Category Archives: video games

On Politicians and Villains, Real and Imaginary

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There’s been quite the kerfuffle the past day or so about Florida U.S. Congressional candidate Jake Rush, a 35-year-old Republican who also apparently plays Camarilla, a live-action vampire role-playing game, in his off time. From the sounds of it, Rush plays some sort of villain in the game, one who’s prone to making upsetting, sexually violent threats against other characters. I won’t quote those threats here; you can click through if you want to see them.

I wrote pretty extensively about role-playing games and LARPs in The Columbine Effect, and interviewed adult gamers who had played with a local Camarilla group in their teens and 20s. Although some people who play seem not to have strong boundaries between their in-game roles and their day-to-day lives, as I mention in the book, for the most part that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t know much about Rush and can’t tell you whether he behaves like his Camarilla character on a day-to-day basis. What I can tell you is that there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that you have a curiosity about villains or evil people, and finding a safe and harmless outlet through which to explore that curiosity.

Through play-acting. It isn’t real life. It’s pretend.

By contrast, let’s look at California Senator Leland Yee, who was arrested last week for allegedly conspiring to traffic weapons and also for taking political contributions (bribes) in exchange for favors. (You may recall that Yee was a vocal opponent of allowing minors to play violent video games, sponsoring legislation that was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). Yee was allegedly affiliated with a San Francisco-based organized crime gang, who knew him as “Uncle Leland.” Yee apparently told an undercover agent, who was pretending to be a gun runner, “There’s a part of me that wants to be like you. You know how I’m going to be like you? Just be a free agent [in the Philippines].”

That wasn’t pretend.

Some legislators play the villain in real life and just hope they don’t get caught. Some find a harmless way to do so instead. Why should we attack the latter as though it’s the former? Doesn’t make sense to me.

Interview With Adam Lanza’s Father Makes Clear: We Need a New Approach to School Shootings

I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview with Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, since it ran in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. I read about it before I read it, in various articles attempting to summarize its more shocking elements: Peter describing Adam’s crime as “you can’t get any more evil,” or saying he sometimes wishes his son had never been born. But if you read the whole piece, you come away with a much more complex and nuanced picture of what happened in this family, and in a situation which has no easy answers or living scapegoats.

We can speculate — at length — about whether Adam’s parents should have paid more attention or done more. Much has been made of the fact that Adam was prescribed different therapies and even antidepressants, and the fact that both Adam and his mother, Nancy, appeared to be uncomfortable with these options and failed to stick with them. Plenty could also be made of the fact that Nancy kept Peter at a distance after their divorce — a distance he didn’t appear to fight.

But the more I write about these topics, the more I think it’s impossible to determine which one of 100,000 troubled adolescent boys (to pick a random number) — autistic or no, depressed or no, schizophrenic or no, angry or no — is going to plan and commit a mass shooting in a school or elsewhere. Obviously, there are the rare instances where one of them posts or emails a warning, or divulges his plans in a fit of confidence or attention-seeking. But in most cases, even in hindsight, the “warning signs” aren’t clear — or aren’t common only to other fellow perpetrators. They’re qualities other people have, too.

We’re coming up on the 15th anniversary of the Columbine High School killings, and the narrative surrounding that incident is still very similar to the one surrounding Sandy Hook: wayward, perhaps emotionally disturbed teens. Angry music and violent video games. Access to guns. A lack of comprehensive mental-health options. Parents who didn’t recognize the signs that their child might be turning violent, either because the signs were well hidden or because it was difficult to tell those were the ones that would obviously lead to murder. The narrative hasn’t changed because we still don’t have answers, and we may never have the answers we’d need to actually identify potential perpetrators and prevent more school shootings.

Given that, what COULD we do to minimize the number of these incidents, or protect students and school staff if they happen? Much better mental health services, sure. De-stigmatization of mental health issues. Massive amounts of education and outreach for parents of troubled kids. None of this would be aimed at singling out potential perpetrators, but to make sure any kids in this category have a broad and comforting safety net, which is something pretty much all teens need, but particularly those who might otherwise be prone to extreme acts of violence.

What about the guns? Whether or not guns are allowed to minors is almost irrelevant; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had an over-18 friend purchase guns for them. Adam Lanza learned his way around firearms from his mother, but he was also 19, a legal adult able to purchase his own weapons, when he committed his crimes. There are Constitutional issues associated with limiting access to guns, and there are varying opinions on gun control, but I think someone who is willing to go into a school and open fire is going to find a way around whatever gun laws we have. We could turn schools into gun-free zones, but there’s likely ways around that.

At the end of the day, the New Yorker article suggests we — Americans, parents, educators, and journalists all included — need to think and write differently about school shootings, the ones that have happened and the ones that have yet to happen.

So. Where do you think we should start?

Oslo Mass Killer: ‘Prison Is Torture; Give Me Video Games Or I’ll Go On A Hunger Strike’

Anders Breivik, the man serving prison time for killing 77 people in a Norway killing spree in 2011, contacted prison authorities in November, claiming he’s being held in torturous conditions and that he will go on a hunger strike if those conditions aren’t improved.

Among his demands are better conditions for his daily walk, the right to communicate more freely with people outside the prison, and for the prison to upgrade his PlayStation 2 console to a PlayStation 3, “with access to more adult games that I get to choose myself.” He also wants a more comfortable sofa or armchair instead of the “painful” chair he has now.

He wrote:

“Other inmates have access to adult games while I only have the right to play less interesting kids games. One example is ‘Rayman Revolution’, a game aimed at three year olds.”

This is, of course, controversial because of the large role video games played in the story of his arrest, trial and conviction. Although he claimed that Call of Duty served as his training program and World of Warcraft consumed many hours of his days, he also recommended in his manifesto that aspiring mass killers claim they’re playing lots of video games while they’re actually plotting their killing sprees. It’s also quite clear that Breivik’s rampage was the result of his disordered mental state — a condition certainly reinforced by some of his latest demands, although probably a better walk and more comfortable chair isn’t unreasonable. But these comments pretty much seal it:

“You’ve put me in hell … and I won’t manage to survive that long. You are killing me,” he wrote to prison authorities in November, threatening a hunger strike and further right-wing extremist violence. “If I die, all of Europe’s right-wing extremists will know exactly who it was that tortured me to death … That could have consequences for certain individuals in the short term but also when Norway is once again ruled by a fascist regime in 13 to 40 years from now,” he warned, calling himself a “political prisoner”.

In some prisons, prisoners are indeed allowed video games. along with exercise, books, and so on. But content is often limited — books that contain criminal activity, for example, or instructions on bomb-making, aren’t generally allowed. That said, if Breivik is going to remain in prison, in solitary confinement, for the next two decades, I fail to see the harm in letting him play video games. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that he’s there to be punished and not entertained. On the other hand, no amount of prison time, however boring it is, is likely to reform him or make him regret what he did. He’s likely always going to find a way to make this into a story about how he’s being held as a political prisoner whose message was unfairly silenced by authorities.

What Happened to That CDC Study on Violent Video Games? Gamasutra Answers That — And More

Last year, after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to devote $10 million to studying the links between violent video games and real-life violence among teens. Except now it’s looking like the money wasn’t allocated and the studies haven’t started.

Gamasutra’s Mike Rose takes a long, deep look at what happened to that proposed research — as well as the findings of Connecticut State Investigators, who revealed that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza wasn’t all that much of a gamer, despite the hysterical headlines that came out in the days after the attack.

Probably my favorite section is on the concept of moral panics, and the moral panic currently in effect on violent games. Rose writes:

However you look at it, the mainstream media’s obsession with painting violent video games in a bad light plays a massive role in both scaring the general public, and pushing governments to consider video games some kind of threat. Who cares that it’s all based on conjecture, and past research has failed to find any link between violence in video games and real-life — the media is very much in charge, and the White House’s response last January proves this.

“We’ll get the moral panic from them when we pry it from their cold, dead hands, to paraphrase our friends in another industry,” [International Game Developers Association]’s Daniel Greenberg notes. “They will never willingly give up this moral panic, because they don’t have a lot of moral panics left. Video games are still widely available for that, so the media isn’t going to want to give that up, because if it bleeds, it leads. Even if it’s bleeding electronic pixels.”

It’s a well-done look at the state of research, politics and video games. I wish I’d written it! Please check out the whole thing.

On Adam Lanza and That “School Shooting” Game

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Much has been made of the supposed connections between Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s horrific crimes and his love of video games which, a state investigation revealed, not only resembled the gaming habits of every other American teenage boy, but weren’t all that focused on violent games; he was also particularly fond of Dance Dance Revolution.

One of the games that investigators say Lanza played is a controversial and rudimentary one called, simply, School Shooting. On its face, it’s easy to see why people would a) be offended by such a game, or Lanza’s interest in playing it, and b) why it seems like there would be some connection. However, Kotaku interviewed the game’s designer, and it reveals a point crucial to such investigations and connections-making: the game was rudimentary and barely playable.

Jacob [the designer] reached out to Kotaku because after Sedensky’s office released the report, no one knew what “School Shooting” was and some accounts seemed to take it seriously as a game or a game modification. We had never heard of it, and Sedensky’s office at the time told us it was “a very basic stand alone PC game.” Jacob wanted it known how trivial and amateurish it really was.

There’s some evidence that Lanza had a deep interest in other mass killings, although it’s been tough to tell whether he was truly fascinated by them or whether those claims have been trumped up by the same press who like to blame video games. However, if it’s true that Lanza was studying other such crimes, that could explain his interest in playing the “School Shooting” game. Who knows for certain.

However, the Kotaku piece is an important reminder that the mere presence of a video game — or any other artifact, really — in a teen killer’s room is not enough to create causation. Many kids buy books and never read them, or download games and play them once. It takes more detail than that to justify spending $10 million to study the effects of video games on youth crime.

Books, violent games and the bias of brain science

Photo by Flickr user bucaorg.

Photo by Flickr user bucaorg.

A new study into how reading fiction and literature affects our brains is finding that — gasp! — it changes our brains! More specifically:

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says Gregory Berns. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

In the small study at Emory University, 21 people were asked to read sections of a novel (Robert Harris’ Pompeii), while their brains were studied in an fMRI machine. They read on some days and took breaks on other days, to give the researchers the chance to figure out what was triggering brain shifts.

Although they found that changes in parts of the brain devoted to “perspective-taking” decayed quickly once they finished reading, “Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for ’embodied semantics.'”

Why am I mentioning this, when it has nothing to do with video games, heavy metal, the occult, goth culture or role-playing games? Well, some of you may recall this post, in which I described a Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis study in which the researchers found that playing violent video games also changed players’ brains — and implied that such changes were negative, or at least the ensuing press coverage did.

But I wonder, now, what those Indiana researchers looked at. Did they look at the same areas of the brain as the Emory scientists? If they had, would they have found some of the same “perspective-taking” changes, given that many video games ask you to take on the role of a character in the game? I suspect, too, that this happens when engrossed in a good role-playing game character, and possibly even when you’re listening to a powerful song that’s told from another person’s perspective (Bruce Springsteen’s and Tom Waits’ music are full of such opportunities).

We’ve come to know so much more about neuroplasticity. We know our brains change when we learn new things — sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad. But if people are going to study popular media, it might be good to study them in the same way, so we have a better understanding of whether they have the same effects on us. Science is one of the ways we can combat this idea that certain media are beneficial and certain ones aren’t.

Dorkly Comic: “Parental Guidance” & games

I don’t normally post cartoons like this without comment, but this so perfectly echoes the message of my blog, I couldn’t resist. Comic by Julia LePetit and Andrew Bridgman of Dorkly.