Looking For A Link Between Video Games And Violence Distracts Us From Real Issues
My heart sank a little when I read the headline yesterday morning: "GTA 5: fan stabbed and robbed of new video game." Somehow, I knew that this would simply add more fuel to the fire. I knew that this isolated incident; this singular case of a few people thinking with their reptilian brains instead of their human ones would simply grant more ammunition to irresponsible news outlets like Fox, Al Jazeera, and The Telegraph (among others).
For those of you who don't follow the news, a few days ago the United States suffered yet another mass shooting. This time, the shooter was 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, a civilian contractor and former navy reservist residing in Fort Worth, Texas. No one knows what possessed the man to travel to the Washington Navy Yard and open fire; save that he was truly and profoundly unwell.
He heard voices, malicious ones that kept him awake deep into the night. He was wholly convinced that these disembodied entities wished to do him harm. He believed he was being shadowed by people using a microwave machine to send vibrations into his body.
At one point, he called the police to tell them of his fears. He told him of the voices. He told them he was being followed, and that people were hunting him. The police informed the Newport Naval base. It's unclear whether or not anything was done.
Then, earlier this week, something finally snapped. Alexis's fragile mental state shattered to pieces, and he gunned down twelve people before himself being shot down by police. The States was left reeling over yet another shooting, the eighth this year.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, the news surfaced that Alexis played violent video games. He didn't just play, though. He was obsessed; completely consumed by military-themed shooters in particular. Three guesses as to what happened next, folks, and the first two don't count.
Like a flock of vultures to a carcass, the media has swarmed over the story. Even reputable outlets like CBC couldn't help but mention the fact that he was 'obsessed with violent video games,' making that news their articles' byline as though that's more relevant than his untreated mental illness.
"Among the emerging details about Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis was the fact that the former Navy reservist was obsessed with military-style video games, according to one of his friends, Michael Ritrovato," writes ABC News. "It's still unclear whether Alexis's obsession with violent video games may have played a role in Monday's shootings, but with the release of Grand Theft Auto V, one of the video game industry's most anticipated (and most mature-themed) titles falling so close to yet another rampage, it is sure to fuel the debate about video game violence and its real-world counterpart."
But it shouldn't. This isn't even a debate we should be having. We should be talking about the health care system that allowed Alexis to fall through the cracks. We should be looking at whether or not those informed about his illness took the necessary precautions (or whether they took any at all). We should be troubled by the fact that this man - a man who was clearly in the depths of a psychotic break - was able to obtain a firearm as easily as he might have obtained a loaf of bread. What about the fact that a man with a clear mental illness had government clearance?
It's time to stop asking the easy questions, and move to the difficult ones.
"Millions of kids use video games as an entertainment medium and almost none of them commit these sorts of crimes," admitted author Katherine Newman later in the same ABC article. "There is an association, but not a very robust one."
Violence is hardly a new concept to human beings. Did the Mongols need Gears of War to teach them how to kill? Did Jack The Ripper play Grand Theft Auto before he disemboweled at least five prostitutes in London's Whitechapel District? Did Charles Manson spend all his spare time playing World of Warcraft?
Did torturers in the middle ages perfect their craft playing Condemned and Postal?
The ugly truth is, people have been dreaming up new, inventive, and brutal ways of inflicting pain on one another for centuries. There's something primal, something animalistic about violence; something which appeals to the baser part of the human brain. It's something which was around long before the first real 'murder,' and video games have about as much impact on it as a blade of grass has on the direction of the wind.
To drive the point home: we've yet to see a single study that definitively links video games with violent behavior. True, we've seen evidence that games, in the short term, can lead to a temporary spike in aggression - but the link between that short upturn in hostility and real-world violence is tenuous, at best. We've yet to see a reliable study definitively linking video game violence to the real deal.
The closest study we have is a work published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which found that violent games do indeed lead to an increase in aggressive behavior...but only if participants played the game with a negative goal in mind. Those who played with positive objectives in mind (say, protecting a friend or working together with a team) showed reduced levels of aggressive behavior.
Even in the case of the aggressive individuals, that aggression was short lived. It faded just a few minutes afterwards.
In short...just playing violent games will not feasibly lead to violent behavior in a healthy, mentally sound individual. To that effect, it's noteworthy that the study I just mentioned did not take into account any emotional, family, and social problems - when such issues are accounted for and dealt with, the increased aggression that stems from violent games effectively vanishes.
"Violent video games might have a small correlation with aggressive behavior, emotion, and thoughts," writes John M. Grohol of Psychcentral, "but it's ultimately a weak and meaningless connection that makes little difference in the real world."
You might say that no one takes the journalists that do this seriously. You might say that this sensationalist tripe doesn't really indicate anyone's opinions. You might even say that everyone's already aware of the fact that there's no easy answer as to why such incidents are happening with such frequency.
If that's the case, then why do stories like this keep cropping up?
When I saw the headline, my heart sank because I knew right away it was one more link in the tenuous chain between video games and violence. I knew right away that journalists - or people who called themselves journalists - would point to it as evidence of the link to violence. This needs to stop.
It ignores the contributions games have made to society and their value as tools of innovation, education, and creativity. More importantly, it does a great disservice to the victims of tragedies like the Navy Yard shooting. It ignores the wide array of contributing factors in incidents like this one, and distracts people from the real problems, questions, and concerns.
Maybe video games were the straw that broke the camel's back in the case of Alexis - but only because he was a long-suffering victim of mental illness in the first place. That should be our focus - not the fact that he was a gamer.