In the Newtown aftermath, everyone is looking for ways to reduce violence, including banning gory and gruesome videogames.
One town in Connecticut, Southington, even considered a voluntary collection of violent video games, but canceled the event this past weekend.
We have discussed the issue here on the blog in response to a piece by the headmaster of Pace.
In his essay, Fred Assaf wrote, “Each of these games, simply put, eats away at a child’s sensitivity toward killing. We have ‘gamified’ the murder of people, and our children shoot, steal, and bomb in their virtual worlds. Like the basketball player who practices foul shots, we get better at things when we practice. Their habits become automatic, reactive, and second-nature.”
“Connecticut has changed things,” Representative Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, told The New York Times. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something.”
Among those expressing concerns has been New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who told MSNBC, “I don’t let games like ‘Call of Duty’ in my house. You cannot tell me that a kid sitting in a basement for hours playing ‘Call of Duty’ and killing people over and over and over again does not desensitize that child to the real-life effects of violence.”
As a response to the Newtown school massacre, the Southington SOS community coalition last week went on TV and sought news stories to spread a message: Saturday would be a good time for local families to get rid of overly violent video games.
The group invited people to gather at the old theater property to throw away violence-themed video games — or DVDs or CDs. In return, the local chamber of commerce would encourage some game-free family time by giving them vouchers for restaurant meals or admissions to local attractions.
Southington SOS insisted that it wasn’t blaming video games as the cause of the Newtown shooting, and emphasized that it wasn’t condemning all violent games. Instead, the group said it wanted to spark conversations between parents and their children about the potentially desensitizing effects of games where players kill or maim characters with guns and other weapons.
The concept was a hit with local families, who praised it to teachers and the YMCA, according to Charlie Cocuzza, board president of the chamber of commerce. Numerous video game enthusiasts from around the country and overseas reacted quite differently, though, sending complaints that the idea amounted to knee-jerk book burning.
Southington SOS said it’s convinced that it achieved its goal already. “We didn’t cancel this because of pressure from anyone. The idea was never about burning games or protesting — there’s been a lot of misinformation out there,” Cocuzza said. “Instead of just hour after hour of video games, we wanted parents — who probably don’t know much about the games — to talk with their children about them. And we’re hearing that hundreds of families did.”
Among those critical of the videogame focus is Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor and chairman of the department of psychology and communication at Texas A&M International University.
Given that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook perpetrator, was a young man, and almost all young men play violent video games at least occasionally, it’s easy and valueless to “link” crimes by young men to video games. In doing so, we fail to learn from past mistakes.
Back in the 1950s, the culprit for juvenile delinquency was comic books. Experts testified before Congress that Batman and Robin comics caused not only delinquency but homosexuality (the Caped Crusaders were secretly gay, it was claimed). We’ve seen similar claims about music.
During periods of media-based moral panics, politicians, activists and scholars will say irresponsible things that the data can’t support. These statements feed our fear and give us answers we so desperately want, even if those answers are false. One might reasonably ask, even if the evidence does not support a link between violent media and societal violence, why take the chance? Why not restrict violent media just in case?
The danger in this logic is that in focusing on the wrong issue we distract society from more pressing issues such as mental health. After the 1999 Columbine massacre, the country focused on video games. That led to a decade’s worth of useless legislation that cost millions of dollars and ultimately was struck down as unconstitutional. We’ve tried that path before.
It’s time to learn from the past and pick a new road. I have no doubt in the sincerity of Southington SOS’ efforts. But I am concerned that they are built on a false premise, and particularly worry about their inaccurate statements about the research.
Our attention is better focused elsewhere.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog