Can We Blame Guns and Video Games?

After the most recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I, like most other parents out there have done a lot of soul searching.  Since my actions directly affect the development of the litttle people under my care, I wanted to get to the very heart of the matter, to understand if guns and video games are to blame, if this senseless tragedy can be understood or if it is just that: a tragedy.

*****

I listened as mournful deep-throated bells wrung out sorrowful notes of mourning over half-masted flags and tiny coffins with a tightness in my chest that made the slow skut, skut, skut of my kitchen knife feel as if a rope were being wound around my own heart.

When I heard that the victims of the latest shooting rampage were first graders, I thought of my own six year-old.   A little blonde who is missing a couple of teeth, who is starting to get a little dusting of freckles on her cheeks.  She is learning to read and she over-mothers her baby brother and she loves to draw rainbows and little smiling people with fairy wings.  She still cries when she gets in trouble and climbs into my bed at night when she is scared.  She even wipes her nose on her shirt sometimes.  She writes me notes and scribbles pictures of the two of us holding hands.

I wanted to know why.  I wanted to understand if muffled whispers blaming or exonerating video games had any merit, if it could lead to real understanding of the tragic mass shootings over the last 20 years.

Here is what I found.  In six of the most notorious cases in recent history, every single shooter has been linked to video games that share first person shooter, immersive, realistic, explicitly violent, multi-player, online componentsViolent media led to more aggressive behavior across the board, but the specific types of games the shooters played have been shown to exacerbate problems for kids with anxiety, depression, or social awkwardness.  The specific type of mass shooting we have seen has gone up in direct proportion with sales of realistic, massive multi-player online games and the specific game connected to two of the shooters, the Call of Duty franchise, even though generalized violence has gone down.  But the difference between the high incidence of these types of crimes in the US as compared to other countries with similar video game consumption and mental health rates is the relative prevalence and access to guns.

In each and every case of the six most notorious recent shootings, each shooter was linked to violent video games.  James Holmes, the perpetrator of the Colorado movie theater shooting that claimed the lives of 13 and wounded 58, was said by a classmate to have been "obsessed with computer games," especially role playing ones.  His friend said  "he did not have much of a life apart from that and doing his work. James seemed like he wanted to be in the game and be one of the characters.  It seemed that being online was more important to him than real life."  (here)  (He played the game Ultima, a friend said here)

Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 33 people and wounded 15, was reported by high school classmates as having  been a fanatical player of "shooter" video games, especially one called "Counterstrike." (here)

The Columbine shooters reportedly went on their shooting rampage after being denied access to the video game Doom (here).  Dylan Klebold said, while planning the massacre, that it would be like "playing Doom," and that his gun would be “just like the one in the game.”  He is also reported to have said to have created levels within the game in order to specifically practice for the Columbine shooting, though parts of this are untrue (here).*

The notorious Norweigian shooter, who killed 77 people on his shooting rampage, confessed to training for his spree by playing violent video games.  "Anders Behring Breivik said at his trial that he played "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" as a means of shooting practice." (here)

And Jared Loughner, who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was described as a "big video gamer," by two friends.  Even the most recent shooter, Adam Lanza, has been linked to the same game played by Anders Breivik, Call of Duty (for a recent chilling revelation, see Frontline's recent coverage that indicates Lanza was trying to outdo Breivik here, and that Lanza's particular way of reloading his gun paralleled the way one uses a gun in the game Call of Duty).

Did the games have anything in common?

The type of video game that each shooter played was found to be very similar.  Each game in this sample is a first person shooter game that rewards players with more advanced weaponry as they progress through the game.  Each game also has a possible online multi-player element, wherein players can become powerful and respected by the online gaming community under his/her gaming alias.   Most have a story line of some sort, and each game also has some element of fighting evil, enemy armies, or the like.  All games except for Earth Empires, played by Jared Loughner, have very realistic 3-D graphics (some of these elements pioneered by the original Doom) and a very high element of gore (see here and here and here and here and here).

The next question: does playing violent video games lead to violent behavior, or is this just a myth?

The Entertainment Software Association claims there is no link here: (http://www.theesa.com/facts/violence.asp).

But The American Academy of Pediatrics tells a different story: it cites research from 3500 studies which have shown links between violent media consumption and aggressive behaviors, while 18 have shown no effect (here).  That is nearly 200 to one.

Dr. Craig Andersen, in an article for the American Pyschological Association website (here), said "An historical examination of the research reveals that debate concerning whether such exposure is a significant risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior should have been over years ago (Bushman & Anderson, 2001)."  The evidence is overwhelming.  So why do we persist in re-circulating the old mantra "don't blame the video games?"   (in my research, it was parents, bloggers, video game industry spokespersons, and "opinion" writers that continue to promulgate all the myths about video games-- all non-experts)

A small but significant group is at particular risk for acting on these thoughts and emotions in risky and random ways, including conditions that wouldn’t classify someone on a list of the mentally ill, like depression and ADHD (here).    These young people often began as more impulsive and socially awkward, were often less empathetic than average, were more likely to show addictive-type behaviors as an escape from the real world (see more on video game addiction here) .  Video game addiction, which produces chemicals in the brain similar to those of pathological gamblers, creates a need for more and more of the "substance" in order to satisfy, and similarly creates irritability and withdrawal symptoms when taken away.  (here)

These types of kids are vulnerable to a depressive cycle in which real problems worsen as kids spend time learning to turn off natural empathy, learn to use proxy aggressive behaviors to let off steam (studies show that rather than having a cathartic effect, video games lowers kids' sensitivity to violence), and spend more time in isolation, with less time building real social skills.  One study showed children, two years after being exposed to virtual violence, were more likely to have anxiety and social phobias than they did before.  They also showed a drop in grades and a deterioration in their relationship with parents  (here).  A snowball effect that makes them feel even more isolated, rejected by peers, and distanced from parents.

There is a strong link between very realistic, immersive, social network gaming experience and overall addictiveness.   On an addictiveness ladder, puzzle games rate the lowest for their potential to hook a player.  Sports games are in the middle.  Close to the top are first person shooter and role playing games.  And very top on the addictive video game scale are Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG).  According to Aaron Shaw of the Video Game Ninja blog, "these are epic games with an everlasting storyline. These games do not have an ending. They are designed to play forever. MMORPG’s are usually played with thousands of other players online at the same time, adding a highly addictive social component to the game. Lastly, these games are designed so that the more you play, the more powerful and well respected you are by everyone playing. Examples of this type of game are Everquest, and World of Warcraft." (here) (emphasis added)

Can these types of video games be linked in a concrete way to the specific types of mass shootings we’ve seen over the last 15 years?

For a little old time fun, I remember playing the Atari  (dino days!) with my dad and my sister in the 80's.  Even that silly little "Pong" game was weirdly fun.  I remember playing another game together-- can't remember the name-- where a blocky pixelated person was maneuvered with the arrow keys in a blocky world and it was exciting  (ah!  Kings Quest, that was it).  And I got with my dad as we held our breath during one final segment as we tried moving our person tiniest arrow-touch by arrow-touch so he wouldn't fall off a cliff.  In later years I mushroom-jumped my way to a Mario finale to the tune of some tinny lyrics.   One of my favorite recent memories is playing Guitar Hero with friends until way too late at night, when we had babies to sleep for and tired next-day jobs and responsibilities.

But, just maybe, I had stumbled upon my first clue.  Video games have come a long way since my Atari days and my Blocky Man and tinny Mario winnings.  Here is a quote from The Video Game Revolution on PBS about the realism of modern games (here):

"One of the most important aspects of modern game creation is the environment. Subtle touches like reflections in shiny surfaces and varied cloud patterns often go unnoticed by players, but they help create a much more immersive environment. And often such details can propel the story forward: for example, a twig snapping under a character's foot can signal approaching danger.

As the power of home computers rapidly increases, game developers are able to create ever more realistic and complex environments. Levels of detail that were unimaginable only a few years ago are now commonplace."

Just to check, I looked back into the archives.  Pretty much as soon as video games were invented, virtual violence appeared on the scene.  (The initial first person shooter games - 1980)   Ways to punch somebody up or shoot them or capture their castle.  But the blockiness, the quality that very much reminded me that I was indeed in a virtual world and not sitting with my very real dad enjoying some fun together, that has gradually erased over time to create the kind of realistic, immersive environment mentioned.  Interactive online gaming used text-based displays until 1987. (here)  The 90's marked the turn of the big innovations in gaming that have continued to revolutionize the industry.  It is during this period that I have also personally witnessed what feels like an increase in these types of mass shootings.

This graph, from the Mother Jones blog, shows an uptick in these types of shootings eerily mirrors the growth in the types of games used in this sample, as well as the overall realism of the game (see here), including a dip in the early 2000’s. 

graph (4)

*1999 Doom sales number of 4.62 million units sold is the total number of units sold between 1993-1999.

Here is a graph of MMORPGs over the last 20 years, by number of subscriber and here http://mmodata.net/ (again, biggest surge after 2004).

But mass killings predate this period, with one of the first mass killings in August of 1966, as a Charles Whitman fired on 16 people from atop a clock tower before being killed by police (here).  So...are the two related?   And are mass shootings actually increasing?  Criminologist James Allen Fox of Northeastern, sees no discernable difference of mass shootings over time, though Fox's criteria of what constitutes a mass shooting may be different than Mother Jones'.  Brad Plumer of the Washington Post's WonkBlog provides one explanation this way: "Fox is looking at all mass shootings involving four or more victims — that’s the standard FBI definition. Mother Jones, by contrast, had a much more restrictive definition, excluding things like armed robbery or gang violence. They were trying to focus on spree killings that were similar in style to Virginia Tech or Aurora or Newtown. The definitions make a big difference: On Fox’s criteria, there’s no uptick. On Mother Jones’, there’s a clear increase."

One thing is clear: the immersive-type gaming that has become more and more realistic has mirrored the swing in the types of mass shootings we have seen in recent years.  And especially when one considers some of the specific games played by these specific shooters: MMORPG's - Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, which gained popularity in the late 90's and show a similar upswing in popularity (here), and sales of the specific game Call of Duty.

So the simplistic graph that we have been using, of violence down, video game sales up, is wrong.

And yet, this leaves something unexplained.  Why is the death by firearm rate so much higher in the US than it is in Europe or Australia, considering both of those places have similar violent video game sales and mental health rates to the US?

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the higher the gun ownership rates across developed countries, the higher its rates of accident, suicide and homicide deaths by firearm (here -- this is true across states as well).  So the most basic correlation, and one on which most experts agree, is the highest predictor of violence by firearm is simply the amount of guns and the level of access to guns in a given population (see here).

All of my research points to two distinct conclusions.  First, that video game violence has a direct connection to real world aggression.  Virtual violence affects everyone who uses it negatively.  But among high risk groups, those who suffer from social phobias and anxiety or depression or ADHD, certain types of virtual game play can be addictive and devastating.   Within the micro-examination of the type of mass shooting in recent memory, every single mass shooter examined in the six most prominent instances, shows this pattern in each and every shooter.

While murder and even a mass shooting predate the creation of video games, the increase of mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary exactly mirror the growth in number, quality, and sales of immersive, real-world violent games, especially the very most addictive types, MMORPG's, and the popularity of the specific first person shooter game, Call of Duty.

Which leads me to my final conclusion: while violent media consumption does not lead the majority of its users to commit mass violent crime of the Sandy Hook type, it has direct affects on aggressive behaviors and lowered empathy for all of its consumers, depression and possible addiction for some.  But it is access to firearms that makes the difference between the vast number of deaths between comparable countries.  And at-risk groups may not be the who we think they are: they might just be depressed, or anxious, or different, people who have been caught in a cycle that has exacerbated existing anxieties and desensitized natural empathy for others.  Often trapped by a cyber world that offers titillating acceptance and power, but translates to less acceptance, separation from family and friends, and the face-giving realities of the consequences of real violence.

Are these the answers?  Will we ever know?  As I was researching this article, I ordered a copy of the movie Top Hat from Netflix; part of an effort to expand my kids' horizons.  Yes, they grumbled and complained about the whole black-and-white thing.  But then they were glued.  I was wrestling with these questions about whether movies and video games change people, especially role-playing games.  When we took a brief break to greet my husband home from a long day at work, I noticed that my kids were suddenly tap dancing enthusiastically on the kitchen floor.  Imitating what they'd just seen.  And I don't know.  Does what we watch affect what we do?

*****

On the day of the shooting, my chest was still tight and my face red and salty when I went to check on my older son in our study.  He was playing a little free rudimentary game on our computer.  There were little people clad in armor and there were two armies, one red, the other blue.  They were rushing at each other and killing one another in one big massive hoard.  I felt a sudden revulsion fill my whole frame.  I have felt ambivalent about games like this in the past, but not now.  Not today.  A little too abruptly, I said, we will not be playing any killing games ever again.  Killing is not a game.  It is not something we do for fun.  Not in this house.

I had a little voice in my head that said "you are being to extreme.  Video games are harmless.  It's just a little game."  And I realized that voice, it wasn't my conscience, and it wasn't my own voice, either, it was my culture's voice.  It was born of a thousand experiences in which I heard someone say those very words.  Those words that papered over the anxiety I felt in my own heart, that I pushed down, which said that it is not just a little thing that doesn't matter.

And I realized that in order to help prevent the flow of blood that is now claiming the lives of even the most innocent little children, I must change.  Those voices, those leathery papered voices that smooth and smother, the ones that have been choked down, at times by our very own mouths, they are leading us astray.  In order to change we have to really look at ourselves, from deep within, and from far without, and change.  For them, and for us.

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