Bayushisan's excellent recent diary inspired me to write this and I'd like to consider this a follow-up to bayushisan's work. For those who haven't read it, please check it out, it is an excellent read.
The Newtown shootings have provoked some much-needed soul searching in our country. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who has contemplated what could possibly drive Adam Lanza to do what he did to those children and that is a question that we will never have a complete answer to. Everyone who has spoken publicly on this issue has correctly recognized that the factors that perpetuate violence like this in our society are varied and complex. People who say that it's not just semi-automatic weapons with very large magazines and access to them are correct in saying that. The lack of affordable and accessible mental health services as well as the societal stigma associated with seeking help is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed going forward.
Since the shootings I have heard calls from the likes of Bill Bennett, Joe Lieberman, and others calls to take on violence in video games. This wasn't the first time government tried to take on content in entertainment, but they are just as wrong then on this subject as they are now. Violence in music, movies and video games doesn't cause people to act violently in reality. If someone is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, then that is a problem that lies within their own mind and not the entertainment that they consume.
The hypothesis that violent entertainment causes violent behavior among young people in our society is hardly new. The government has gone after obscenity and pornography for a long time but in the 1980s the tone changed. For the first time we saw a shift in rhetoric away from "I find this content to be obscene and offensive." to "Content that depicts sex and violence encourages our children to engage in more sex and violence." particularly in music.. Take a look at this video of Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra and Tipper Gore debating on Oprah in 1989:
In particular I'd like to single out this quote from Mrs. Gore:
Tipper Gore: "The issue is how do we deal how do we deal with graphic material, lyrics detailing rape, artwork that shows rape that Guns n' Roses has when it's marketed aggressively to young children at a a time when many of them are at risk in our society? There are many kids that are growing up without a lot of adult guidance. There are many kids that have problems. The National Mental Health Association estimates some fourteen million children are at risk."In fairness to our former Second Lady, her argument held far more water then than it does now. When she said that, violent crime was steadily increasing nationally. However, the steady national drop in violent crime we've had since 1993 has shown that the proliferation of violent entertainment has no correlation with violent crime statistics. It is also interesting that she brings up mental health because that is at the heart of the matter with school shootings. It's mental health and easy access to guns. I'll let Jello Biafra in that clip rebut her on that:
Oprah: "And you think the music contributes to more of the problem?"
Tipper Gore: "I think that the music always sets a tone for a generation and we have to be aware of it."
Jello Biafra: To me practicing fraud like that to the point where doctors who used your video in a Milwaukee hospital told a kid who came in to be treated for clinical depression that his Iron Maiden t-shirt was the problem; that to me is the real child abuse.As a side note: If I were preparing Barack Obama for the second presidential debate, I would have shown him this video and told him "Be like Jello Biafra, not Tipper Gore."
Here's another great example from the past about this misguided idea that violent entertainment causing violent behavior. This is a clip of Ice T being interviewed on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 after the lyrics of his song "Cop Killer" had sparked media outrage:
In particular the last question and answer is quite fascinating in my mind and right on the money:
Arsenio Hall: "It was a story about some gentlemen who were arrested and the officer said they were singing your lyric when they were arrested. And the gentleman said 'It's been my lifelong ambition to kill cops.' ...Are you concerned that someone out there might get the wrong message and say 'Yeah I'm down with Ice, I'ma kill a cop.'?"
Ice T: "Look if that was that guy's lifelong ambition to kill a cop; All I did was give him a theme song. He already had determined that he wanted to kill a cop. Anybody who listens to a record, watches TV, or anything and goes out and acts is unstable from the beginning. You gotta keep dinner forks out of their hands..."
Video game critics will usually bring up the Columbine shootings in 1999 as evidence that playing violent video games leads to violent behavior. It is true that the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were fans of games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, both games that were considered to be pretty violent at the time. Also Harris even designed custom mods and levels for Doom some of which are still accessible and playable today. There was also a great deal of criticism leveled towards the music that they listened to like Rammstein and KMFDM.
Side note: I enjoy the music of all three of those bands and I have also played a fair amount of Doom back in the day. I'm happy to report that I have never ever seriously considered killing either myself or another person.
So did these games and music drive them to murder so many of their teachers and fellow students? In a report published by the FBI's lead investigator in the case Harris was clinically psychopathic and Klebold was depressed and suicidal. Harris at least wanted the attack to demonstrate his superiority to the world and to one-up Timothy McVeigh with what he did in Oklahoma City. They also had a pretty reliable illegal source from which to acquire the massive amount of weapons that they were armed with. Eric Harris was a psychopath that played Doom. Doom didn't make him a psychopath.
The last real big public outcry we saw with national politicians and video game content was over a silly controversy over the Rockstar game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2005. In the game you can get a girlfriend, go out on various dates with her, and if they like you enough they'll ask you to come into their house for coffee. If you accept you are treated to a scene showing the outside of her residence with the girlfriend making sex noises.
Apparently Rockstar had originally intended to expand upon that idea and turn the process of having sex with your in-game girlfriend into a mini-game where you had to press a series of buttons perform joystick movements to effectively pleasure her. Late in development, for seemingly obvious reasons, Rockstar decided to scrap that feature of the game but some of the code for that minigame was still on the game disks. Modders were able to hack into the game and implement that feature both on the PC and console versions of the game. Keep in mind that this content is only accessible if you HACK INTO THE GAME against the wishes of the developer.
When news of this came out a few senators went nuts many of whom are in the Democratic party. The three that complained the loudest were Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Symbolic legislation was introduced and died in committee but the real damage was done to Rockstar. Reacting to the political pressure, the ESRB changed the game's rating from Mature to Adults Only. Almost all major game retailers refuse to sell AO rated games and a large number of copies of the game disappeared off the shelves forcing Rockstar to do a massive worldwide recall of the game only to change a few lines of code. That quarter Rockstar posted losses of $29 million dollars, most of it due to the "Hot Coffee" controversy.
Lets take a look at what studies say about violent video games causing violence in general. The central question is whether or not there is a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior. Unfortunately, a good deal of the studies and meta-studies out there seems to be agenda-driven by one side or the other. Keeping that in mind if you count up the number of studies and meta-studies that say there is a causal link between violent video games and those that don't it is roughly 50-50. If you would like to see some of the studies for yourselves you can find many in the footnotes of this page.
However, there is one study that I would like to draw your attention to because it focuses on school shootings in particular. In 2004 the Secret Service and Department of Education published a report profiling 37 different school shooters and attempted to find statistically significant traits among them that they shared. Here is what they found:
• Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.Notice what they say and what they didn't say. The shooters showed noticeable signs of depression and needed help with it. They would leave some clues for what they were about to do ahead of time. They were often victims of bullying. Their acts were usually premeditated. They had easy access to firearms.
• Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or
plan to attack.
• Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the
• There is no accurate or useful "profile" of students who engaged in targeted
• Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused
others concern or indicated a need for help.
• Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal
failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
• Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the
• Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
• In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
• Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were
stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
Those are all things that we can do something about. Involved parents, teachers, and friends can help kids get help with their mental health if they show signs that they really need it. Schools can do everything they can to fight back against a culture of bullying. We can try our damned hardest to make sure that troubled teens don't get their hands on firearms.
What's not in their conclusions? Violent entertainment. In that study 12% were attracted to violent video games, while 24% read violent books and 27% were attracted to violent movies none of which is statistically significant. In fact, those numbers would appear to contradict the assertion that violent video games are "murder simulators" for troubled young men.
Another thing to consider is this: Between 1994 and 2011 the rate of violent crime has steadily dropped from 713.6 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 1994 to 386.3 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2011. If we zoom in on just murder we see a similar drop from 23,330 murders nationally in 1994 to only 14,612 in 2011. During that time video games became more and more widespread in American households. While the number of fake video game murders has skyrocketed, the number of actual real life murders in this country has fallen. This simple crime data shows that the idea that the massive proliferation of violent video games in America has not caused any increase in violent crime or more murders. In fact the opposite happened.
I will also ask you to consider looking outside of America. Violent music, movies, and video games aren't just being sold in the United States. The Grand Theft Auto series and first person shooters aren't exclusive to America. This entertainment is being enjoyed in places like Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, China, and Europe. How do they compare to America? Lets take a look at their most recent murder statistics:
Japan: 442 murders, 0.3 murders per 100,000 peopleYou know what really jumps out at me? China's population is about four times larger than ours yet they had less murders than we did in absolute terms according to the most recent numbers. I should also note that Europe's aggregate numbers are brought up significantly by the former communist countries in Eastern Europe including Russia. If you exclude those countries, the aggregate looks more like Australia or Canada. Holding violent entertainment as a constant, these countries have a much lower murder rate than we do. Here's what all of them have and we don't though: a true universal health care system and strict gun control. Restricting guns doesn't prevent all murder but it makes it much harder to do on a large scale.
Australia: 229 murders, 1 murder per 100,000 people
South Korea: 1251 murders, 2.6 murders per 100,000 people
Canada: 554 murders, 1.6 murders per 100,000 people
China: 13410 murders, 1.0 murders per 100,000 people
Europe (aggregate): 24,025 murders 3.5 per 100,000 people
United States: 14,612 murders, 4.7 per 100,000 people
I don't want you to get the impression that all young children should be playing video games and watching movies with graphic sex and violence. I think that the ESRB rating system is reasonably fair and a pretty good way of helping parents determine if they feel a game's content is appropriate for their children. However, I'm largely of the mindset that parents for the most part know what is best for their children. If a child really has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, parents would know that better than the government. However, do I think that playing violent video game will turn children into violent criminals or school shooters? Absolutely not.
I was born in 1988 and I have been playing video games since I was about 4 or 5 years old. My parents didn't always like the games that I played. I can remember that my father hated the fact that I played the Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City when I was in middle school. I killed many, many people in Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas but I never became a violent person in real life because of it. I knew the difference between fantasy and reality as most children do.
All of this brings me back to the Newtown shootings. Before we even have any explanation as to why Adam Lanza murdered all of those children pundits and politicians are trying to pin part of the blame on violence in video games. I will guarantee that anyone who says that is either wildly misinformed, or is trying to shift our attention away from the root of the likely cause: mental health intervention and treatment and very easy access to firearms that can kill large amounts of people very quickly and efficiently.
If you want to get serious about reducing violent crime and mass shootings in our country focus your attention on things that actually drive people to commit violent crimes. Probably the single biggest thing the government can do would be to enact economic policies that decrease, not increase the rate of poverty in our country. Another thing that would help is a true universial health care system with properly funded mental health services. We need to destigmatize the idea of people seeking mental health services if they really need them and yes, restrict access to weapons that are designed to efficiently kill large amounts of people. Violent music, movies, TV, and video games are not the problem. Violent people are.
I would also recommend that all of you take a look at this episode of Penn and Teller: Bullshit about violent video games. I don't agree with them on everything, but they're spot on when it comes to video games: