by Jill Scharr
We’ll probably never know what exactly possessed a 20 year old Newtown resident with access to guns to take them to a local elementary school and murder 20 children and six adults. But that won’t stop us from trying to understand why.
In the wake of the tragedy, most people have been calling for stronger gun regulations, pointing out that if the killer hadn’t had such extraordinarily powerful weapons he couldn’t have broken into the school so quickly or killed so easily. But others, most notably gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association (NRA), want to lay the blame outside their own purview.
In a speech on Friday, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blamed “the national media machine that rewards [violence].” Videogames in particular carried a heavy burden of guilt:
“And here’s another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal,” he said. “There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bullet Storm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Splatterhouse.’ And here’s one, it’s called “Kindergarten Killers.” It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn’t? Or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it?
The latter game, it turns out, is a simple FlashPlayer game hosted by Newgrounds, a website where amateur animators and game designers could share their work. Among scores of better work, “Kindergarden Killers” probably received all the attention it deserved and then quickly faded into the backlogs of internet obscurity. Holding up a single FlashPlayer game as evidence against an entire medium is like condemning YouTube on the basis of a single video with less than one hundred hits.
But nevertheless LaPierre and the NRA argue that pervasive depictions of violence in American media are largely, if not entirely, to blame for all gun-related crime. The solution he called for, to stop tragedies like Newtown from happening again, was to place armed guards in every public school in America. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.
Other political groups were quick to counter the NRA’s position. “Media violence has long been a target of lawmakers seeking a cheap and politically cost-free way to address crimes committed by young people,” wrote Gabe Rottman of the ACLU:
Calls for studies, hearings, self-censorship, or even actual censorship are easy. Most folks aren’t going to go out of their way to defend stuff that panders to the baser instincts, and lawmakers look like they’re doing something proactive to get at the problem. This is the story that’s played itself out now for decades, all the way back to the 1920s, when movie censorship sought to protect kids by limiting depictions of, for instance, any “inference of sex perversion” and miscegenation.
Rottman points to Justice Scalia’s ruling in the case of the State of California v. the Entertainment Merchants’ Association in 2011, in which a group of California lawmakers tried to make it illegal to sell violent videogames to children. The Supreme court decided 7-2 in favor of the videogame industry, saying that the proposed restriction would not comport with the First Amendment. Justice Scalia elaborated that there is no longstanding tradition of protecting children from violent stories–Grimm’s Fairy Tales (all 210 of them) and the novel The Lord of the Flies are particularly brutal examples that are considered worthy and important parts of children’s education. Rottman concludes, “ We should not let the understandable reaction to the horrific events in Newtown grease the skids toward government restrictions.”
But the NRA and the ACLU only occupy a small corner of the political battlefield that videogames and the entertainment industry at large have become. The Washington Post has featured several stories about the role, or lack thereof, that videogames played in the Newtown shooting, from Alexandra Petri’s almost derisive dissection of Wayne LaPierre’s speech (“The speech the National Rifle Association vice president gave Friday was like being yelled at down a long tunnel from 1987.”) to Max Fisher’s pointing out the lack of correlation between videogame sales and mass violence across ten different countries. Even the National Review, a notedly conservative magazine, rejected blaming videogames for violence. On CNN, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper also pointed to videogames and a “culture of violence” as responsible parties in the violence at Newtown and in his own state at the Aurora shootings earlier this year. Others, like David Sirota at Salon and Katie J.M. Baker at Jezebel, point to mass shootings as a race and gender issue, arguing that such crimes are encouraged by a subculture of white males who feel the need to reclaim their shrinking social entitlement in an increasingly diverse world. Elsewhere, studies continue to show that playing videogames does improve hand-eye coordination and other functional real-world skills.
The media responses to the Newtown shootings have been complicated, discordant, and emotional, to say the least. And most of it means nothing to the people who actually lost children, friends and loved ones to a shooter’s bullets. But of the oversized attention that the videogame industry has received, those of us who work in media can probably agree that to blame an entire delivery technology, a medium broad enough to encompass Journey, Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy X and Solitaire, is entirely ridiculous.
Could we argue that, in a world without videogames, a murderer’s aim would have been worse? Probably. But the Newtown killer had so much ammunition, was firing upon children at such close range with such rapid weapons, that the question of aim or skill becomes functionally moot. You don’t need skill to kill children. You just need a gun, and a thought.
The NRA, in its divisive December 21 speech, was trying to deflect attention from that first requirement because they make their money on the sale and promotion of guns. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the second requirement, the thought of violence, as well. Many who decried videogames as the cause of the Newtown shooting also included passing references to “this culture of violence” or “violence in the media.” That narrows down the discussion from videogames in general to a certain type of videogame, one which centers around killing as its main mechanic, narrative, and appeal. But even that specification, though too long and complicated for a media news bite, is still too broad. What about games like Spec Ops: The Line or Shadow of the Colossus? Both deal largely with killing, but in a way that drains any ‘glory’ or pleasure from the act. These games, much like the aforementioned The Lord of the Flies, ask questions about the violence they depict, inviting players, readers and watchers to reexamine their assumptions, choices and actions.
We cannot blame videogames in general, nor even violent games. But maybe it is about time we reexamine videogames that present violence as pure, unconsidered entertainment, that compete for the goriest kills and biggest guns to sell their products. These games don’t kill people, nor are the majority of those who play them violent or cruel in real life. But are we willing to deny there’s a culture of violence in videogames, or in American culture at large, when the movies and games that receive the most critical attention are often the shooters, the revenge flicks, the war games and R-rated action movies?
A very strong case can be made, and should be made, for limiting gun access and strengthening the registration process. But there’s also a case for making violence in our media, its repercussions and our perceptions, a conversation that we all need to have. And precisely who should have the conversation first? Is it our game developers before they create narrative and before they create videogame design? Is it parents who need to consider carefully parental controls and the allowable time during which kids can play? Is it our politicians, many of whom have never completed a videogame? One thing is certain: it’s time to think long and hard now, and to continue that discussion, so that we can play freely and peacefully in the future.
Jill Scharr, formerly with The Daily, is the senior associate editor of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. @jillscharr lives near Newtown, Connecticut.