Tag Archives: mass shootings

Aaron Alexis, PTSD, mass shootings, mental illness and video games: the real call of duty

AARON-ALEXIS_2674463b

As more details emerge about Aaron Alexis, the gunman in yesterday’s Washington D.C. navy yard shooting that left 13 people — including Alexis — dead, many news outlets have been focusing on claims that he played violent video games “obsessively,” up to 16 hours a day. This is according to friends, who said he had a habit of playing Call of Duty for long hours. Some have connected this detail to claims that Adam Lanza and Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty at length.

But here’s the thing about the Call of Duty franchise: just eight of its games have sold 124 million units. While some of those sales were probably to the same people, it drives home the point that this is a best-selling game title. And when more than half of Americans play video games, that’s a whole lot of people playing Call of Duty. If it were going to lead players to commit mass shootings, we’d be seeing many more of them than we are.

(I was interviewed this morning on KGO Radio by Ronn Owens on this topic; follow this link to hear his program on Alexis’ interest in video games. I come in around the 19:50 mark.)

And here’s the thing about Alexis: it appears that he had been suffering from mental illness for more than a decade. His symptoms started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which he was a first responder. He was hearing voices as recently as six weeks ago. He “carried a .45 handgun tucked in his trousers with no holster ‘everywhere he went’ because he believed people would try to steal his belongings,” the Telegraph reported. I’m not a psychologist, but it’s clear there was much more going on with Alexis than his love of a good first-person shooter, and even when police were confronted with signs of his paranoia and delusions, they said “No further action was required.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that a man like Alexis, who was clearly trying to make a peaceful life in service of others, and who was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness, couldn’t and didn’t get help. It’s heartbreaking to think that because he — like Lanza, Breivik, Holmes, Loughner, Harris, Klebold and so many others — slipped through the cracks somehow, 13 more are dead.

Jayne Gackenbach’s research suggests that soldiers and servicemen like Alexis who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder actually fare better when they play games like Call of Duty; such games reduce the number of nightmares they experience. Maybe the problem, at the end of the day, is that Alexis didn’t play enough video games; maybe he just couldn’t get the nightmares to stop, no matter what he tried.

I want to stress that while many suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness, most of the time it doesn’t make people violent, either. But we need to know more about the nexus between psychological and neurological issues and the compulsion to commit mass violence. Culturally, it’s beyond time for us to destigmatize mental illness and amp up our mental-health resources so people like Alexis can get help before things get out of hand. Otherwise, these elaborate forms of suicide will continue unabated.

CDC gets $10M to study link between guns, gaming


Do violent games cause kids to go on shooting sprees? Congress intends to find out. Photo by Flickr user agitprop/Andrew Kitzmiller.

In January, I wrote a letter to President Barack Obama about his orders to Congress to give the CDC $10 million for more video game studies. Now, it seems like the gears on that plan are rolling. Here’s what CNET reported last week:

The CDC has asked the Institute of Medicine to put together a committee that will look at the influence of video games and other media on real-life violence. The IOM is part of the congressionally chartered and federally funded National Academy of Sciences. In a statement Wednesday the CDC said:

In more than 50 years of research, no study has focused on firearm violence as a specific outcome of violence in media. As a result, a direct relationship between violence in media and real-life firearm violence has not been established and will require additional research.

Interesting. So they’re going to try to tease out the “the characteristics of firearm violence; risk factors; interventions and strategies; gun safety technology; and the influence of video games and other media?” That’s kind of a first, actually.

Reading this, I thought, “Well, good luck with that.”

And then I thought: They might as well. A study this massive has the potential to find some real connections between fantasy violence and real gun violence, or it has the potential to resolve, once and for all, that there are no such connections. Could it actually show the true indicators that lead youths to commit mass shootings? Maybe that’s going too far, but perhaps it will put another nail in the coffin of the idea that video games, even violent ones, play any significant role in the process.

Looks like we’ll be waiting 2-3 years for the findings.

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?

28 percent blame games for Sandy Hook. Sort of.


A memorial to Sandy Hook. Photo by Flickr user NorthEndWaterfront.com.

With all this talk of violent video games, it’s about time someone asked the real experts — random newspaper readers — whether games cause mass shootings like Sandy Hook. Thank goodness NJ.com did.

The poll headline asks, “Do you blame video games, movies for tragedies like Newtown shooting?” But the actual poll asked something different: “Will you limit violent content for your kids?”

28.4 percent said: “Yes. I returned video games on my kids’ holiday gift list and talked to them about violence.”

A sensible 57.7 percent said: “No. There is no link between entertainment and kids behavior.”

And another 14 percent said: “I don’t think movies are to blame, but I will try anything to end violence,” which is about like saying “yes,” considering that the end result is the same: people getting rid of video games because of the shooting, even though there’s no link between the two.

People are entitled to get rid of things in their own homes they think are harmful if they want to, but it’s too bad they’re going on misguided science and gut instincts, rather than actual facts.

Don’t even get me started on the drive to destroy violent games in Connecticut. Actually, do; I’ll have more on that plan later this week.

Violent games didn’t cause Sandy Hook shooting


Did Call of Duty make Adam Lanza kill? Not likely.

I don’t know if this seems fishy to anyone else, but over the weekend, politicians and the press began speculating that violent video games must have had something to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. For example, you had Connecticut’s own senator, Joe Lieberman, saying things like, “Very often these young men have an almost hypnotic involvement in some form of violence in our entertainment culture – particularly violent video games. And then they obtain guns and become not just troubled young men but mass murderers.”

That’s not the fishy part. Well, okay it is, but it gets fishier: a few days later, the UK’s oh-so-reputable Sun unearthed a plumber who swears that shooter Adam Lanza played Call of Duty for hours every day. I don’t even know where to start.

It’s hard to imagine how a plumber could have a good window into someone’s behavior over time, unless for some reason he lived in the Lanza home. So there’s that.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lanza did play the game. Then there’s the fact that more than 55 million people play Call of Duty. Sure, Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty. I bet both Anders Breivik and Adam Lanza also ate toast, or wore pants, or saw The Sound of Music. In other words, this is a pastime so common that it can’t be linked to any particular sort of behavior. All sorts of people play Call of Duty. It has wide, massive appeal. One or two of them is potentially going to go off the deep end in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Their gaming habits aren’t relevant.

This week, the Internet has been awash with writeups arguing that video games did — or didn’t — lend a hand in the Sandy Hook shooting. I’m not going to go through them exhaustively, but you can check them out on the Backward Messages Pinterest boards. I do want to call two pieces of news and commentary to your attention.

In the first, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has introduced a bill to study the impact of violent video games on children. What a complete waste of taxpayer money. We’ve had dozens, even hundreds of studies — and even those that suggest a correlation between violent video games and aggression a) cannot prove that games lead to actual violence, b) only rarely show any verifiable link at all, and c) can’t prove whether it’s players’ need for an aggressive outlet which draw them to the games, rather than the games leading to aggression. Visit this blog’s video-games category to see articles on many of these studies.

In the second, the Washington Post looked at video games and gun violence in 10 countries and found, basically, “that countries where video games are popular also tend to be some of the world’s safest (probably because these countries are stable and developed, not because they have video games). And we also have learned, once again, that America’s rate of firearm-related homicides is extremely high for the developed world.”

A decade ago, studies showed that mass shooters tended to be kids who played video games less than average. Now that pretty much everyone plays a video game now and then — much more so than 10 or 20 years ago — it’s probably safe to say that these killers do play. But again, gaming is now so common that it’s akin to watching television or blockbuster movies; you just can’t say that engaging in it will lead to any specific outcome. And you can’t use one violent act to justify taking games away from the millions and millions of people who enjoy them safely.

In fact, it’s likely that Lanza enjoyed them safely, too. It’s likely that his gaming had nothing to do with his crime. It’s also likely that something in his mind went awry, and the fact that his mom trained him to shoot gunsnot the fact that he’d played a shooter video game — gave him the means to act on his brain’s break with reality.

In Sikh shooting, don’t blame the metalheads


There’s no need for this.

It’s rare, and very sad, to have three mass shootings in the news at the same time. Yesterday in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six congregants and wounding others, including a police officer, before police shot and killed him. It comes just as we are still making sense of the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, two weekends ago, and as Tucson, Arizona shooter Jared Loughner returns to court tomorrow and is expected to change his plea from “insanity” to “guilty.”

One of the problems I’ve seen with the American public’s analysis and understanding of those who commit mass shootings is that we tend to forget the details over time. Right now, as awful as it is, we have the opportunity to look at three suspects — and coverage of them — side by side: Page, Holmes, and Loughner.

Page: His identity was just revealed this morning, and so far the coverage has focused on three things: his military service, his apparent white-supremacy leanings, and the fact that he played in a hardcore band that expressed those leanings. Early on in the reporting cycle, this is typical; we hear about the surface-level stuff, but deeper issues take time for journalists to tease out. Page was also an army veteran. He was never deployed. It’s unlikely he had PTSD, but possible that other mental issues made him unfit for military service. It’s also possible that his political views took him to a rare and extreme place. We won’t know for a while, yet.

Holmes: At first, there was speculation about whether violent movies or video games inspired him to kill 10 people and injure dozens more. Some also questioned whether the Devil — or demonic possession — was involved. We now know Holmes had deep psychological issues that worried his doctors, and that he was dropping out of grad school — often a sign of worsening mental illness.

Loughner: Again, early reports were way off. Reporters pegged Loughner as a metal fan and an occultist, when in reality it looks like he was deeply disturbed. He has spent the better part of the last year and a half in a psychiatric unit. Now, doctors think they have restored him to a level of competency that would allow him to stand trial. The question remains: was he mentally sound when he fired into that Tucson crowd?

Frequently, psychological issues are core to these men’s struggles. I’m not saying all mentally ill folks are time bombs ready to go off. It isn’t like that. Most people with mental-health struggles, just like most video-game fans, most occultists, most Satanists, most goths, most metalheads, and so on, are not going to hurt anyone. Ever.

What I am saying is, since we know that mental-health issues are central to many mass shootings, what purpose does it serve to call Page a “metal head” on the front page of a major news site — other than to make it sound like his affiliation with metal somehow sparked the killing (it didn’t)? Or even to suggest that metalheads are somehow more likely to fire guns into churches where people are congregating peacefully (they aren’t).

Sure, I know that reporters are also trying to give readers a picture of who this guy was. But the way we dissect these reports, we’re looking for clues — why did he do it? Every piece of information becomes part of the blame game. And when we look in the wrong places, not only does it reinforce negative, incorrect stereotypes about unrelated groups (such as metal fans), but it keeps us from looking in the right places. And that’s the only thing that will help us prevent such tragedies in the future.

Germany lifts ban on Doom, but is its crackdown on gory games preventing youth violence?


Germans 16 and older can legally purchase and play the original — not blood-free — versions of Doom after a 17-year ban.

In 1994, the year Doom 2 was released — and a year after the debut game Doom was released — Germany banned the sale of these games, including Internet and mail-order sales. They were placed in the same category as pornography, meaning adults could own them, but had to purchase them from overseas retailers. It was illegal for minors to possess copies of the game.

Now, in 2011, the ban has been lifted. A lot has changed since this seminal first-person shooter went on the market. By now, Doom’s gore and violence seems cartoonish and mild compared to many other games — most of which still can’t be sold within Germany’s borders. Once a game makes the “index,” it remains there for 10 years, and only after that time can the game developer appeal the decision.

The agency responsible for rating and indexing such games is the German Federal Department for Media Harmful to Children, and being part of the agency’s index means:

1. It must not be sold, provided or otherwise made accessible to minors.
2. It must not be displayed where it can be seen by minors. This would, for example, include playing an indexed game in the presence of minors.
3. It must be sold only within a shop. Basically selling indexed titles per mail order is illegal, however it is permissible if the package may be handed over only to a specified adult person, who has to present ID.
4. It must not be rented out, except in a shop inaccessible to minors. This is why most video rentals in Germany are not accessible for minors – otherwise they would not be allowed to rent out certain horror (and adult) films.
5. It must not be imported by mail order. In this case even an adult buyer is subject to penalty.
6. It must not be advertised or announced in a place where the announcement or advertisement could be seen by minors.
7. If it is for one of the above six causes, production, acquiring, and holding in store are subject to penalty too.

It’s hard to tell exactly how this agency determines what is harmful to children — or what kinds of consequences it is trying to prevent by banning such games and other media. If, for example, Germany was hoping to prevent school shootings — since the Columbine High School massacre has been linked to Doom for example — then the ban wasn’t entirely successful.

In April 2002, Robert Steinhäuser fired a 9mm Glock 17 into the Gutenberg-Gymnasium in Erfurt, Germany. He killed 16 people and injured 7, then took his own life. In July 2003, Florian Klein brought a gun to school at Realschule II in Coburg, Germany. He shot a psychologist in the thigh as she tried to take his weapon, then shot himself to death. In March 2009, Tim Kretschmer opened fire at a secondary school in Winnenden, Baden-Württemberg, in southwestern Germany, ultimately killing 15 people and wounding 11 before turning the gun on himself.

Statistics from German police (PDF, see page 2) show that violent crime among young people was on the rise between 1984 and 1998 — and that there was a sharp increase after 1994, the year these games were banned.

Of course, we cannot say that restricting the sale of Doom games in Germany led to an increase in violent crime. Nor can we say that allowing them to minors would have prevented two mass shootings and a third attempt — or hundreds of other incidents. However, in the United States — where minors have had relatively free access to violent games — crime rates have decreased over time. Certainly it’s something to look at more closely.

Readers, what do you think of Germany’s approach to violent video games? Should the United States create a similar agency that reviews and restricts the sale of these games to teens (and adults)?