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Feb. 28, 2013

Video games to blame for gun violence?

By James Ryan

Photo by James Ryan

After 20 innocent first-graders and six adults were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, many Americans, including President Obama, have been compelled to do something about the growing gun-related mass shootings.

Gun control advocates point to guns — especially military-style assault weapons with high-capacity magazines — as the significant cause of mass shootings. Gun rights supporters point to the surge in anti-depressants and mental illness. Others like NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre blame violence in media, particularly video games, as the primary source for the recent “Call of Duty”-like shootings.

Responding to the NRA’s demands, President Obama proposed a $10 million research on the effects violent video games have on adolescents on Jan. 16. Attention to video games was once again drawn when the Hartford Courant reported that police found thousands of dollars of graphically violent video games in the home of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza on Feb 13.

With video games in the crosshairs of legislators and pundits everywhere many gamers have risen to the defense of their beloved pastime. And experts have questioned the link between video games and mass shootings.

One avid gamer who has played video games every day for years and has put in thousands of hours of gameplay argues that someone would have to be mentally instable to play a video game and want to recreate that in real life.

“I’ve been playing violent video games since I could remember,” said Jason Strange, seasoned Call-of-Duty player and meter reader for the Cleveland Water Department. “I’ve owned a gun for 6 years and have carried it on my person and I’ve never had the urge to harm or kill someone.”

Researchers think there are many myths about video games worth debunking. Many think video games are linked directly to the increase in youth violence, however, according to federal crime statistics, despite the dramatic increase in violent video games within the past decade, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low.

Others think of aggressive boys when video games come to mind, but the percentage of women playing games has steadily increased over the past decade. Women now slightly outnumber men playing Web-based games. Research shows that 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play video games.

Perhaps the problem lies in the predisposition of the gamer rather than the game itself. One Cleveland State professor who specializes in video game research agrees.

“The research shows that video games can increase hostile thoughts, aggression, rude and disrespectful behavior, disinhibition, and affect a young person’s perception of reality,” said Paul Skalski, film and digital media director at CSU. “But video games being the cause for overt violent behavior are an overstatement by the media and people who don’t like video games. The evidence for [video] games making people do horrible things just isn’t there.”

Skalski went on to say that research has shown that provocation; social environment, trait aggression, psychoticism, bad neighborhoods and abusive parents are far greater contributors to overt violent behavior than video games.

In 2010, the Psychological Bulletin, a bimonthly peer reviewed academic psychology journal, published a special issue on the topic. In one of the studies a team of researchers led by Craig A. Anderson tested the effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, empathy/desensitization and pro-social behavior. They found that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and pro-social behavior.

More recent research has shown that violent video games stimulate aggression in the players in the short run and increase the risk for aggressive behaviors by the players later in life.

Much of the aggression experienced in gaming is online. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) doesn’t rate games based upon online interactions. But some gamers think they should.

One CSU student used to ritually play online video games with friends for more than 12 hours on any given day. He felt that playing online gave him the opportunity to socialize and joke with friends, but that online play didn’t come without its fair share of issues.

“Even if the game is rated “E” for everyone, you’ll still run into racial slurs, vulgar language and homophobic comments while playing online,” said Akeem Whittaker, journalism and promotional communication major at CSU.

The majority of research studies show and gamers agree that the formula for disaster is when a high-risk gamer plays realistic and interactive video games that reward violence for multiple hours on a regular basis.

High-risk gamers are players with mental health concerns such as psychoticism, irritability, trait aggression and/or anti-social behavior.