There’s been a lot talk about videogame violence. Since the horrible events last month in my home state of Connecticut, people have felt a strong urge to blame something, anything, in order to have a target for their despair and outrage. I get it. It’s how the human psyche deals with such an incomprehensible tragedy. But as someone who enjoys games on a fundamental level, as someone who feels games have enriched my life in uncountable ways, it’s frustrating to hear so many voices cry out for their condemnation. I understand the inclination, I really do, but it proceeds from a false assumption. We want to stop these attacks, but the truth is there is no quick, short-term way to prevent them.
That’s because there is not one single reason why these attacks occur. There is not one source of so-called inspiration, not one kind of weapon or ammunition, not one switch that can be turned off which will prevent similar shootings from happening. Removing violent videogames from a child’s hands will not automatically make him a healthy, non-homicidal citizen any more than putting a basketball in his hands would let him dunk.
I’ve read all the arguments the videogame opponents throw out. “All that exposure to violence can’t be good.” “Studies show people are more aggressive after playing games.” “My kids play too much dang videogames!” And you know what? They are all bullshit.
The idea is the prolonged active violence in games will somehow cloud a person’s mind so that they want to inflict violence in real life. In order to believe that means you must willfully misunderstand the basic nature of play. Spend some time around young kids or even your pets, and you’ll quickly realize a lot of play is violence. Kids will routinely wrestle with their parents or siblings, and throw balls or sometimes harder things at them. Dogs will growl and nip at their playmates, inflicting small injuries in the course of roughhousing. I have a friend who loves getting cats to scratch him as they playfully fight. Playing with violence in a controlled environment is one of the basic ways in which we learn to express ourselves. That’s one of the things that attracts people to playing videogames. Taking that expression away may actually cause more harm than good.
People usually cite studies like the one conducted by Bruce Bartholow from the University of Missouri or the more recent experiment at Ohio State University. The efficacy of the methods used aside – an air horn? seriously? – both of these studies suggest playing videogames makes you more aggressive. The thing is: aggression is not something to be shunned as bad or evil but a normal part of human life. We all feel excited sometimes, and merely feeling that way does not mean you will start to inflict horrible pain on others. Being aggressive or confident is a quality that many people desire in job applicants or romantic partners. The behavior of many professional athletes would be described as “aggressive.” How is having an increased heart rate and excitation after successfully completing a task such a bad thing? If the same studies were conducted after a wide receiver scores a touchdown or a center blocks a shot, they would be marked as being aggressive in how they spike the ball, or scream in exultation.
Because of how these events are dramatized, there is an assumption that violence is on the rise, but that’s just false. Criminals who commit these heinous acts are actually very rare. There are 315 million people in the United States and in the last few decades there have been really only 3 major shootings in schools. It seems like a lot – and I’m not discounting the tragedy of these events in any way – but the number of incidents is very low. Violent crime in the U.S. overall, while still higher when compared to other countries, has declined since it peaked in the late 80s and early 90s. Why is crime declining? Well, there are many theories – some even suggest the popularity of videogames is why – but the point I want to make is change occurred without legislating to control our media.
As Jim Sterling eloquently points out, actual violence isn’t very entertaining. But violence has long been a tool of the dramatic arts from Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s blinding scene in King Lear to the rise of the novel in the 18th century to comic books, movies and TV today. Showing violence is not the same as endorsing violence, in fact it can be quite the opposite. I routinely slay people and monsters in my gaming life; in strategy games alone I’ve been the cause of countless deaths, but I would never raise a hand against an innocent in my actual life. The very thought of doing so as I type this makes me cringe.
There are people out there who think differently about violence, of course, but those people have existed throughout the history of human culture. It’s why artists are inspired to create violent characters and stories in the first place. To discuss the possibility of limiting access to those stories through laws in order to prevent evil is just misguided. Evil exists. It is not created by stories.
The complaint that “kids play too much videogames these days” is ridiculous. It smacks of individuals who don’t bother to understand something before they pass judgment upon it. People play videogames because it is a fun and engaging activity and that means there will sometimes be times where you play too often. As my dad says, consume everything in moderation. If your play time is impacting the other facets of your life, then perhaps it is time to cut down. If you are putting on a few pounds, you might want to stop stuffing burgers and pizza-burritos in your face. Just because you don’t enjoy videogames, doesn’t mean people who do are “wasting time.”
Throughout all time, a contingent of the population has denounced new media as the cause of all society’s woes. “The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth,” wrote one Reverend in 1790. Yet I do not see anyone today calling for a cease in the publication of fiction or people picketing outside Broadway theaters – well, at least if there aren’t any gay themes in the play. That’s because these creative works have been around long enough for people to become comfortable with them, and only old people go to see the theater anyway.
I understand the motivation behind wanting to find a cause and end it before more violence is committed. I do. We want to be able to stop this kind of violence so the logical assumption is if we stop the thing that “inspires” such acts then we can somehow prevent it. The thing is: I don’t believe there is a simple solution. There is no single cause, and therefore no quick, pat way to wrap it all up.
By no means am I suggesting we do nothing. Others have suggested investigation into stricter gun laws to prevent the manufacture and sale of weapons. Members of the psychiatric community and educators have called for a change in the way we approach mental illness, allowing us to watch for the warning signs without indicting innocent individuals. Several people have asked for the media to stop treating these attacks like entertainment and indulging in endless news cycles over one very sad event. All of these actions are probably things which should be done in any case, because they are right and good on their own, but they may also help to save lives in the future and prevent attacks in the long run.
We should not be organizing the destruction of videogames in order to prove a point. The videogame industry fought a hard battle to be declared protected under the First Amendment by the Supreme Court in 2011 and games shouldn’t be thought to be less worthwhile because of the actions of one individual. I’m glad the town of Southington agreed to cancel that event and focus on fostering an honest discussion about violence in our schools. I hope Vice President Joe Biden does the same when he makes his recommendations on how to respond to the shootings to President Obama next week.