ANDREW GALLACHER is a simple man who can handle four different types of guns and can run for hours at a time. On the computer that is. He explains why the fantastic virtual world cannot be blamed for sad happenings in the real life.
I have a confession to make. I have, as yet, failed to go on a killing spree. I haven’t even delivered a mild beating to anyone. I have also failed to defeat the Whermacht single-handed, repel any alien and/or demonic invaders, collect gold rings, search any castles for princesses or attempted to arrange a variety of oddly shaped blocks into rows as they fall on me from above to the sound of a catchy Russian tune. I haven’t become an Olympic skier either.
Which is odd as these are all activities which a lifetime of playing games should have habituated me into doing. Or so goes the reasoning of politicians, pundits and activists that flock to the scene of any tragic incidence of youth violence. As sure as the sun rising if there is a school shooting or teen murder there will be someone trying to link the killers actions to video games. The logic goes like this: many adolescents play games, some of these games depict violence in some fashion, occasionally an adolescent will commit an act of violence; therefore the playing of
video games by children and teens inevitably leads to violence. I ,who despite playing such games through my entire childhood have yet to commit a violent crime, am clearly an aberration. As are my friends. And their friends. Who am I to deny the mountains of data and scientific evidence that support this indestructible chain of logic?
Well then, let’s take a look at some actual facts. After the Columbine shooting the US Secret Service conducted a study on every school shooting known to have occurred in the States. They attempted to identify the characteristics of the attackers. They found some interesting results. Only 12% of attackers displayed an interest in violent video games. 24% were interested in violent books and 27% in violent movies. By far the largest type of media that attackers were interested in was the their own written word. 37% displayed an interest in violence in their writing in essays, poems and diaries. In fact the majority (63%) of attackers came from a stable two parent family, the majority (66%) were also receiving Cs or higher in their school work, the majority (63%) had no history of disciplinary problems. The largest group (41%) were considered socially ‘mainstream’ (which is to say that they were not considered to be on the fringe or outside of mainstream student social life). Statistically, the most likely candidate to commit a school shooting is from a stable family, is doing well academically, has no history of violence or interest in violent media and would be considered socially well adjusted. Not as simple as ‘violent games make violent kids’ is it?
I think that makes the point quite well but we should take a look at some data from the UK just to be sure. If video games lead to an increased tendency for violent behaviour then we should see an increase in violent crime rates over time. Let’s take a period of about 30 years. Games have been a part of mainstream society for that long and it’s long enough for an entire generation to have grown up from childhood to fully functioning (or in my case hopefully functioning) adulthood. In 1980 there were approximately 2 million incidents of violent crime in England & Wales. In 2009 there were approximately 2 million incidents of violent crime in England & Wales. Not exactly the collapse of society. Violent crime did spike quite sharply around 1995 for some reason but that was not the high point of graphic gaming violence. In fact, in terms of homicide, the sharpest increase occurred during the 70s with the incidence leaping from 8.1 homicides per million of population in 1970 to 12.5 homicides per million of population in 1980. The biggest game of the 70s was Pong. Does anyone believe that the advent of electronic ping pong would lead to a 25% increase in the murder rate?
I could continue in this vein for a while. I could point out that of the many scientific studies which have investigated the impact of video games on young people most have found no real evidence of a link between games and violence. I could make you aware of the fact that the handful that do show a link just happen to have been published by the same small group of people who have not exactly remained above reproach with regards to the reliability of their methods.
I could…well, you get the idea.
So what does cause these outbreaks of violence? The US Secret Service report did find some interesting common ground between attackers. They all suffered from extreme depression, they all found it difficult to cope with failure and they all had suffered some form of failure or setback prior to their attack. So individuals who, as result of their depression, place a low value on their own life and the lives of others suffer a setback. This exacerbates an already precarious mental state and, unable to accept responsibility for the situation, they seek revenge on those they believe have caused it. Of course this narrative is as simplistic in its own way as the one which blames games. I believe that in truth there are as many reasons as there are attackers, but to accept this is to accept that there is little we can do to control or predict these events.
And that is something that we as society have great difficulty with. Human beings have always and will always be violent. Competition for resources, fear of the unknown, jealousy, revenge and anything else you can think of can cause it. In the Western world we have managed to both minimize this violence in our daily lives while vastly increasing the potential damage a violent individual can cause. This is what makes these events so shocking. But you are still more likely to die in a car accident than be violently murdered.
Perversely, we accept the risk of a car accident because it is so common and fear the risk of a murder because it is so uncommon. Maybe instead of trying to control the uncontrollable we should work on fixing the easily fixable instead.