Category Archives: Uncategorized

On Free Speech, Silence, And Backward Messages

Blasphemy

Sometime over the holidays, I dreamed that I started blogging here regularly again, but focusing only on music. In a way, it makes a kind of sense; I’m not a gamer or an occultist, but I do love, listen to and write about music in a dedicated way. When I woke up, I remembered that of all the topics this blog has covered, music has been among the least controversial, at least here in North America.

In the wake of the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about places in the world where blasphemy — or “offending religious sentiment” — trumps freedom of speech. I’ve written about such places in the past for Backward Messages, particularly Poland, where Behemoth singer Nergal was put on trial for tearing up a Bible onstage, and maybe also a teensy weensy bit for being an outspoken Satanist celebrity. In the end, free speech won out in Nergal’s case, as it did in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that barring minors from purchasing violent video games was a violation of the First Amendment rights of the video-game makers. Free speech often wins in the west, which is, I think, part of the reason that moral panics over art and entertainment eventually blow over.

In the fall of 2012, when I was at the end of a long and difficult road shopping The Columbine Effect to agents and publishers, I met with an editor in New York who loved the book, but felt like she would be more likely to be able to convince her colleagues to publish it if there were some current event that it could be tied to. There had been a kind of lull in school shootings. Two months later, after she turned me down, Sandy Hook happened, and the press exploded with coverage arguing that media influences largely don’t influence such killings. In the years that followed, it’s become clear that Adam Lanza was a deeply troubled and disturbed young man whose mother protected him from getting the help he needed (and also taught him to use firearms). As the reporting turned away from gaming and other supposed influences, it turned toward mental-health issues in the most dedicated way I’ve seen regarding any of these incidents.

That’s not to say we’ve solved the problem of school shootings. We haven’t by any means. But we are less inclined to scapegoat important and necessary sources of media. And while haven’t eradicated poor reporting on gaming, the occult, heavy metal or other pastimes — that reporting still ranges from the goofball to the dangerous — there have been bright spots. Satanists managed to demonstrate the actual meaning of religious tolerance last year, and the press covered the situation deftly; that was heartening to see.

While the tenor of the writing has shifted, that’s not to say there isn’t still plenty I could write about here. Personally, though, I’ve run out of things to say — at least for now. That’s why this blog has been quiet for more than six months and it’s why it will remain quiet, at least until the next moral panic comes along and I have something new to write about. It’s happened at regular intervals since at least the 1950s, and it’s likely to happen again. Until then, I feel like my message has mostly gotten through.

The Familiar Voice Of Isla Vista’s Killer

article-shoot9-0524

I don’t normally blog about mass shootings when the reporting doesn’t involve violent video games, aggressive music, the occult or one of the other topics from this site. Nevertheless, I often follow the reporting anytime an incident like Elliot Rodger’s crime spree in Isla Vista, California, takes place. I think we are just beginning to learn about this young man, who left behind hateful videos and an even more hate-filled manifesto. For better or worse, Rodger left behind a lot of documentation that points if not to an underlying reason, at least to his thinking and rationale for the attack. Without pathologizing anger and hatred necessarily, it’s worth pointing out that this level of malice and violent planning is one of the hallmarks of such killers — and of a particular strain of imbalanced mental state Rodger seemed to share with other mass shooters, notably Eric Harris and Anders Breivik.

From Rodgers’ videos:

“I will be a god compared to you. You will all be animals. You are animals, and I will slaughter you like animals. I hate all of you. Humanity is a disgusting, wretched, depraved species.… I’ll be a god exacting my retribution on all those who deserve it and you do deserve it just for the crime of living a better life than me.”

From Eric Harris’ diaries:

“I feel like God. I am higher than almost anyone in the fucking world in terms of universal intelligence.” [in a later entry] “The Nazis came up with a ‘final solution’ to the Jewish problem: kill them all. Well in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I say ‘Kill mankind.’ No one should survive.”

From Breivik’s manifesto:

“Once you decide to strike, it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike. Explain what you have done (in an announcement distributed prior to operation) and make certain that everyone understands that we, the free peoples of Europe, are going to strike again and again.”

When we talk about what mass killers have in common, we have to go deeper than music or hobbies, or even spirituality. If we begin to compare the messages of those who left behind messages, there are certainly a number of common themes. Several of them talk about eradicating massive numbers of people. And many seem to carry this kind of righteousness, a righteousness that is apart from our cultural and legal order, as though they exist outside the societal code and get to decide who lives and who dies. One writer, Dave Cullen, pegged these traits in Eric Harris as sociopathy.

But it’s interesting, isn’t it, how these killers’ mental state is refracted through the hot-button issues of the day. Recently, our society has focused broadly and deeply on issues related to women’s rights — from kidnapped Nigerian girls to the firing of NYT executive editor Jill Abramson. We’ve also been looking more closely at race in recent years, sparked perhaps in part by the election of our first biracial president. Rodgers spoke of a specific hatred toward women, toward other races — very interesting, given that he was biracial.

Music writer Ann Powers said, on Facebook:

“The quick association of the Isla Vista killing with the culture of misogyny is right and necessary. I’m glad for that commentary. But if ever a tragedy illustrated how one pathological cultural imbalance produces and is produced by another, it is this one. As David J. Leonard pointed out, Rodger’s hatred of women can’t be separated from his entrapment within hegemonic masculinity. His distress at being biracial and hatred of both black and blonde people expose the insidiousness of racism. His feelings of sexual failure make me wonder about the competitively hypersexualized environment we all live in today. Mental illness often reflects the most troubling aspects of the historic moment that creates it. This event is a minefield. To reduce its origin to one thing is to fail to step carefully.”

This stuff is complicated, and I’m mostly glad to see, so far, that the non-sensational press (by which I don’t mean the Daily Mail, the New York Daily News, and so on) isn’t dumbing things down. I hope that continues as we learn more about this young man and his terrible crimes. The more nuance and complexity we can pull from the event, the more we will understand when the next one comes.

How to read a social-science study


Photo by Flickr user Sociology at Work.

News outlets are chock-full of articles reporting some new study and what it says about health or climate change or violent video games. Reading these articles can sometimes be a little like playing that childhood game of telephone. By the time the message reaches you, it’s probably at least a little different from what the original person said. I’ve written for Poynter about how journalists can improve their coverage of research. Today I want to give everyday folks some pointers for reading and interpreting actual studies.

1. Get the actual study.
Articles usually mention the researchers involved, and the university, if there was one. Sometimes studies are locked away behind academic-journal paywalls, but if you do enough hunting you can find “author proofs” — non-final drafts — on the researchers’ web sites. Google is your friend, and you can’t assess a study if you don’t read it. I’m going to base this post off of one such proof, Christopher Ferguson and Cheryl Olson’s Video Game Violence Use Among ‘‘Vulnerable’’ Populations. Load it up and read along.

2. Consider whether the study is linked to any recent events.
Most of the studies I look at here are about kids and violent video games. Although they may not be explicit, it’s notable that these studies picked up in frequency after events like the Columbine High School massacre and attempts to blame video games like Doom. Be suspicious when the sensationalism comes first and the studies follow. Among other things, this gives researchers an agenda, whether they say so or not. One of the reasons I like Ferguson and Olson in general is that they come right out and say it:

Existing societal concerns about video games have intensified after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre (Ferguson 2013) and other well-publicized school shootings. The tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in Newtown, Connecticut resurrected these debates amid reports that the 20-year-old shooter was an avid gamer (e.g., Henderson 2012). … Given … the recurring media focus on video games, researchers need to do more to answer the questions of greatest public concern regarding video games and any potential harm to youth.

3. Look at the demographics of the sample.
The sample means the group that is included in the study; demographics refers to their characteristics. Since Ferguson and Olson have said this is meant to apply to the question of whether violent video games harm youth, especially with respect to school shootings, you’d want the sample to resemble school shooters demographically; age 13 to 17, usually male, usually white, usually suburban. Often, the sample is full of college kids who are over 18. That’s less than ideal to begin with.

In Ferguson and Olson’s study here, we have a pretty good range of kids: 377 youth with a mean age of 13 (which means they were a variety of ages in that range). 182 had ADD symptoms, while 284 had symptoms of depression (yes, that means 89 of them had symptoms of both). The sample included 140 boys and 234 girls, as well as 3 who did not declare a gender. There were urban and suburban kids, though it doesn’t say how many. The kids were mostly white, but a significant number of the kids from the urban school were black.

4. Look at the size of the sample.
This one’s pretty easy. Bigger is always better. The more subjects you have, the more you’re getting away from anecdotal information and the more you’re getting into actual data. Now, a larger sample of extremely similar kids is only useful if they resemble the outside-world kids you’re trying to represent. More ideal is a larger sample of different kinds of kids. 377, the number in this study, isn’t a ton, but it’s more than the 100-200 many such studies have.

5. Look at the methodology.
Most sociological experiments are highly synthetic constructs, which are meant to single out and test one particular aspect of everyday life. In this case, Ferguson and Olson opted to put the kids through a survey or a questionnaire, which can be tricky because the results are only as good as the honesty of the kids. I personally think kids are reasonably reliable at answering certain kinds of questions (like how often they play certain kinds of video games, which was asked here) and not necessarily others (things they might not want adults to know, like sexual or drug experimentation). Still, it’s worth taking most self-report studies with a grain of salt, unless they’re corroborated with other data from the subjects’s lives.

(I’d also like to point out a detail from their survey that is relevant to this blog: Of all the kids they surveyed, only 6.1 percent had played no video games in the prior 6 months, and only 11 percent had played no violent video games. These are kids with a mean age of 13. In other words, most kids are playing them. Where’s the giant surge of violence and aggression?)

6. Look at what they say about the results.
This is especially true if you’re comparing your own read of a study to what was reported in the news. Here are the results from this study, truncated:

With the sample of children with clinically elevated depressive symptoms and regarding delinquent criminality as an outcome only stress and trait aggression were predictive of delinquent criminality. Neither exposure to video game violence nor the interaction between trait aggression and exposure to video game violence were predictive of delinquent outcomes.

In other words, among the kids with symptoms of depression, mood issues alone didn’t correlate with delinquency. Only if they were under stress and were aggressive did they have a tendency to be delinquent. Video games didn’t seem to play a role.

They go through other trait combinations and look at bullying as well as delinquency. Here’s one interesting angle to the study, which is one a lot of news outlets focused on:

Finally, with the sample once again of children with clinically elevated attention deficit symptoms and with regards to bullying behavior only trait aggression was predictive of bullying behaviors along with the interaction between trait aggression and exposure to violent games did approach significance suggesting that highly trait aggressive children who also played violent video games were less likely to engage in bullying behaviors. Exposure to video game violence was not a significant predictor of bullying behaviors.

Note that that result, while interesting, only “approached significance” mathematically, and they immediately point out that none of the findings in this section was statistically significant. In other words, it’s inconclusive.

7. Read the “discussion” section carefully.
This is where the researchers explain their findings and discuss how they think they should be interpreted. While journalists often overemphasize certain things (which makes for a more compelling news story), researchers usually de-emphasize. Here’s what they say about the above result:

[After saying they didn’t find video games were a factor n kids’ violent behavior.] The only exception was our finding that, for children with elevated attention deficit symptoms, trait aggression and video game violence interacted in such a way as to predict reduced bullying. This could be considered some small correlational evidence for a cathartic type effect, although we note it was for only one of four outcomes and small in effect size. Thus we caution against overinterpretation of this result.

8. Read the “limitations” section even more carefully.
This is where researchers will tell you the shortcomings of the methods they used, as well as the extent to which their findings are useful. They’ll usually suggest how future research can build upon what they’ve found, should anyone care to follow up with a larger or at least related study. This study’s limitations section is accompanied by a “word of caution” section, both of which are worth reading in full.

9. Check for bias.
Look at the researchers’ websites. Look at the titles of their papers, and see if you notice a trend. If they keep finding the same things over and over, there’s a chance they’re suffering from researcher bias. There’s a lot of this in the violent-video-game research world, which is one reason you see the same names popping up again and again (and finding the same things again and again).

10. Follow the money.
If research was conducted by an academic, chances are good that the money came from the university where they work. That could include public or private dollars. Unfortunately, researchers are pretty mum about where that money comes from or how much a given study cost. But at least sniff around and see what you can learn.

If you’re tired of reading about video games, this is a great breakdown of how the myth that eating breakfast helps you lose weight became so pervasive, and why it’s wrong. It also discusses the difference between association (correlation) and causation, which is important to understand when reading any sociological study, as well as how even the “gold standard” methods for research can be wrong, especially when they aren’t backed by further research.

So there you go. Now you know how to read a social-science study. Go read some more and have fun! Commenters: can you think of anything I’ve left out that you’d like to add?

Chantel Garrett’s “Three Steps to Fix Our Mental Health System and Prevent Violence”


Brain images from people with schizophrenia. Photo by Flickr user http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

In the month since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary (which as far as we know, was not committed by someone with mental illness), I’ve been encouraged by how much of the conversation has been framed around mental health and the lack of services for those who need them. We saw that front-and-center with Liza Long’s powerful “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” post. We’ve seen it elsewhere, too. I want to call attention another such story today, because it makes great points about what’s missing and what society needs to do — not only to curb mass shootings, but also to help the many, many nonviolent people who struggle with mental illness daily but can’t get the help they need because it doesn’t exist or isn’t available to them.

Chantel Garrett wrote this piece about her brother, Max, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. In her article, she doesn’t just talk about how difficult it is for Max to stay afloat. She also offers concrete steps for repairing the system so that Max and others like him might hope for functional, fulfilling lives.

Mostly, I want to let Garrett do the talking here, because she does it well:

2) Change the law to more easily help an adult loved one get involuntary care when they desperately need it – before anyone gets hurt.

We must begin to fill the gaps in the mental health care system that could have potentially helped to prevent recent massacres at the hands of people in need of psychiatric intervention. Studies show that early intervention greatly improves the prospect for recovery. In my own experience with my brother, a first dose of anti-psychotics during a psychotic episode palpably reduces paranoia and hallucinations.

A few years ago, Max went off his medication, barricading himself in his apartment and warning his family to stay away. In an extremely psychotic state, he plastered the Web with terrifying words and images, predominantly aimed at the people who love him most. While punishing to read, as the time and severity of his symptoms wore on, his posts became our only proof that he was still alive – our only hope that he could still get help.

For two months, my parents and I campaigned the local police to knock down his door and get him to a hospital. My dad became a fixture at the police station. We sent the police chief Max’s blog and threatening emails. We explained his diagnosis, his years of involuntary hospital commitments and dire need for care before he did more permanent damage to his brain. His neighbors also called the police to complain. The police went to his house multiple times but said they didn’t have cause to forcefully enter. Their response was always the same. “We understand that he’s very sick, but what has he done? Call us when he’s done something and we’ll pick him up.”

Males with schizophrenia most often become symptomatic in their late teens to early 20s. From a legal standpoint, parents hands are often tied trying to get help for their sick child who is of legal age, with the current standard of “danger to oneself or others” far too hazardous.

The “dangerous” bar is too high to get someone with acute psychotic symptoms care when they need it most – and when they are the largest threat to themselves and, potentially, their family and community. Why should it not instead be a standard of gravely disabled – unable to care for oneself or for others? Surely, if the police could have somehow glimpsed at him and his apartment, they would have immediately seen that he was unable to care for himself.

We need to change the law, and create a mental health workforce working alongside officers and families to provide more proactive, onsite assessment of people who are credibly unable to care for themselves – before it gets to the point of “dangerous.”

Do you know someone who’s mentally ill and prone to violence when they’re in their darkest periods? If so, what do you think would help them the most?

Should the news industry be regulated?


Regulation for the news? Some say yes. Photo by Flickr user NS Newsflash.

Here at Backward Messages, I spend a lot of time writing about how journalists get it wrong, whether it’s playing up someone’s Wicca or Satanism faith or linking mass shootings with violent video games or heavy metal music. In some cases, they’re not getting it wrong by accident, but willingly focusing on “sexy” angles that will get more people to read or view a story, even if journalists are bending the truth in the process.

Over in Britain, where many journalists have been charged with crimes in the large-scale phone-hacking scandal at News Corp., a judge has recommended some changes in the way news agencies are run.

This week, Judge Brian Leveson delivered a long-awaited report sparked by British journalists’ misdeeds, and one of his top recommendation is for the news industry — in Britain at least — to establish a regulatory agency to keep reporters on the straight and narrow:

The British press should be regulated by an independent group supported by law and with the power to fine … Leveson said he was not recommending that Parliament set up a press regulator, but that the industry should create its own, which would be backed by legislation to make sure it meets certain standards of independence and effectiveness.

News International, a subsidiary of News Corp., responded with support for the idea in a statement, saying, “We accept that a new system should be independent, have a standards code, a means of resolving disputes, the power to demand prominent apologies and the ability to levy heavy fines.”

Rightly so, there are concerns that such an agency could stifle freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are highly valued in Britain even without the backing of a doctrine like the First Amendment in the U.S. But the idea is a reminder that, other than laws against libelous or slanderous reporting, the news world is very lightly regulated, and journalists get away with a lot — even though their task is to properly inform the populace.

So, what do you think? Should the news industry — in any country — be regulated? If so, should it be regulated by peers, by the government, or by someone else? Share your thoughts in the comments.

What’s behind the dead children and beheaded women in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim?


One Skyrim player beheaded several of his “wives” and placed their heads in a trophy case, then offered this video.

The new Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, has been out less than a month, but a number of controversies have already earned it some headlines. With some 7 million people playing Bethseda’s Skyrim, some of them are bound to be minors — and that’s got to be making parents worried about what they’re hearing.

Before we get into those controversies, it makes sense to talk about the game itself. Skyrim is an “open world” game that allows players to do just about anything imaginable. They can follow a storyline or strike out on their own, exploring the game’s richly designed landscapes. If you play the game according to the story, you’re supposed to defeat a god named Alduin, who (according to one of those prophesies that seem to crop up in so many fantasy games) is going to destroy the world. But you can put that off indefinitely, if you like.

Jorge Albor, a writer for PopMatters, offers some insight into the reason so many gamers are flocking to the world of Skryim:

For the most part, everything seems to make sense in Skyrim. Visit the alchemist’s shop and you will find books about herbalism of course, the texts of her trade. Plumb the depths of a dungeon full of demon worshiping mages and you will find books about necromancy, detailing the practices of their dark art. Adding book shelves, stoves, and beds to a bandit hideaway adds a nice touch to the environment. …

There is no better example of the game’s logic than a burned down house just off the side-road somewhere in Skyrim. Inside the home, a charred corpse—presumably the now deceased tenant—clings to a spell book that when used summons an otherworldly flame demon. We can paint a small history: a farmer, looking to become an adventurer—or maybe just protect his crops—dabbles in magic beyond his power and loses his life and home in the process. You, a legendary hero, stumble upon the poor man’s lodgings and take the book for yourself, using the fiery conjuration to save the world. You could walk past this house and never encounter this piece of Skyrim.

Perhaps the biggest Skyrim controversy so far is two player-created modifications. One allows players to undress female characters. The other allows them to kill children non-player characters in the game. As Gamebandits writes:

It cannot be denied that the children of Skyrim are among the most annoying NPCs ever created in the history of gaming, but does that mean that a player has the right to dispatch them? Censorship laws in some countries forbid games from allowing the player to harm children, but there have been some games that have allowed this. Bethesda title Fallout (the original Fallout) is in fact one such game.

Now, just to be clear: the game, as written, does not allow players to kill children. They have to go out of their way to install the mod in order to do this. But it sounds like many people can see the appeal in such an option.

Interestingly, many of the folks who commented on the story agree that on the one hand, it’s a little disturbing to be able to kill the children. But on the other hand, most realize it’s fantasy and fiction — nothing more. One even pointed out that it’s not realistic for the children not to die when whole villages are torched. Another (a parent) said, “For the 99% of us, who know this is a game and these are not children, just lots of 1s and 0s and just want to stop hearing an annoying line being said again it’s fine.”

In line with the mod that allows players to render the female characters naked, one player went even further, beheading his “wives” and placing their heads in a trophy case — and then making a video tour of his home available (see above). This, understandably, unsettled some people, who said they didn’t want to encounter the player, Symixable, in real life.

Here’s the thing: humans — maybe not all humans, but some — are curious. Some would try just about anything if it weren’t illegal, if there weren’t consequences. Or maybe they still wouldn’t, but that doesn’t keep them from wondering what it would be like. That’s one major appeal of open-world video games: they allow you to experiment in fiction with what you would never, in a million years, do in real life.

In real life, children do die. Some are even murdered. And, unfortunately, sometimes women are murdered and their bodies used as “trophies” by very sick, violent people. Such acts make us afraid: afraid for our safety, or the safety of our kids, sisters, mothers, wives, girlfriends, and friends. But fear takes us away from our power. Exploring these ideas from the perspective of the perpetrator — in a totally fictional way — can take some of the sting out of that fear. It can give us some of our power back.

A serial killer murdered and skinned women in The Silence of the Lambs, written by novelist Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme. A dead baby crawls across the ceiling in Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle and based on the book by Irvine Welsh. I don’t think many people questioned the sanity of these creators, who nevertheless put very unsettling ideas into films that were ultimately watched by millions of people, grossing $273 million and $72 million, respectively.

Not all of us get to be Dany Boyle, Irving Welsh, Thomas Harris or Jonathan Demme. Sure, we can write in private — but our ideas might never reach an audience. And, not all of us are writers to begin with. So video games provide other ways to spin a world, and explore ideas — however taboo — that might frighten or intrigue us.

And, given the choice between a gamer who uses women’s heads as trophies in a video game and a killer who does it in real life, I’ll take the gamer every time.

Why do so many gamers heed “Call of Duty?”


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 alone has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. What makes this series so popular?

Ten years ago, a group of men working with Al-Quaeda hijacked four American airplanes. They crashed two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, toppling them. A third crashed at the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed over Pennsylvania. Within weeks, American troops had invaded Afghanistan and declared war on the Taliban. By 2003, the military had moved into Iraq as well. A decade of messy, complicated war followed.

It may be no surprise, then, that the Call of Duty franchise has become one of the all-time best-selling video game series during this decade. Many Americans were justifiably angry, but couldn’t go to war themselves. Others wondered what our soldiers were going through, but the news reports just weren’t enough. The Call of Duty games feed just those kinds of emotions, providing lifelike and detailed versions of military operations in spots around the globe.

As the world looked back this month on September 11, 2001, The Denver Post’s John Wenzel spoke up for Call of Duty, saying the games helped players make sense of the terrorist attacks:

Instead of promising escapism, they provided an outlet for ordinary Americans to vent their rage and frustration by aiming virtual weapons at otherwise nebulous foreign enemies.

Video-game environments are entertaining and tidily self-contained — unlike real war, where the blood lingers long after players switch off the Xbox 360. But as funhouse mirrors of the past decade, “Call of Duty” and other war games have reflected a certain distorted collective therapy that, at times, makes for an eerily lifelike portrait of the aggression and anxiety that violence breeds.

The new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3, is due out next month and is likely to be a top seller at Christmas. The #2 holiday pick is another military game, Gears of War 3. Clearly there’s a hunger for war games in this long era of military exercises in far-flung places.

With such brisk sales, it’s inevitable that some teens and younger kids will play Call of Duty. And there are some who say they shouldn’t. But kids were just as effected by the terrorist attacks and the vagueries of war as adults were — and they have a right to explore these ideas as well.

Call of Duty players: what attracted you to the game? Did playing it help you process the 9/11 attacks or the “War on Terror” in any way? Has it helped you understand your feelings about war and military action better?