Tag Archives: video games

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.

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?

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.

Throwback Thursday: The Comic Book Panic

LadiesHomeJournalNovember1953Cover

Every decade or so, we seem to have a cultural panic about something teens are into. These days, it’s violent video games, but that was far from the first target. Before that, it was heavy metal and role-playing games. The pattern repeats at least back to the 1950s, when the freakout of the times was over comic books and their alleged link to juvenile delinquency. This freakout went all the way to the U.S. Senate.

It also got to the point where magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal were describing the perils of comic books, an idea we mostly laugh at today. The article claims, for example, that the books’ detailed descriptions of crime teach kids how to become criminals. Like many anti-media pieces, it lists in great detail (and without context) the violent deeds described in the stories, as if a roundup is enough to explain the problems inherent in reading these books. It also, typically, cites an increase in “juvenile delinquency” and describes a number of youth-committed crimes in depth, with vague references to comic books (one young criminal’s older brother blames them, for example; I’m sure he’s an authority on the subject).

And, like every other teen pastime, so many kids were reading comics that there’s no real way to say the books — more than any other factor — inspired youths to commit crimes or even just act out. Sure, all of the crimes described in the magazine article can be found in comics, but so can plenty of other things that adults wouldn’t and didn’t find objectionable. Did those aspects of comics inspire teen behavior, too, or just the bad bits? Or maybe kids, like adults, like to see, hear, and read thrilling fiction because it’s just that — fiction.

One reason I like to look back on these moral panics is to show how we feel about them with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. Has any wave of youth violence ever been credibly linked to media? The answer, again and again, is no. So why do we keep blaming their interests?

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.