In Wake of Tragic Shooting, Video Games Blamed

The country is still reeling from the tragic shooting at the D.C. Navy Yard, and in the short span of time that has followed, video games quickly became a focus of discussion, with outlets such as Fox News and The Telegraph blaring headlines that implicate video games in gunman Aaron Alexis’s violent attack.

An article on paints a portrait of a man obsessed with violent video games:

Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, the owner of the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, recalled Alexis as skilled at these games. Alexis would play marathon sessions for hours, The Wall Street Journal reported. Another friend said that Alexis would play first-person shooting games online. These games would be so time consuming, that friends would bring Alexis food during these binges.

The article quickly evolves into an all-out attack on video games by linking the D.C. Navy Yard shooting with the violent actions of other shooters:
Several other mass killers, including Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, have been linked to violent video games. And some experts worry that as the games get more violent and more realistic, so does their power to blur the line between fantasy and reality in alienated gamers.
The Telegraph headline declares that Alexis was obsessed with violent video games and further labels Alexis a video game addict. Neither article acknowledges the body of research that has failed to establish a link between violent behavior and video game play.

As quickly as outlets began implicating video games, other outlets responded by defending them. The Atlantic Wire ran a headline that boldly stated, “Don’t Blame Violent Video Games for Monday’s Mass Shooting.” Alexander Abad-Santos wrote the article, relating how video game play has become a refrain in the coverage of real-life shootings:

The race to pin the blame of mass shootings on video games has become a convenient and successful trope. Newspapers were quick to point out that Norway mass shooter Anders Breivik played World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, played video games like Call of Duty, too, which the NRA will never let you forget. And, yes, these shooters do have video game play in common — but that doesn’t mean that video games are to blame.

Abad-Santos goes on to reiterate the point made by Max Fisher, who wrote an article for The Washington Post — complete with visual aids — that tore apart the argument that video games cause violent behavior. Fisher made the point that the countries with the highest rate of spending on video games had some of the best safety records. The United States is actually an outlier, with a high rate of gun violence that does not otherwise fit into the data. Translation: There are other factors at play, and video games cannot be the sole target of blame.

Abad-Santos provides more detail:

So maybe everyone in South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands is just playing non-violent games like Little Big Planet or NBA 2k13? They’re not, but let’s just assume that for the moment. The Entertainment Consumers Association, the lobbying arm of the video game industry, specifically points out that the U.S. industry has been dominated by shooter games in recent years. And in those years, the crime rate has actually gone down:

While video game sales have increased, violent crime has been steadily decreasing according to FBI statistics. In 2011, video game sales increased to over $27 billion dollars and violent crimes nationwide decreased 3.8 percent from 2010. Since 2002, violent crime has decreased 15.5 percent. This is all during the time when games like Call of Duty and Halo have dominated sales.

Abad-Santos points to the most obvious cause for Alexis’s behavior: untreated mental illness. What’s ironic is that Alexis’s obsessive video game play is not a cause, but a symptom of mental illness that indicated he needed help:

There have been studies that show that there is a link between depression and obsessive video game use. This is not to say that depressed people are mass shooters, but that video game usage can be a sign that someone may need help. Even then, however, saying video causes depression is too simple. “Depression and pathological gaming seem to be truly co-morbid. Where they make each other worse,” Iowa State University’s Dr. Douglas Gentle told the site Rock Paper Shotgun.

Josh Feldmenan with Mediaite questioned the relevance of the video game discussion and called for rationality when it comes to video games:

We still don’t know enough about Alexis to be able to say anything definitive about his motivations, but to the media and political figures who love jumpingon thisparticular talking point, here’s a bit of advice: take a deep breath. Relax. Think about it first. Don’t jump to conclusions or start getting all up in arms. There are plenty of people who play violent video games who don’t do such horrible things. A video game in and of itself is not the sole trigger for violent acts in any human being, there are likely a number of psychological factors at play.

Even though a tangible link between video games and violent behavior has not been established despite years of research, the coverage of Alexis’s video game use will likely be used to support the Violent Content Research Act, legislation that raises concerns among free speech advocates. Whether it’s the media or politicians blaming video games, such discussion takes the focus away from the tangible — and frequently treatable or avoidable — causes of violent shootings. Censoring video games is not going to fix the problem, and the continual implication of video games each time someone goes on a shooting spree is not going to prevent future crimes. Indeed, it’s time to take a deep breath because this refrain is getting tired.

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Betsy Gomez is Web Editor for CBLDF.