David Cross had a special on HBO several years back wherein he commented on how media and violence were being linked together. He said something along the lines of, "What was the name of the violent videogame that Hitler used to play? And the one he distributed to all the German people?" Such a simple sentiment, yet immediately recognizable and understandable. After all, Hitler didn't play violent videogames (seeing as how there were none) or watch violent movies or anything of that nature. He was a vegetarian painter (bet no one saw that coming).
Today, though, the news media seems to have a policy of trying to find easy explanations for violent, unspeakable acts. Sometimes these figures almost appear vulturous, hovering over the tragedy waiting to display their personalized view of the world to us.
After the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Jack Thompson, self-proclaimed crusader against all things interactive, appeared on the major news networks wagging his finger and saying that this was bound to happen because the shooter, 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho, played violent videogames. This was nothing new for Jack, as he had been saying this for years about every tragedy involving violent deaths and people under 30. This response this time was different, however, as some reporters had their long-dormant journalistic senses kick in and discovered that the killer did not play these games. In fact, he seemed more interested in writing, since he had difficulty expressing himself orally.
Stephen King wrote, "For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do. ... Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, just mean. ... On the whole, I don't think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent."
I understand this well myself. In middle school, I wrote a story for a writing competition (mandatory, unfortunately) about a detective who was trying to track down an ax-wielding serial killer. Just because I knew the class would be reading it, I spiced it up by using slightly altered names of my classmates in it. It was funny and kind of gross, and the class loved it. So, of course, I was called to the principal's office to determine whether I was a psychopath. Obviously, I was not (as far as you know, anyway).
The point is there's no simple way to parse out the mad from the sane. This is all part of our need to put the word into order, to make sense of the senseless. Trying to link entertains us with a criminal's inspiration is as old as recorded history.
Perhaps most famous is Charles Manson and his connection with The Beatles' song "Helter Skelter." Prior to the discovery of this song, Manson had been obsessed with the group, calling them "part of 'the hole in the infinite.'" Manson said the White Album song predicted an upcoming racial war, of which he was to take part. It goes on from there and was very convoluted and stupid, but does it show any link between media and madness?
Of course not. For one thing, Manson had been talking about this supposed racial war prior to hearing the song, and his delusions of grandeur and love of mop tops only helped along his insanity. In much the same way the monsters in Doom didn't cause Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to lose their sense of self and brutally kill their fellow classmates and teachers, The Beatles didn't provoke the Manson family murders.
Yet the blame continues, even so much as to confound science. Conflicting studies about videogame violence, and videogames in general, are produced seemingly every month now, leading to these two conflicting headlines: "Heavy Video Game Use by Kids May slow Brain Development" and "Video Games to treat ADD?" Brilliant.
And our top minds are there to help us figure this mess out, like Dr. Phil: "You cannot tell me - common sense tells you that if these kids are playing videogames, where they're on a mass killing spree in a videogame, it's glamorized on the big screen, it's become part of the fiber of our society. You take that and mix it with a psychopath, a sociopath or someone suffering from mental illness and add in a dose of rage, the suggestibility is too high. ... [T]he mass murders of tomorrow are the children of today that are being programmed with this massive violence overdose."
Perhaps it's just me, but it seems that you can mix just about anything with a psychopath or sociopath and the results will rarely be good. (See: Hitler and the Jews, the Hutu and the Tutsis, the Croatian Ustasha and a whole bunch of other people, etc.)
Studies trying to quantify the effects of media and videogames yield significantly different results. One says they don't really affect people at all, while another says that we're all going to perish in flames because of Halo (or at least annoy people with loud buzzing noises).
In our culture, violent entertainment is all around us, so it makes a very viable lamb to sacrifice. If we can't blame violent media, Marilyn Manson, parents or the cruelty of youth, what's left? Who can we point our collective finger at?
But our need to blame and find explanations for the inexplicable is rarely fulfilled. The world can be random and cruel, with no way to write it off with simplicities.
And maybe that's the hardest, coldest truth of them all.
Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] gmail [dot] com