Since the Columbine Massacre, video game violence has been squarely in the media spotlight.
The reasoning goes that kids who play violent video games will become violent teens and adults, even more so than the kids who passively watch violence on television. The difference is that with video games it’s you who pulls the trigger or slashes the knife, it’s you who is called upon to kill and kill again, and it’s you who gets positive reinforcement for all this killing as the game unlocks new levels and presents you with deadlier weapons. There are never any consequences — killing civilians in the Grand Theft Auto games will get the police after you, but all you lose as a result is a few weapons that you’ve collected and a little bit of cash.
Do video games fuel fantasies of violence, especially among kids that already have social and emotional issues and may not always be able to tell fantasy from reality? And does playing games create those social and emotional issues in the first place?
As games become more realistic, and as programming evolves to give characters in games more freedom than ever before to do bad things, like killing and robbing innocent people, can we expect kids to become more violent?
The students at Columbine High School who murdered 12 of their fellow students and a teacher were big fans of violent video games and rocker Marilyn Manson. They were also anti-social, the target of bullies, on strong anti-depressant medications that have been known to trigger violent episodes, and had easy access to guns and bomb-making materials, but those were not the themes discussed by the media. For whatever reason, the press focused on the killers’ choice of violent video games and heavy metal music.
That continues to be the theme more than eight years later as experts try to explain other violent incidents — whether or not there is any evidence to support those claims. For example, when a crazed gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in April, within hours experts were suggesting that violent video games were responsible — despite the fact that the killer’s roommate said he never saw the man play any video games in the entire year they lived together.
The real culprits in that tragedy were the authorities that allowed Seung-Hui Cho to purchase deadly firearms even after he was accused of stalking two female students and declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice. Professors at the university also had samples of writing suggesting that Cho was a ticking time bomb, but only one ever suggested that the young man seek counseling. And then there was the fact that the campus was kept open by police despite the discovery of Cho’s first victims hours before his killing spree went into high gear.