No Easy Explanation
This morning, I saw with dismay that the most popular newspaper in the UK had run with a sensationalist headline about the Newtown tragedies, predictably implicating video games as a contributing cause of the murders. The Sun headline reads “Killer's Call of Duty Obsession”. Further text fuels the anti-gaming vitriol by claiming that the killer “plotted the Sandy Hook school massacre while obsessively playing violent video games such as Call Of Duty.”
Only when you get much further into their coverage do you get anything approaching a reasoned and mature analysis of the subject matter, with a perspective from Child and Educational Psychologist Teresa Bliss who writes, “There is no doubt that what children watch affects their behaviour. It isn’t healthy for children to watch people destroying other people.”
But the killer was 20 years old, hardly a child. This segment was clearly included to give some kind of credibility to the story's central conceit.
Before I discuss mainstream media's tendency toward this fear-mongering ignorance, please allow me to explain why I feel I am qualified to voice my opinion on this subject.
As a qualified paramedic, I have been a healthcare professional for over a decade, during which time I have dealt with all manner of troubled individuals and have been party to much emotional and physical trauma. I have also nurtured a quiet obsession with video games since my childhood. As such, I have a good understanding of mental health and social issues as well as having a well-developed and balanced view on the relationship between playing video games and murder.
In short: there isn't one.
At least, not in the sense that the sensationalist hacks of the world would like you to believe. There are certainly health and social behaviour concerns with regard to playing video games and using the internet. But withdrawing from the real world into video games or living out an existence on the internet are symptoms, not causes. In some cases, that behaviour is a coping mechanism.
In my case, I recall one particular weekend when, after attending particularly gruesome traffic accident, I couldn't sleep, so I constantly played Battlefield 1942 and drank a hell of a lot of coffee. I think I avoided sleep for 56 hours, during which time I attended two 12-hour night shifts. Looking back, it wasn't a healthy or particularly responsible choice and I certainly wouldn't recommend or condone it.
But at no point did I come to the conclusion that my lot would be improved if I applied my Battlefield 1942 Iwo Jima blitzkrieg tactics to the local primary school. Just as when I was a troubled schoolchild, I didn't start jumping from high places and head-butting lightbulbs because I'd been playing Chuckie Egg.
Despite my video game obsession and my developmental experiences (child of a broken home, bullied at school, close friend died when I was fifteen), I am not a killer. Why? Because I understood appropriate behaviour and had a solid grasp of the difference between reality and fantasy and – crucially – I am sane.
Society's Blame Game
In times of tragedy, it is human nature to try to make sense of the senseless, which is why emotive and misleading campaigns aimed at video games are all the more tasteless. At best they are attempts to find an explanation in the search for closure. At worst they are misguided scapegoating with the same militant agenda (see Jack Thompson for more details) that saw the Daily Mail claim that Microsoft Flight Simulator was behind the World Trade Centre attacks of 9/11.
However, exposure to video games does become a priority issue with regard to the vulnerable; be they children or the mentally ill. Children are still developing and forming their moral and behavioural rules, so parents should certainly be mindful of what influences their world view. This applies as much to their exposure to language and images used on television and the printed media as it does with movies and video games, so writers of inaccurate and sensationalist news coverage should not think they are absolved of responsibility.
Parental guidance and control is crucial, especially in today's increasingly isolationist societies. Youngsters need to be given the tools to integrate and communicate. Extended family and friends are an important influence too. If these support networks are absent, this is when extreme behaviours start to polarise.
Before video games, children were still exposed to violent concepts. They were encouraged to fantasize about cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, tanks and soldiers. Conflict and weapons are sadly part of human nature and forewarning children of that reality is a necessary part of their education and development, but it needs to be handled with care and sensitivity through intelligent parenting.
Society needs to take more responsibility for itself and its members, even with adults. But the tendency for individuals to be cast adrift from the mainstream and find comfort in solitary activities is not new. Obsessive behaviours and addictions manifest in many forms. In the UK – and likely most western cultures – alcoholism is the most widespread indulgence for the lonely, broken individual.
Domestic violence, abuse and crime all increase as a result of aberrant behaviours and obsessions, devolving into mental health issues. But it is not obsession or substance abuse that is the root cause of the problem, simply the individual's chosen method of avoiding the core issue. The individual's inability to exercise self control leads them to exacerbate their poor mental state, but it is unlikely that is the focus of the obsession which caused that state.
Who is Responsible?
It is much the same with video games. They should not be blamed for ill health, although over-dependency on them can be a key indicator of underlying emotional or social problems and can certainly prevent recovery or even worsen a mental illness. But it's a fine line, they can also be a valuable crutch. For me, video games provided a coping mechanism during some dark periods of my life and I am grateful for that.
However, please understand I am not extolling the health-sustaining virtues of of video games. Far from it.
I am now a happily married 37-year-old and soon to be a father. I still play video games fairly obsessively and I am aware that they do affect mood and behaviour. Following a sustained period of Planetside 2, my wife has observed how I would become irritable. She too has been subject to the influence of gaming - after a competitive session of Mario Kart Wii, we've both learned not to get behind the wheel of a real car for at least 20 minutes, our spatial awareness and grasp of physics is definitely influenced at a subconscious level.
That's the key – appropriate management. Video games are a part of everyday existence, but as with all things in life, balance and moderation are vital. Like alcohol, food or any number of other aspects of day-to-day living, video games are not unhealthy unless allowed to be. It's about personal and social responsibility.
There is no denying that video games are influential and as such, should be respected. They can be a tool for education as much as entertainment, a method of relaxation or stimulation. But equally they can be the blanket that masks other problems and an excuse for the ignorant to make sweeping and inaccurate statements.
As a final point to the tabloid fearmongers; Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 reached over $1bn retail sales in the first 15 days following its release on 15 November 2012. Similar figures apply to its predecessor Modern Warfare 3 last year. Given the widespread global distribution of this “violent video game”, if the Call of Duty franchise or any similar game had the influence they imply with their crass coverage, then surely we would be in the middle of a game-induced apocalypse as millions of affected players rise up to slaughter their fellow man. Clearly, that has not happened, so perhaps it’s time the press re-evaluated their interpretation of facts and their own responsibilities.
In future, maybe they should let the educational psychologist write the article.