The Needles

Smart Answers To Silly Questions


I received an interesting piece of email last week.

In late April, I posted a news article about comments made by the police in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, regarding the upcoming release of Grand Theft Auto IV. A member of the force had told the Calgary Sun, a tabloid newspaper, that videogames like GTA IV were a “grave concern” because of their potential use as virtual trainers for budding criminals. It was a minor story – knee-jerk comments from an ill-informed police officer, trumpeted by a trashy newspaper – and after the requisite brief outburst of gamer rage, it faded and was forgotten.

Until last week. On Monday, I was contacted by a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Calgary who, for some reason, had stumbled across my news post. “Yesterday in Calgary, a young guy tried to carjack seven cars in a row,” she wrote. “Any thoughts on the influence of the game on real life and/or criminals?”

Holy crap, ma, I’m famous! The elation of my new-found fame turned quickly to gnawing doubt as I realized that before I could start planning my guest appearances on Wolf Blitzer – an opportunity that was surely just around the corner – I’d actually have to come up with some kind of useful response. The opportunity to look stupid on the national stage was suddenly a great weight upon my shoulders, to say nothing of the baleful e-glare of Russ and company, who would no doubt respond to any misstatements on my part with punishment. Much punishment.

Some research was in order. I began by digging up a few references to studies that refuted the notion of violent videogames leading inexorably to violent behavior in meatspace. I also armed myself with a smattering of information from the ESRB regarding its rating system, and FTC studies that showed age-rating enforcement of videogame sales far outstripping those of movies, music and other forms of entertainment. I made a mental note to point out that even the most hardcore supporters of the medium don’t think Grand Theft Auto IV should be played by children. Almost as an afterthought, I bopped over to the CBC website to find out about this Calgary carjacker.

There was no doubt the real-life crime had virtual echoes. The ten-hour crime spree featured two robberies, nine carjacking attempts (three were unsuccessful), a handful of assaults and numerous reports of people having guns pointed at them. Police efforts to stop the one-man crime wave stepped up as the day wore on, culminating in a two-hour pursuit through the city that eventually led to the suspect’s reportedly heavy-handed arrest.

The whole thing certainly sounded very GTA, from the nature of the crimes to the escalating police attention, but one aspect of the aftermath was particularly troublesome: Nobody involved with the case – not the offender, not the police, not even the lawyers – made any mention of Grand Theft Auto whatsoever. Or any videogame angle, for that matter. So why was the CBC asking me what I thought about it?

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It’s bad enough when boneheads kill people and blame it on videogames, but apparently now we don’t even have to wait that long for the excuses to start flying. Despite growing evidence to the contrary, the assumed connection between videogaming and criminal behavior is becoming so prevalent that even the most tenuous links are enough to trot out the same old question: Did the games make him do it?

It’s a safe bet that similar questions weren’t sent to a movie reviewer, or a literary critic, or even the receptionist at the local cable station. So why games? Do superficial similarities to Grand Theft Auto gameplay and proximity to the game’s release date imply causality sufficiently for a major broadcaster to start looking at the “mad gamer” angle without any external prodding? Or is it more likely, despite all the work of the industry and gaming communities worldwide, simply a case of media bias?

If the mainstream media has fallen prey to the kind of misinformed or deceitful hype driven by the likes of Jack Thompson and Keith Vaz, it means that despite our best efforts and highest hopes, we really haven’t come as far as we’d thought. The idea of videogames being held in the same cultural esteem as music, books and movies is promising, and in my opinion inevitable, but despite the unprecedented growth in the financial and demographic viability of the medium over the past decade, we’re obviously not there yet.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Fox News as nothing more than a source of low-brow rhetoric for people of that inclination, but underestimating the influence of such sources is unwise. Researchers at McGill University may say there’s no compelling evidence to suggest that violent videogames lead to violent behavior in real life, but that won’t mean much to an awful lot of people if the well-coiffed man on the television says otherwise. These are delicate times; the industry’s successes inevitably inspire greater determination in its detractors, and while the increasingly strident cries of the most vehement critics may be nonsensically amusing from a gamer’s perspective, they can be very polarizing for people who are ignorant of the facts of the debate.

Such as, for instance, the fact that the “young guy” at the root of all this kerfuffle is 27 years old, young from some perspectives but hardly an age typically associated with “game-inspired” crime. A simple oversight on the part of the producer, or a couching of terms for better headlines? No way to know, but my reply to the CBC pointed out that the offender in this case wasn’t exactly a naive kid who was led down the path of sin by a videogame he wasn’t yet mature enough to process. It was all very polite and respectful, and even offered a few places for the producer to begin her own research into the impact of videogames.

I haven’t heard back yet. I doubt I will.

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