Media violence, games, and Newtown

It doesn’t take long after a major gun-related media event, like the recent school shooting in Connecticut, for reactions to fall back into quite familiar patterns.  The Left and the Right in this country have become ideologically ossified, responses and reactions and counter-reactions as routinely choreographed as those dances we see in Jane Austen movies, every move part of long-standing pre-determined patterns.  The trouble is guns–we need stronger gun laws.  No, it’s mental illness–we need to do more to identify and treat dangerously mentally ill people.  No, it’s moral; what do you expect in a land ruled by moral relativism.  My local fish-wrap, The Deseret News featured this letter quoting old Ben Franklin on public morals. Yes, we need to return to the wisdom of the Founders.  I might respond that Ben lived in an era where guns took ten minutes to reload, rusted out in weeks, and misfired a third of the time.  Also, Ben Franklin’s own morals did not prevent dalliances as with as many French ladies-in-waiting as could be persuaded to bed an septuagenarian. Not sure he’s the guy we should be turning to.

It doesn’t seem to me that the problem in Newtown had anything to do with virtue.  Victoria Soto gave her life protecting the children huddled in her classroom closet.  Dawn Hochsprung, the Sandy Hook principal, lunged at a heavily armed assailant, after turning on the school public address system to let her teachers know it was time to protect the kids. I have many many family members who have worked and do work as teachers–I don’t know one who wouldn’t have given his or her life to protect children.

The problem with Adam Lanza wasn’t that he was evil, it was that he was crazy.  This strikes me as rather an important distinction.

I watched Wayne LaPierre’s press conference yesterday, offering the NRA’s suggestions on how to prevent future attacks.  I tried to keep an open mind, and I did think he had some good suggestions.  I rather think having an on-duty police officer at each school isn’t a bad idea. There was a cop at my daughter’s high school–he taught a class in law enforcement, and he did a nice job investigating when some schmuck kid cyber-attacked her. LaPierre also suggested a national registry for dangerously mentally ill people.  That registry is already on the books, but it’s badly maintained, in part because the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is so desperately underfunded.  Heck, they haven’t had a director for six years.

But then Lapierre went after video games.  Specifically violent video games, first person shooter type games, where you, the player, have the point of view of someone shooting bad guys.  Call of Duty is an example.  How healthy can it be to spend hours playing a game in which you take on a persona who kills people?  How dangerous must it be for you psychically to go around shooting people?  And such games have really amazing graphics–it really looks realistic.  Adam Lanza loved FPS games, played ’em all the time.  Did they contribute to the mental illness that caused him to go berserk?  How could they not have done?

Well, has this been studied?  Have there been peer-reviewed double blind laboratory studies on links between video game violence or other media violence and actual violence?  I mean, it seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Hours spent vicariously killing people has to have some affect. ‘As a man thinketh, so is he’, right? We live in a violent society because our young people (our young men, especially) are immersed in violent media.  And so, yes, there have been such studies, you can find them on-line, violent video games are liked to aggression. You bet.

This article in Slate offers the counter argument. Most such studies are badly designed and deeply flawed–some researchers, shockingly, were mostly looking for support for their a priori conclusions.  And while they may seem intuitive, they’re also counter-factual. Teen boys in the Netherlands spend, on average, twice as much time playing violent video games, especially FPS games, than American boys do.  Their society is half as violent as ours.  Canadian kids play more games than we do, and their society is much less violent.  The availability of violent games has increased exponentially over the past thirty years, coinciding with an exponential decrease in actual violence.  Games, it seems, may be cathartic, not noxious.

This is, as it happens, a very old debate.  Plato’s Republic first advanced the argument that seeing bad things leads to bad behavior.  Check out Book II: he wanted to censor ‘the writers of tales,’ to make sure they only wrote about virtuous people behaving virtuously, so kids wouldn’t get wrong ideas from fiction. Thank heavens the one equally important philosopher of his day, Aristotle, knew this to be nonsense, or I wouldn’t have an art form; the Poetics suggests ‘katharsis’ as an alternative function of violent literature.  (I just re-read this last paragraph and threw up a little in my mouth at this simplistic portrayal of the ideas of two great philosophers, but let it go–this is a blog, not a class in dramatic theory).

The fact is, kids play video games because they’re super fun and really cool and look great and are frustratingly, tantalizingly hard to get good at.  They play them for hours because you have to in order to gain any kind of mastery.  The graphics are amazing because this is a multi-billion dollar highly competitive industry and graphics are a selling point.  The latest version of Medal of Honor sold 1.4 million units in one week.  That’s one game, one week.  The numbers of kids who play FPS video games internationally is not in the millions, nor the tens of millions, but hundreds of millions.

And it’s not just kids.  Adults play ’em too.  I’ve never played Medal of Honor, but I have played other FPS games, especially Doom and Quake.  I suck at ’em, because I’m an old guy with bad hands, but I get the attraction–they’re fun.  And when you finish a long session playing, I don’t know, Call of Duty or something, I promise, you don’t want to go out and shoot people.  First, you really need to go to the bathroom. Then you kind of need to see a doctor for your carpal tunnel issues.  But mostly, you just feel satisfaction, the satisfaction that comes from mastering a difficult task.

Old people love to freak out over the things young people do for fun.  I was reading an account of my pioneer ancestors crossing the planes.  They had this game they all played.  While a wagon was rolling, you’d grab the wheel, and try to hang on through one whole revolution. All the way around, just hanging on to the wagon spokes. There were rules against it, and wagon masters were always telling folks to watch out for kids doing it, because it was dangerous, but kids did it anyway.  Pioneer children may well have sang while they walked and walked and walked, but my guess is they got into all kinds of mischief too.  Because they were kids.

Adam Lanza was a gamer, and especially enjoyed FPS violence. He was similar, in that regard, to tens of millions of young men all over the world.  He was also a loner, socially isolated, a troubled kid, pulled in and out of schools by what seems to have been a desperate mother. That would describe hundreds of thousands of young men. Most of them . . . get through it.  But he was also sick in a way that finally exploded into the worst violence imaginable. The place to start looking for an explanation and maybe even a cure is there, not in what he had in common with millions of non-violent kids, but the specific ways in which he was so tragically different. We all want answers, and we specifically want answers that fit our ideological preferences and preconceptions.  Figuring this out is going to be harder than that.


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