Deferring responsibility and video games – Who’s really to blame?

Deferring Responsibility and Video Games

Published: 21st February 2013

This is a guest post. Author: Leah Bevington

Deferring responsibility is in our culture, nobody wants to be blamed for anything any more, and it’s frighteningly easy.

People are accepting of whatever ludicrous reason a half-baked newspaper – written by half-wit journalists – can spew onto their pages, or equally, whatever any politician can concoct just so it looks like they know what they’re talking about.

And I think this is very true of video games.

The media creates a swirling cloud of anxiety around video games claiming that – in no uncertain terms – they are pretty much responsible for everything wrong with children nowadays. Obesity, violence, depression and even cancer.

People are quick to accept these wild statements – and why shouldn’t they?

It saves us from having to examine our own short-comings and behaviour, because it’s much easier to blame something or someone else for whatever tragic event happens to be in the news at that time, rather than asking the patently obvious weighty questions that are needing to be explored.

A child in the Bandura study, imitating the 'aggressive model' and proceeding to hit the Bobo doll with a mallet.

A child in the Bandura study, imitating the ‘aggressive model’ and proceeding to hit the Bobo doll with a mallet.

In 1961 psychologists Bandura, Ross & Ross conducted an experiment to see the effect on children when exposed to an ‘aggressive model’, or in other words, to see if children will copy violent behaviour they witness, and exposed a group of 4 year old children to adult ‘aggressive models’ who used toy guns and mallets to attack a five foot inflatable bobo doll, whilst also punching, kicking and throwing the doll into the air. The test also included a ‘non-aggressive model’ where the children were not exposed to any violent behaviour at all. Needless to say, the children observing the aggressive behaviour imitated what they saw, whereas the children not observing aggressive behaviour showed no aggression whatsoever.

The results showed that aggression can be learned through observation and then imitation, and goes on to support the theory that violent behaviour can be learned, especially in concerns to media violence.

This is a widely accepted concept, and this despite Bandura’s study coming under much scrutiny – and rightly so. I may not be a psychologist, but I, like most people, have enough common sense to know that small children of that age will say and do pretty much anything you tell them to.

However, many people do believe that some violence in society is a result of people, particularly children and teenagers, playing video games with gory or non age-appropriate content and then going out in the wide world to copy a brutal murder, or an act of sadism.

But how true is that? Are young people, teenagers and children really that eager to copy what they may see in video games?

The media and the government would have you believe that children are mindless, overly impressionable sponges, willing to readily absorb any behaviour that they happen to witness in films, video games or the demonic rock music they might be listening to whilst carefully skirting the proper issues at hand, such as parents raising their children correctly, or the failing of the proper regulatory authorities supposedly in place to protect vulnerable youngsters.

But all too often I don’t think children or teenagers are given enough credit, in fact they’re probably more aware of what’s going on then we care to imagine, and by constantly excusing ones behaviour by claiming they aren’t aware of what actions they might have been taking, whether they were right or wrong, or that they didn’t realise the implications their actions might have, then that to me is more harmful to the development of children than the most violent video game the industry could offer.

Basically, a generation are going to grow up believing that they are never responsible for anything they do – aware or not aware – that they are acting unacceptably, but then why worry about it? Their parents, the media and every man and his dog will jump to their defence and blame everyone and everything but themselves – or their children.

Remarkably these kind of people do exist – both parents and children. And I know plenty.

In this scene from Dead Space 2, the player must insert a needle into the eye of the protagonist. This sequence can result in the character being killed in spectacularly gory fashion.

In this scene from Dead Space 2, the player must insert a needle into the eye of the protagonist. This sequence can result in the character being killed in spectacularly gory fashion.

Would this cause impressionable youngsters to try and imitate?

Most people would agree that video games, violent or not, are simple escapism, not all too different from watching EastEnders. It distracts from whatever may be happening in a persons life and allows them to become engrossed in another world, a world where they can assume the role of another character in an entirely different situation. The appeal is understandable.

Others would argue that violent, gruesome or frightening video games are simply the deepest darkest recesses of the human mind explored in the safe confines of a virtual world.

Most gamers will tell you, myself included, of the feeling of release that can be obtained after a stressful or taxing day, from switching on the 360, PS3 or whatever console and thus proceeding to kill something. It’s harmless, and again, in safe confines it acts as a distraction from the otherwise crappy day you might be having at the time. There’s plenty of other ways to ridden of excess stress or anger, and they may be in a much more destructive manner then merely playing a video game.

There are many famous unbelievably tragic cases of mass killings and violent crimes which have been accredited to imitating the violent content of video games in one way or another.

Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting

Most recently were the heartbreakingly sad events at Sandy Hook Elementary school.

This shooting was just one in a long line of school shootings, and as a result prompted fresh controversial debate in America over its gun control laws.

It should go without me having to explain the terrible events that took place, but to briefly touch upon, on the 14th December 2012, 20 year old Adam Lanza had shot and killed his mother, Nancy, at their Newtown home before driving to the school where he fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. As first responders arrived he committed suicide by shooting himself.

Following the events that transpired, more light began to be shone on the characteristics of the young killer. According to the Daily Telegraph, Lanza was ‘A shy, withdrawn, emotionally detached teenager, a computer nerd with a development disorder‘, who was reportedly assigned a psychiatrist by his school.

Perhaps most interesting is the outlandish claims made by the Daily Mail, ‘Did violent video game Call of Duty spark gun-crazed loner’s killing spree?’

In this particular article, the Mail then goes on to liken Lanza’s obsession with Call of Duty to that of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the massacre in Norway in 2011, who was also believed to be obsessed with the game, and that Lanza had ‘honed his gun skills on the Modern Warfare part of the game to become a deadly marksman.’

This is a prime example of the instigation of moral panic by a news publication. However these kinds of claims aren’t isolated to this case alone.

Manhunt – a video game in which the player assumes the role of a supposedly executed death row inmate, who is forced to participate in a series of snuff films.

Manhunt – a video game in which the player assumes the role of a supposedly executed death row inmate, who is forced to participate in a series of snuff films.

July 28th 2004 – The murder of Stefan Pakeerah

14 year old Stefan Pakeerah was brutally murdered by Warren Leblanc, 17, who was reported to have committed the murder due to trying to emulate the widely notorious game Manhunt, which was subsequently banned.

Stefan’s father was quoted as saying: ‘It’s a video instruction on how to murder somebody, it just shows how you kill people and what weapons you use.’

I can’t possibly begin to understand going through losing someone in such a manner – and truly my heart goes out to Stefan’s parents – its in our nature to try to fathom sense in terrible circumstances. However my point stands.

Surely a news publication, the general media and everybody with two brain cells to rub together can plainly conclude that playing a video can not turn a person into a ‘deadly marksman’ – by simply playing Call of Duty, or that playing Manhunt can ‘teach a person how to kill’ no more than playing FIFA can make you a professional footballer, or playing Need for Speed can teach people how to drive through the city streets at a break neck speed without killing themselves. It seems incredibly bizarre to me. Maybe because I play these kinds of violent, abhorrent video games.

It may also sound cruel, which isn’t my intention of course. It just seems so incredulous to me, to come to that kind of conclusion. It borders on laughable.

Despite the now cringe-worthy graphics, Doom took gore to whole new level at the time.

Despite the now cringe-worthy graphics, Doom took gore to whole new level at the time.

Columbine High school massacre

On April 20th, 1999, at Columbine High school, Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher. They injured 21 additional students, with three other people being injured whilst attempting to escape the school. The pair then turned the guns on themselves.

This shooting also stirred up much debate over gun laws, but also on the subjects of bullying, cliques, sub-cultures, rock music and video games.

It was reported that the teenage gunmen were fans of the game Doom, a science fiction horror themed role-playing first person shooter, with Harris often creating his own levels for the game. It was a game that courted controversy due to its violent themes and was critisised by religious organisations for its satanic imagery and diabolic undertones.

Whilst planning for the massacre Harris reportedly said that the killing would be “like playing Doom“, and “it’ll be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke Nukem and Doom all mixed together”, and that his shotgun was “straight out of the game.”

Unsurprisingly, Doom prompted fears that the then-emerging virtual reality technology could be used to simulate extremely realistic killing. Again, there is that recurring theme that somehow video games or virtual reality could somehow teach young minds how to become deadly killers, or that children or teenagers do not have the capacity to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

However it strikes me as interesting that the media and the hysteria-born public fail to notice a surprising link between the youngsters that commit these violent killings.

On January 30th 1998, Harris and Klebold were arrested and subsequently attended a joint court hearing where they pleaded guilty to felony theft, after stealing tools and other equipment from a van parked near the city of Littleton. The pair attended a juvinile diversion program which involved classes such as anger management – Harris also began attending therapy classes with a psychologist. Klebold had a history of drinking. In one of his scheduled meetings with his psychiatrist, Eric Harris complained of depression, anger and possessing suicidal thoughts.

So, who’s to blame?

The link here, it seems to me, between Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and Adam Lanza, and often you will find others who commit violent crimes and killings, is that these are often deeply unhappy, isolated individuals, perhaps with undiagnosed mental health issues, or from poorer, lower class families living in deprived areas of the country, some with difficult upbringings.

The fact that these individuals all happen to play Call of Duty, Doom, or other violent games may be pure coincidence. However most teenagers, stereotypicially boys, do tend to play video games that include the military, guns and murder. Yet how many of the hundreds and thousands that do will go on to commit a gruesome crime or murder?

As I said before, people do not like to face their own faults, and so it is much easier to level blame elsewhere. Who would want to openly admit or even face the fact that they never realised that their children are in fact terribly depressed? Or that they never noticed how unhappy their children were in general? Or that they didn’t step in earlier to curb their destructive behaviour? Perhaps that they just didn’t raise them right. Could they have reached out to their children and actually listened to them?

Of course nobody would like to think, or even assume, that their son or daughter would be capable of such evil – but what is true is that a person can only take so much. Eventually, people reach breaking point, sometimes with devastating consequence.

Conclusion

Could more be done, than simply blaming violent video games and dusting our hands of the issue entirely? Policies such as age ratings are on games for a reason, and if a parent, or anyone, was worried about those who may be more succeptible to imitating what they see in the games they play, then they must be vigilant. Company giants like Rockstar (the Grand Theft Auto series) aren’t going to stop making these violent video games, anymore than millions of Americans will willingly hand over their guns because a few unbalanced individuals have been able to get their hands on them and use them to commit crime or murder.

Also, there is a clear distinction between the fantasy of a computer generated world and reality.

While it may be enjoyable to violently kill somthing in a video game setting, I wouldnt equally enjoy horrifically murdering somebody in the real world. The blood and gore witnessed in the gaming world could never desensitise a person to actually seeing a real human being slaughtered in cold blood.

One of the critisisms of Bandura’s study of learned aggression mentioned earlier, is that the models showed aggressive behaviour towards a Bobo doll, a toy designed to be hit. Not only this, but it is a toy. It’s not a real person or animal.

Murder, violent crimes and killings are real – and I think most people would agree they would not be enjoyable to witness.

But to play devils advocate, as The Bandura study concluded, perhaps violent behaviour could be learned.

Maybe only through witnessing real life violence, such as living in an abusive household, where seeing aggression and physical violence is the norm – constantly observing an ‘aggressive model’ as it were, can a person then go on to imitate this ‘learned aggression’.

But from observing violence in a video game?

If an individual cannot understand this distinction when playing a violent video game, or even any video game, then questions should be raised over that persons mental stability to begin with.

However it strikes me as incredibly sad that instead of pinpointing the actual issues at hand, it seems much easier to slap accusation on video games. I am in no way saying that the people who commit crimes such as these are innocent – they’re not.

But it does beg the question – what in a persons life drives them to commit such horrific crimes? Perhaps they may not be entirely undeserving of our sympathy.

……………………

This article was written by Leah Bevington, @Leeearrr on Twitter. Please share and direct response to Leah via Twitter.

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