Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy has stirred many national debates, including the role that video games and other violent entertainment media played in the shaping of alleged shooter Adam Lanza’s psyche.
After Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris bloodied the walls of Columbine High School in 1999, their avid interest in video games was addressed in almost every news report and editorial. Now that it has come to light that Lanza was a gamer, my reaction is the same as it was back then: Why is this relevant? According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, nearly 80 percent of Americans in Lanza’s age group also play video games, and many of those games are violent. If there were a true, solid, consistent link with the playing of violent video games and aggressive criminal behavior, then 80 percent of American males should be committing murder right now.
Would you blame sports?
I’m not contending that there is no connection between violent games (or movies/music/books) and violent people, but it’s correlative instead of causative. Individuals with personalities that lead to homicide are likely more drawn than others to media that feed their fantasies. Shooters, sports games, and fighting games do bring out aggressive behavior—hence the profanity and bullying exchanged in a game of Call of Duty. But real-life sports also amplify aggressive behavior, and parents’ groups aren’t fighting to ban high school football or to boycott the National Hockey League because of the inherently brutal nature of contact sports.
Playing violent video games doesn’t turn people into killers any more than playing rugby does. Video games are about conflict, and a struggle of ballistic and physical superiority is the easiest, most direct way to portray that, especially in a medium that requires active participation. Reading a novel about a married couple struggling with infidelity can be a deep and moving experience; playing video games about the same subject can be an exercise in boredom. That’s why, especially in the age of lucrative online game play opportunities, developers tend to portray wars and tournaments instead of careers and relationships.
More to it than violence
I appreciate that I can live out my fantasies of being a hard-boiled detective, a knight-errant, and a special-ops agent all in one gaming session, but I also admire games like Journey that encourage introspection and sensory involvement more than beating the bad guy. One of my favorite games is Braid, a puzzle-based game that examines the nature of obsession and the self-destruction that comes with it. There are no monsters or stealth assassinations; it’s a beautiful game that is challenging, rewarding, and disturbing without any virtual bloodshed. Would it be such a bad thing to see more games like this instead of the increasingly generic action outings?
The game industry is taking steps to make this a reality, and, as librarians, we should encourage it. It’s our responsibility to connect our patrons to the media and information they need to maximize the quality of their life, and entertainment is part of that. Entertainment is a personal choice; librarians shouldn’t reject games because they’re too dark or too violent. It’s against everything for which we stand. However, we should also circulate games that push the artistic boundaries of what the medium should be and should steer patrons toward those titles even as we make sure they have access to the latest shooter. We should familiarize ourselves with these games so we can better articulate why they are valuable.
Games shouldn’t be offered up as sacrificial lambs. Any perceived admission of guilt could seriously taint the integrity of an informed debate on the content of games and its effect on society. The “Day of Cease-Fire” sponsored by GamerFitNation in which gamers were encouraged to abstain from playing online shooters as a show of support for the Sandy Hook victims was a kind gesture, but I worry that opponents saw it as a gamer community admission that violent video games can be unhealthy.
Likewise for the Southington, CT, buyback in which violent video games, movies, or music could be exchanged for gift cards—an identical tactic used by police to get illegal weapons off the streets. A gamer participating in this program is essentially admitting that games are as much of a threat to public safety as firearms are in the hands of criminals. Regardless of the spirit behind the act, it opens rhetorical doors that should be kept shut.
This is another reason why libraries should stay committed to all kinds of video games. Internal censorship is essentially an admission that ideas are dangerous, and that’s not something a librarian should admit. There will always be violent video games. That doesn’t mean that video games can’t be better, but they shouldn’t bear the burden of accountability either. I would much rather hold accountable the perpetrators of travesties.