Do Video Games Kill? By Karen Sternheimer • When white, middle-class teens kill, the media and politicians are quick to blame video games.
Are they right? As soon as it was released in 1993, a video game called Doom became a target for critics. Not the first, but certainly one of the most popular first-person shooter games, Doom galvanized fears that such games would teach kids to kill. In the years after its release, Doom helped video gaming grow into a multibillion dollar industry, surpassing Hollywood box-office revenues and further fanning public anxieties.
Then came the school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Oregon; and Littleton, Colorado. In all three cases, press accounts emphasized that the shooters loved Doom, making it appear that the critics’ predictions about video games were coming true. But in the ten years following Doom’s release, homicide arrest rates fell by 77 percent among juveniles. School shootings remain extremely rare; even during the 1990s, when fears of school violence were high, students had less than a 7 in 10 million chance of being killed at school.During that time, video games became a major part of many young people’s lives, few of whom will ever become violent, let alone kill. So why is the video game explanation so popular? Contemporary Folk Devils In 2000 the FBI issued a report on school rampage shootings, finding that their rarity prohibits the construction of a useful profile of a “typical” shooter. In the absence of a simple explanation, the public symbolically linked these rare and complex events to the shooters’ alleged interest in video games, finding in them a catchall explanation for what seemed unexplainable–the white, middle-class school shooter.
However, the concern about video games is out of proportion to their actual threat. Politicians and other moral crusaders frequently create “folk devils,” individuals or groups defined as evil and immoral. Folk devils allow us to channel our blame and fear, offering a clear course of action to remedy what many believe to be a growing problem. Video games, those who play them, and those who create them have become contemporary folk devils because they seem to pose a threat to children.Such games have come to represent a variety of social anxieties: about youth violence, new computer technology, and the apparent decline in the ability of adults to control what young people do and know. Panics about youth and popular culture have emerged with the appearance of many new technologies. Over the past century, politicians have complained that cars, radio, movies, rock music, and even comic books caused youth immorality and crime, calling for control and sometimes censorship.
Acting on concerns like these, politicians often engage in battles characterized as between good and evil.The unlikely team of Senators Joseph Lieberman, Sam Brownback, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Rick Santorum introduced a bill in March 2005 that called for $90 million to fund studies on media effects. Lieberman commented, “America is a media-rich society, but despite the flood of information, we still lack perhaps the most important piece of information–what effect are media having on our children? ” Regardless of whether any legislation passes, the senators position themselves as protecting children and benefit from the moral panic they help to create.Constructing Culpability Politicians are not the only ones who blame video games. Since 1997, 199 newspaper articles have focused on video games as a central explanation for the Paducah, Springfield, and Littleton shootings. This helped to create a groundswell of fear that schools were no longer safe and that rampage shootings could happen wherever there were video games. The shootings legitimated existing concerns about the new medium and about young people in general.
Headlines such as “Virtual Realities Spur School Massacres” (Denver Post, July 27, 1999), “Days of Doom” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 14, 1999), “Bloodlust Video Games Put Kids in the Crosshairs” (Denver Post, May 30, 1999), and “All Those Who Deny Any Linkage between Violence in Entertainment and Violence in Real Life, Think Again” (New York Times, April 26, 1999) insist that video games are the culprit. These headlines all appeared immediately after the Littleton shooting, which had the highest death toll and inspired most (176) of the news stories alleging a video game connection.Across the country, the press attributed much of the blame to video games specifically, and to Hollywood more generally. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article “Days of Doom” noted that “eighteen people have now died at the hands of avid Doom players.
” The New York Times article noted above began, “By producing increasingly violent media, the entertainment industry has for decades engaged in a lucrative dance with the devil,” evoking imagery of a fight against evil. It went on to construct video games as a central link: “The two boys apparently responsible for the massacre in Littleton, Colo. last week were, among many other things, accomplished players of the ultraviolent video game Doom. And Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in a Paducah, Ky.
, school foyer in 1997, was also known to be a video-game expert. ” Just as many stories insisted that video games deserved at least partial blame, editorial pages around the country made the connection as well: President Bill Clinton is right. He said this shooting was no isolated incident, that Kinkel and other teens accused of killing teachers and fellow students reflect a changing culture of violence on television and in movies and video games. Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 30, 1998) The campaign to make Hollywood more responsible… should proceed full speed ahead.
(Boston Herald, April 9, 2000) Make no mistake, Hollywood is contributing to a culture that feeds on and breeds violence…. When entertainment companies craft the most shocking video games and movies they can, peddle their virulent wares to an impressionable audience with abandon, then shrug off responsibility for our culture of violence, they deserve censure. (St.
Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, 2000)The video game connection took precedence in all these news reports. Some stories mentioned other explanations, such as the shooters’ social rejection, feelings of alienation at school, and depression, but these were treated mostly as minor factors compared with video games. Reporters gave these other reasons far less attention than violent video games, and frequently discussed them at the end of the articles. The news reports typically introduce experts early in the stories who support the video game explanation.David Grossman, a former army lieutenant described as a professor of “killology,” has claimed that video games are “murder simulators” and serve as an equivalent to military training. Among the 199 newspaper articles published, 17 of them mentioned or quoted Grossman. Additionally, an attorney who has filed several lawsuits against video game producers wrote an article for the Denver Post insisting that the games are to blame. By contrast, only seven articles identified sociologists as experts.
Writers routinely presented alternative explanations as rebuttals but rarely explored them in depth.Reporting on Research By focusing so heavily on video games, news reports downplay the broader social contexts. While a handful of articles note the roles that guns, poverty, families, and the organization of schools may play in youth violence in general, when reporters mention research to explain the shooters’ behavior, the vast majority of studies cited concern media effects, suggesting that video games are a central cause. Since the early days of radio and movies, investigators have searched for possible effects–typically negative–that different media may have on audiences, especially children.
Such research became more intense following the rise in violent crime in the United States between the 1960s and early 1990s, focusing primarily on television. Several hundred studies asked whether exposure to media violence predicts involvement in actual violence. Although often accepted as true–one scholar has gone so far as to call the findings about the effects of media violence on behavior a “law”–this body of research has been highly controversial. One such study fostered claims that television had led to more than 10,000 murders in the United States and Canada during the 20th century.This and many other media-effects studies rely on correlation analysis, often finding small but sometimes statistically significant links between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. But such studies do not demonstrate that media violence causes aggressive behavior, only that the two phenomena exist together.
Excluding a host of other factors (such as the growing unrest during the civil rights and antiwar movements, and the disappearance of jobs in central cities) may make it seem that a direct link exists between the introduction of television and homicides. In all likelihood any connection is incidental.It is equally likely that more aggressive people seek out violent entertainment. Aggression includes a broad range of emotions and behaviors, and is not always synonymous with violence. Measures of aggression in media-effects research have varied widely, from observing play between children and inanimate objects to counting the number of speeding tickets a person received. Psychologist Jonathan Freedman reviewed every media-violence study published in English and concluded that “the majority of studies produced evidence that is inconsistent or even contradicts” the claim that exposure to media violence causes real violence.
Recently, video games have become a focus of research. Reviews of this growing literature have also been mixed. A 2001 meta-analysis in Psychological Science concluded that video games “will increase aggressive behavior,” while a similar review published that same year in a different journal found that “it is not possible to determine whether video game violence affects aggressive behavior. ” A 2005 review found evidence that playing video games improves spatial skills and reaction times, but not that the games increase aggression.
The authors of the Psychological Science article advocate the strong-effects hypothesis.Two of their studies were widely reported on in 2000, the year after the Columbine High School shootings, with scant critical analysis. But their research was based on college undergraduates, not troubled teens, and it measured aggression in part by subjects’ speed in reading “aggressive” words on a computer screen or blasting opponents with sound after playing a violent video game. These measures do not approximate the conditions the school shooters experienced, nor do they offer much insight as to why they, and not the millions of other players, decided to acquire actual weapons and shoot real people.
Occasionally reporters include challenges like this in stories containing media-effects claims, but news coverage usually refers to this body of research as clear, consistent, and conclusive. “The evidence, say those who study violence in culture, is unassailable: Hundreds of studies in recent decades have revealed a direct correlation between exposure to media violence–now including video games–and increased aggression,” said the New York Times (April 26, 1999).The Boston Herald quoted a clinical psychologist who said, “Studies have already shown that watching television shows with aggressive or violent content makes children more aggressive” (July 30, 2000). The psychologist noted that video game research is newer, but predicted that “in a few years, studies will show that video games increase a child’s aggression even more than violent TV shows. ” News reports do not always use academic sources to assess the conclusiveness of media effects research.A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story included a quote by an attorney, who claimed, “Research on this has been well-established” (May 14, 1999). It is no accident that media-effects research and individual explanations dominate press attempts to explain the behavior of the school shooters. Although many politicians are happy to take up the cause against video games, popular culture itself suggests an apolitical explanation of violence and discourages a broader examination of structural factors.
Focusing on extremely rare and perhaps unpredictable outbursts of violence by young people discourages the public from looking closely at more typical forms of violence against young people, which is usually perpetrated by adults. The biggest problem with media-effects research is that it attempts to decontextualize violence. Poverty, neighborhood instability, unemployment, and even family violence fall by the wayside in most of these studies. Ironically, even mental illness tends to be overlooked in this psychologically oriented research.Young people are seen as passive media consumers, uniquely and uniformly vulnerable to media messages. Missing Media Studies News reports of the shootings that focus on video games ignore other research on the meanings that audiences make from media culture. This may be because its qualitative findings are difficult to turn into simple quotations or sound bites.
Yet in seeking better understanding of the role of video games in the lives of the shooters and young people more generally, media scholars could have added much to the public debate.For instance, one study found that British working-class boys boast about how many horror films they have seen as they construct their sense of masculinity by appearing too tough to be scared. Another study examined how younger boys talk about movies and television as a way to manage their anxieties and insecurities regarding their emerging sense of masculinity. Such studies illustrate why violent video games may appeal to many young males. Media scholars have also examined how and why adults construct concerns about young people and popular culture.One such study concluded that some adults use their condemnation of media as a way to produce cultural distinctions that position them above those who enjoy popular culture. Other researchers have found that people who believe their political knowledge is superior to that of others are more likely to presume that media violence would strongly influence others.
They have also found that respondents who enjoy television violence are less likely to believe it has a negative effect.Just as it is too simplistic to assert that video game violence makes players more prone to violence, news coverage alone, however dramatic or repetitive, cannot create consensus among the public that video games cause youth violence. Finger-wagging politicians and other moralizers often alienate as many members of the public as they convert. In an ironic twist, they might even feed the antiauthoritarian appeal that may draw players of all ages to the games. The lack of consensus does not indicate the absence of a moral panic, but reveals contradictory feelings toward the target group.The intense focus on video games as potential creators of violent killers reflects the hostility that some feel toward popular culture and young people themselves.
After adult rampage shootings in the workplace (which happen more often than school shootings), reporters seldom mention whether the shooters played video games. Nor is an entire generation portrayed as potential killers. Ambivalence About Juvenile Justice The concern in the late 1990s about video games coincided with a growing ambivalence about the juvenile justice system and young offenders.
Fears about juvenile “super-predators,” fanned by former Florida Representative Bill McCollom’s 1996 warning that we should “brace ourselves” against the coming storm of young killers, made the school shootings appear inevitable. McCollom and other politicians characterized young people as a “new breed,” uniquely dangerous and amoral. These fears were produced partially by the rise in crime during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also by the so-called echo boom that produced a large generation of teens during the late 1990s.Demographic theories of crime led policymakers to fear that the rise in the number of teen males would bring a parallel rise in crime.
In response, virtually every state changed its juvenile justice laws during the decade. They increased penalties, imposed mandatory minimum sentences, blended jurisdiction with criminal courts, and made it easier to transfer juvenile cases to adult criminal courts. So before the first shot was fired in Paducah, politicians warned the public to be on the lookout for killer kids.Rather than being seen as tragic anomalies, these high-profile incidents appeared to support scholarly warnings that all kids posed an increasing threat.
Even though juvenile (and adult) crime was in sharp decline by the late nineties, the intense media coverage contributed to the appearance of a new trend. Blaming video games meant that the shooters were set aside from other violent youth, frequently poor males of color, at whom our get-tough legislation has been targeted.According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, African-American youth are involved in the juvenile justice system more than twice as often as whites. The video game explanation constructs the white, middle-class shooters as victims of the power of video games, rather than fully culpable criminals. When boys from “good” neighborhoods are violent, they seem to be harbingers of a “new breed” of youth, created by video games rather than by their social circumstances. White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, victims of an allegedly dangerous product.
African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous. While the news media certainly asked what role the shooters’ parents may have played, the press tended to tread lightly on them, particularly the Kinkels of Springfield, Oregon, who were their son’s first murder victims. Their middle-class, suburban, or rural environments were given little scrutiny.
The white school shooters did more than take the lives of their classmates; their whiteness and middle-class status threatened the idea of the innocence and safety of suburban America.In an attempt to hold more than just the shooters responsible, the victims’ families filed lawsuits against film producers, Internet sites, and video game makers. Around the same time, Congress made it more difficult to sue gun manufacturers for damages.
To date, no court has found entertainment producers liable for causing young people to commit acts of violence. In response to a lawsuit following the Paducah shootings, a Kentucky circuit judge ruled that “we are loath to hold that ideas and images can constitute the tools for a criminal act,” and that product liability law did not apply because the product did not injure its consumer.The lawsuit was dismissed, as were subsequent suits filed after the other high-profile shootings. Game Over? Questions about the power of media and the future of the juvenile justice system persist. In March 2005, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile executions were unconstitutional. This ruling represents an about-face in the 25-year trend toward toughening penalties for young offenders.
While many human rights and children’s advocates praised this decision, it was sharply criticized by those who believe that the juvenile justice system is already too lenient.Likewise, critics continue to target video games, as their graphics and plot capabilities grow more complex and at times more disturbing. Meanwhile, youth crime rates continue to decline. If we want to understand why young people, particularly in middle-class or otherwise stable environments, become homicidal, we need to look beyond the games they play. While all forms of media merit critical analysis, so do the supposedly “good” neighborhoods and families that occasionally produce young killers. Recommended ResourcesRonald Burns and Charles Crawford. “School Shootings, the Media, and Public Fear: Ingredients for a Moral Panic. ” Crime, Law, and Social Change 32 (1999): 147-68.
Examines fears about school shootings in the 1990s, paying special attention to the disproportional response compared to the actual threat. Jonathan L. Freedman. Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (University of Toronto Press, 2002). A thorough analysis of media-effects research, with a critique of methods and interpretation of results.Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (Blackwell, 1994). A primer on moral panics, with basic definitions as well as several seminal case studies.
John Springhall. Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996 (St. Martin’s, 1998).
A history of fears about young people and media. Franklin E. Zimring. American Youth Violence (Oxford University Press, 1998).
A comprehensive look at trends in youth crime, juvenile justice, and political discourse about youth violence.Karen Sternheimer is the author of Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today’s Youth and It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children. Back to top ^ Summary: “As soon as it was released in 1993, a video game called Doom became a target for critics. Not the first, but certainly one of the most popular first-person shooter games, Doom galvanized fears that such games would teach kids to kill. In the years after its release, Doom helped video gaming grow into a multibillion dollar industry, surpassing Hollywood box-office revenues and further fanning public anxieties.
Then came the school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Oregon; and Littleton, Colorado. In all three cases, press accounts emphasized that the shooters loved Doom, making it appear that the critics’ predictions about video games were coming true. But in the ten years following Doom’s release, homicide arrest rates fell by 77 percent among juveniles. School shootings remain extremely rare; even during the 1990s, when fears of school violence were high, students had less than a 7 in 10 million chance of being killed at school.During that time, video games became a major part of many young people’s lives, few of whom will ever become violent, let alone kill.
So why is the video game explanation so popular? ” (Contexts) The author notes that although “the media and politicians are quick to blame video games…
when white, middle-class teens kill…
we need to look beyond the games they play. While all forms of media merit critical analysis, so do the supposedly ‘good’ neighborhoods and families that occasionally produce young killers. “