Several months ago, I wrote an article discussing the connection between video games and violence in the context of the mass murder by Norway’s Anders Breivik. Now we find another mass murder in Newtown, Connecticut by Adam Lanza, a mentally disturbed man who played video games such as Call of Duty and Starcraft.
The connection between violence and video games had not been exploited sensationally at large by the media at first in both cases, and instead the focus was on the potential motives and psychological history of the murderer, which pointed to a history of mental issues.
In the case of the Newtown mass murder, it was the mother of the shooter who owned the guns used in the attack, and the one who taught him how to shoot a real gun; not a video game that taught him how to shoot in real life.
This had also not been exploited initially because the case, which resulted in the death of 20 children, is so emotionally disconcerting that most people are not making this massacre about their pet issue and focusing on the need for gun control instead (though there are new exceptions every day).
However, as the national dialogue has grown, we are starting to see the use of video games as a scapegoat for violence and mass murder, particularly by Democrats such as Sen. Joe Liebermann (CT), David Axelrod, Sen. Dick Durbin (IL), Gov. John Hickenlooper (CO), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (WV) and Sen. Joe Manchin (WV).
Rockefeller has proposed a bill that would call upon the National Academy of Sciences to study the link between video games and violence. I support this bill, if only to definitively conclude what decades of research have suggested: that there is no causative link between video games and violence.
As we search for the cause of this massacre, we should take into account how violence against children is portrayed in video games. In short, video game programmers, and by extension video games, heavily and systematically discourage violence against children in the medium.
There are many types of violence portrayed in video games, but there’s one that is not present in video games: the active murder of small children. Children do die in video games, but we almost never see it. When they do die, they die off-screen, or are already dead before the game begins, and the guilty party is always the designated villain, not the heroic player. Many games, including first-person shooters or strategy games like those Adam Lanza played, just avoid that type of conflict by not coding children in the first place.
Even the most violent of games, including games like Modern Warfare and Black Ops, do not have the option to kill children, because the programmers know that players do not want to kill children. It is one thing to go against robots and Nazis, or even kill adult prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto, but children are off-limits in video games. There is no instruction manual on how to use a gun in video games, let alone a simulation that focuses on killing children.
Video games, when possible, try to avoid moral ambiguity. Scenarios based on real wars are reimagined so that civilians, unarmed women, and children are never in danger (if they even exist), allowing the player to shoot enemies indiscriminately. After all, having to kill innocent children in a war destroys the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy video games as joyful entertainment.
Now, in the context of mass massacre comes an uncomfortable question: Should video games start adding virtual children in potentially deadly scenarios to make players realize that their actions would have terrible consequences in real life? Should video game air drones have a dead children counter, something that can only be estimated in real life?
No. We cannot have perfect control of real-life scenarios, otherwise something like the Newtown massacre would not have occurred. However, in the context of video games, the few options available to players are perfectly known and expected. In a virtual world, a world that a programmer can control, we should at least keep innocent children safe away from harm, as any idealized world should.