Tag Archives: Kotaku

On Adam Lanza and That “School Shooting” Game


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.

Pat Robertson: Killing people in video games is the same as killing someone in real life


Minister and television personality Pat Robertson and his television show, the 700 Club has been around since I was a kid; I remember him railing against the supposed evils of Tarot cards sometime in the 1980s.

Well, he’s still at it. Recently, he responded to a viewer who wrote in to ask Robertson what he thought of violent video games. Although he’s never played a video game, violent or not, he decided to respond, bringing all the wisdom of his religious beliefs with him:

“If you’re murdering somebody in cyberspace, in a sense you’re performing the act, you like it or not.” Robertson exclaimed on The 700 Club, comparing playing a violent game to other acts of “virtual sin” like lusting after a woman.

Instead of commenting on his thoughts, I want to ask you guys: do you agree or disagree? Why?

Can’t we make up our minds about video games?

Video games are bad for kids. No, wait, they’re not. Who’s right? Photo by Flickr user sean dreilinger.

It’s 2012, and video games have been with us for almost 40 years. Kids of all ages have been playing them for that entire time. If video games were going to cause massive changes in the behavior or psychology of young gamers, we’d know about it by now.

And yet there are large chunks of society that cling tightly to the idea that video games — violent video games in particular — are bad for kids. Take, for example, a recent article on Wired.com that asks, “Do Violent Video Games Make Kids More Violent?” In it, GeekMom writer Andrea Schwalm writes about appearing on Al Jazeera’s The Stream on the topic of kids and gaming. The show focused, specifically, on Call of Duty: Black Ops II, of which she writes:

While my teenaged sons do play some M-rated games (currently, Halo 4 and Dishonored are in heavy weekend rotation), I wasn’t familiar with the Call of Duty franchise. After watching some YouTube clips of the game online, I wondered, “Is this how foreign countries think American children spend all of their free time?”

And yet, as the host of The Stream pointed out, the truth is, the game sold $500 million in its’ first 24 hours, was a trending topic on Twitter, and is played by children. If you look at the incarceration rates in America, it seems a legitimate question: does the ubiquity of video game violence beget real-life violence?

This is the kind of ridiculous logic that sends so many people down the wrong rabbit hole. The main problem here is, she doesn’t explain who is being incarcerated — if she took a look, she would realize it isn’t kids. America’s hefty incarceration rate, in large part, is due to the massive “War on Drugs” as well as the disproportionate number of minorities being jailed; it isn’t gamer teens winding up behind bars.

Fortunately, she turns to Doug Gentile. Now, I haven’t agreed with Gentile much on this site, but there are moments where I think he’s on the right track, moments where he puts his findings in broader context, and I’m glad to see at least one mom listening:

The only way that anyone does something seriously violent is if they have multiple risk factors and limited protective factors for violent behavior, and thankfully most of our children have a great many protective factors, can consume a lot of violent video games, and still never do anything violent.

Slightly more logical is a recent Kotaku piece from Phil Owen, which asks, “Do Video Games Make Depression Worse?” Owen also turns to Gentile who, after conducting a study on just that topic — and finding evidence that video games were indeed somehow making his test subjects’ depression worse — actually argued that it’s more complex than his results would suggest:

“I don’t really think [the depression] is following. I think it’s truly comorbid. … As you get more depressed you retreat more into games, which doesn’t help, because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. It doesn’t help your depression, so your depression gets worse, so you play more games, so your depression gets worse, etc. It becomes a negative spiral.”

Still, we can’t listen to the All-Doug-Gentile-All-The-Time Channel, can we? Thankfully, we also have the International Society for Research on Aggression releasing studies that show exposure to violent media increases the risk of aggressive behavior. (Oh, wait, Gentile is on the commission.)

This is one of those times when researchers look at the existing research and cobble it together to come up with some kind of meta-finding. The problem is, most of the research to date has been slanted in the negative direction — that is, it finds some relationship between violent video games and youth aggression, but that’s because it’s what society and researchers wanted to find, and because the research showing no such links — or showing violent games’ upsides — is just beginning to catch up.

IRSA chair Craig Anderson said, “Having such a clear statement by an unbiased, international scientific group should be very helpful to a number of child advocacy groups.” But any group that includes Anderson and Gentile — whose work overwhelmingly supports the violent-game/aggression theory — can’t be called “unbiased.” Sorry, guys.

So why is all this attention focused on video games? Has the sexuality and violence vanished from blockbuster movies, television shows, or young-adult fiction? Hardly. But for some reason, there’s little to no research — or public furor — focused on those old-hat forms of entertainment. Dan Houser, cofounder of Rockstar Games (home of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, among others), recently took note of video games’ pariah status in a recent Guardian interview highlighted on Kotaku:

“We never felt that we were being attacked for the content, we were being attacked for the medium, which felt a little unfair. If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie, people wouldn’t have blinked an eye.”

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Plenty of people see the good in violent video games, or at least the harmlessness.

If violent video games — first-person shooters, say — are such lousy influences, then how are they capable of engendering sympathy? Jens Stober, a game designer and PhD student in Germany, is developing a video game in which players can assume the roles of Australian border guards or foreign refugees. Stober has written other border-centered games, such as “1378,” in which players can assume the roles of border guards or refugees fleeing East German communists. In that game, the guards can shoot fugitives, which earned Stober death threats.

But, as with many games, it’s all in the eye of the beholder:

[Stober] claims [the games] actually penalise players for shooting, and that the main aim is to educate people about political issues using game mechanics.

“You can have a gun, you can use it, but if you use it you will lose points and lose the game,” he says.

The players who are refugees must cooperate to evade the border guards while the guards try to arrest them. Along the way, the game dishes out educational factoids designed to provoke deeper thought about the issues.

Another recent article, by Brian Hampel for Kansas State University’s The Collegian, makes quite a different case for violent video games and society as a whole: he argues that our media is so violent because, well, we just like violence: “Popular culture isn’t a thermostat that dictates our tastes and trends; it’s a thermometer that shows us tastes and trends that already exist in the cultural zeitgeist,” he writes.

But his conclusions come quite close to things I’ve said at Backward Messages before, so I’d like to close with them:

It turns out that the real [culprits] behind youth violence are depression, delinquent peer association and negative relationships with adults. Who would have guessed?

You wouldn’t know it from watching news networks’ coverage of school shootings, but it’s true. Not only is violence not caused by the media, but it’s also in decline. I guess it’s easy to get the impression that we’re violent by watching the news, which could very well be the most violent medium of all.

Do video games make teens aggressive, or do aggressive teens like aggressive games?

A new study finds that teens who play violent video games are more aggressive than those who don’t. Or does it? Photo by Flickr User soleface23.

A new longitudinal study of 1,492 teens at eight high schools in Canada looks at those who play violent video games regularly, and those who don’t, and asks them questions about their behavior. Here’s what Brock University researchers Teena Willoughby, Paul Adachi, and Marie Good say they found:

Sustained violent video game play was significantly related to steeper increases in adolescents’ trajectory of aggressive behavior over time. Moreover, greater violent video game play predicted higher levels of aggression over time, after controlling for previous levels of aggression, supporting the socialization hypothesis. In contrast, no support was found for the selection hypothesis. Nonviolent video game play also did not predict higher levels of aggressive behavior over time.

Right now, there’s no way to access the full study without paying for it, and the writeups in the Telegraph and Kotaku don’t shed a lot of light on the study’s details. Importantly, though, Kotaku did ask:

However, the study leaves open the distinction between correlation and causation. Publicly available materials leave unclear in which direction the link might actually go: do the games cause teenagers to act aggressively, or are teenagers with aggressive dispositions more likely also to play violent games?

(In that light, it’s important to note that the Telegraph’s headline, “Violent video games make teenagers more aggressive, study finds/Teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people as a result, a new study has found” is misleading.)

At any rate, I do wonder how this study went down, and that’s partly because I’m familiar with the work of Jonathan Freeman. In his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, he points out that when study subjects are given permission to be more aggressive, they are more likely to be. (If you click through to that link, you can see some examples of what he’s talking about.)

Now, not all the kids in the Brock study were aggressive. The researchers found that only the teens playing violent video games became more aggressive; the ones playing nonviolent games weren’t aggressive. But here’s the thing: did the kids know what was being studied? Do they know, by now, that many people think violent video games make you violent? If so, wouldn’t that seem like a kind of permission, at least to a teenager? At the very least, maybe they are unconsciously living up to some kind of expectation.

It’s also a concern that kids are self-reporting their actions, without any objective measure to back up what they’re saying. Maybe those who play violent games are more comfortable with aggressive behavior, and with reporting it. Or maybe they think it’s cool, so they brag about little incidents, or exaggerate and say they were aggressive when they weren’t. Teens are trustworthy plenty of the time, but there could be enough in a study like this, who may not take it seriously, to skew the results.

Or, as Kotaku points out, it may simply be that kids who are more aggressive in general are also drawn to video games where aggression is okay. Which brings us to another question: How much more aggressive are aggressive kids who don’t play violent video games? That’s worth studying, too.

By the way, Backward Messages may be taking a little vacation over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post if I can, but things may not be back to normal until early November.

Video games: Saving lives, soothing depression, tickling brains and quieting the nag (since 1972)

Gamers behind the Mario Kart wheel. Photo by Flickr user RonaldWong.

In the arcade, being gay simply didn’t matter; it wasn’t a place of sex or relationships, so it didn’t matter that I was wanting to be romantically involved with guys as opposed to girls. All that mattered there were good matches and getting better.

So I did.

And that saved me from my desire to die. While I was improving myself in the arcade, either with Guilty Gear or at home with Smash (and my local train station had a gc with smash set up in front of it to attract customers to the game shop there). My time out of school was mostly dedicated to improving myself.

This may sound sad, spending so much time fixated on games. But at the time I was so depressed it was hard to hang around people. So what did this fixation do for me? It occupied my mind. During those days I started considering how to improve my ky or Bridget in GG, how to improve my use of Link’s Boomerang usage and so on. It stopped me thinking about death all the time. It saved me from going insane.

— Rowan Carmichael, How Games Saved My Life

Ashly Burch (blogger at Hey, Ash, Whatcha Playin’?) created How Games Saved My Life last month as a way to gather stories from gamers that show video games’ positive side. Already, she’s collected dozens of stories and she’s poised to attract many more, now that she’s gained attention from sites like Kotaku and Ars Technica.

I heard many similar stories while conducting interviews for Backward Messages. Perhaps not every gamer has such a story, but I suspect many, if not most, do. These aren’t stories that many kids share with their parents — these stories remain especially hidden when the parent/child relationship is most fractured, and this is when kids most need games as an outlet. Fellow gamers and parents can come to a site like this, browse around, and hear something similar to what their own child might be too shy or scared to talk about.

These stories are powerful. Beyond that, they reveal an incredible amount of self-awareness — a self-awareness many adults do not give kids credit for possessing. Those who would try to keep video games, including violent games, out of the hands of minors on the grounds that they are too violent make the assumption that kids who love these games are a blank slate, not considering what they’re playing. On the contrary, kids seek these games out like medicine. They know what they need, and know they are healed by it. And we need to listen to them.

Burch’s site comes at a time when the news wires have been jumping with reports about video games. For example, TodaysTHV.com, a news station in Arkansas, recently reported, “Study links teen depression risk to hours spent with online media.” Look at that, and then look at Rowan’s story. Then check out this quote from one of the study’s authors, Erick Messias:

“We need to do a better job of understanding how the Internet and video games, whether violent or not, affect young people. For many, the Internet and video games are the only form of social interaction they have; they are their primary source of communication,” says Messias. “We fully don’t understand the consequences of this kind of stimulation, but we hope this work will lead to improving the screening process in adolescents.”

Correlation is not causation. Teens turn to video games as a source of solace from problems, including depression. The video games aren’t the problem — they’re part of a coping strategy, even a recovery process. That’s what needs studying.

Over at Forbes, blogger David M. Ewalt posits, “Do Video Games Make You Smarter? Maybe Not.” In it, he analyzes a new study that questions prior research showing that video games improve mental acuity and performance. One problem with such studies, he says, is, “gamers perform better on cognitive tests because they’ve heard that gamers perform better on cognitive tests.” Well, true. This is a complicated issue, to be sure — and games have many benefits beyond what’s shown in scientific tests.

Amusingly, the Deseret News recently reported that “Negative, nagging parents cause kids to play video games more, not less.” No ironies there; of course kids who feel henpecked, particularly over their favorite pastimes, are going to turn to those pastimes as an escape. Actual dialogue about specific video games and their appeal to a child is always going to be more effective.

Readers, did a video game save your life, or the life of someone you know? Share stories in the comments.

How video games can help teens (and us) make sense of bin Laden’s death

In Kuma War, players face off against Osama bin Laden in a re-enactment of the Battle of Tora Bora.

As news breaks around the world of the killing of Osama bin Laden, people of all ages must struggle to make sense of the situation. One of the world’s biggest villains has been conquered, and that has psychological repercussions for those who were aware of bin Laden’s activities and philosophies.

The video-game world is already responding. This morning, a new video game called Muhajedin came online. In it, gamers can portray a suicide bomber taking orders from the late al-Qaeda leader. The game plays out these missions with plenty of satire, providing both catharsis and levity.

Meanwhile, Kuma Games is talking about creating a new Kuma War mission in which you can play the soldiers or strike team that stormed bin Laden’s compound and ended his life. In past missions, players could virtually participate in the Dec. 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, after which bin Laden and his men allegedly fled to Pakistan. Kuma War includes a variety of missions based on current and historic events, from World War II battles to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran.

Such games can help us process major events like bin Laden’s death, according to one expert who talked to Kotaku:

Ian Bogost, professor of digital media at Georgia Tech and co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play, [called such games] … “Quickly created release valves that capitalize on this event for traffic or attention. That said, perhaps some of them may give us a sense of how the operation took place.”

Kuma, he notes, tries to do that with their attempt at accurate recreations.

Bosost says that these tabloid games also give people a way to come to terms with a surprising event. … These Bin Laden games could also give some people a “welcome sense of false closure,” Bogost added. “See, Osama is dead. The ‘war on terror’ is over. See, I killed him myself on my computer.’ Whether that’s true or not, it doesn’t matter,” Bogost said.

For many who play these games — including teens, whose instinct may be to turn to a video game while they’re processing the news — such imaginative play is an opportunity to explore current events and even what it must have been like at the scene of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who plays such games wishes they could kill bin Laden themselves (or, in the case of Muhajedin, wishes they could be a suicide bomber). But most of us, as we integrate such history-making events, imagine it from all angles. We may even consider ourselves part of the “winning team,” and games let us participate in those heroics in a deeper way.

In a sense, it’s similar to how scholar Joseph Campbell described the hero’s journey, and our resonance with heroic myths:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is fully known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we sought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will have come to the center of our existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

And, in playing such games — and emerging the hero — we can find closure and move forward with a renewed feeling of productivity. Here’s a quote from gaming cheerleader Jane McGonigal, author of the new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World:

Games support happiness … by giving us more satisfying work or concrete tasks that we can accomplish…. Studies have shown that playing a short game — having something concrete that you can accomplish — actually gives you the motivation, energy and optimism to go back and tackle real work.

Parents who are worried that their teens might pick up such games should remember that they’re already hearing plenty of the details on radio and television news, and probably discussing it at school. They’re already imagining it in their minds. Like you, they’re wondering what it must have been like. These outlets let them safely explore and reach closure in their curiosity and need to find meaning in the complexities of these events. You may want to play along with them, and then talk together about what it was like. But forbidding such games doesn’t keep kids from thinking about these issues — it only keeps them from going through their natural process of making sense of the world.