide better psychiatric treatment in a great first-world nation. More quality education about emotional illness would be welcome. But I am profoundly repelled by the media hype that implies an affinity between madness and mayhem. It always surges forth after a Sandy Hook disaster and might very well result in further stigmatizing people with any psychiatric disorder – only a tiny fraction of whom pose a danger, and then more often to themselves.

I’ll also gladly endorse any reasonable method for early identification of youngsters with emotional problems, including violent propensities. But, at the risk of being labeled an Ayn Rand disciple (which I most certainly am not) I’m wary about fabricating strategies that might be intrusive, cause inappropriate labeling, or subvert the constitutional rights to privacy of parents or guardians.

Even with the best means and intentions vis-a-vis early recognition of young potential mass murderers, I suspect most will remain beneath the radar, attracting no attention until they erupt into havoc. Viewed through that most sensitive of instruments, the retrospectoscope, the failure of school and/or family to perceive their problems and danger seems glaring. But these deranged young men are all too often time bombs, ignored because no one hears the ticking concealed by their mask of sanity.

Finally, let me underscore Dr. Carl C. Bell’s observations about the peril of copycat killings as a result of media lingering over a Columbine catastrophe. The phenomenon is well-documented. Nevertheless, TV news programs continue to exhibit scenes of the carnage, interviews with grieving families, neighbors; funeral footage, so forth, for days afterward.

Meanwhile, the usual talking heads ceaselessly dither over the terrible event. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: “Whereof one should not speak, one must be silent.”

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