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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.