In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, word traveled fast that the shooter, Adam Lanza, had been a video gamer. Amid cries for gun control and safer school campuses, conversations began about the potential role of video games in influencing Lanza to go on a shooting spree. This is true of the months following any major shooting in recent U.S. history: Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Aurora Theater shooting, and so forth. But video games have already been tried, and they have been found innocent.

Violence in video games does not cause violence in real life.

Corrupt Shadow Industry of Misinformation

Most recently, one of the number one opponents of violence in games has been Wayne LaPierre, the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, undoubtedly the nation’s strongest 2nd Amendment support group.

In a press conference held in the days immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting, LaPierre named games such as “Grand Theft Auto” as signifiers of a “corrupt shadow industry” that “sows, and sells, violence against its own people.” He argued that video games essentially prepare gamers to go out into the real world and kill.

LaPierre’s arguments fail when his criticisms are pulled apart and examined, and they get even more questionable when placed against his clear motive in making these statements. It is important to remember that the NRA was coming under a great deal of fire in the wake of Sandy Hook, as were issues of gun ownership. LaPierre’s job, in holding this conference, was to deflect attention away from the guns and onto something else; whether or not his arguments had any credibility was irrelevant.

President Obama and Vice President Biden did not come out as strongly as LaPierre against video games, but both of them did call for further studies to be done on the effects of violence in games, which insinuates that video game violence and real-world violence are somehow intrinsically linked.

Shining a Light on the Truth

However, the studies have been done. They’ve even been funded by the U.S. government. One in particular, conducted by the Secret Service and Department of Education in July of 2004 examined a series of 41 previous school property shootings in the U.S. It discovered that there was no discernible link between a shooter having an affinity for “violent” video games and their eventual crime, and in fact, only a very small number of the shooters played games at all. In fact, the ultimate determination of the study, an attempt to create a profile of possible future school shooters, was that there is no firm profile of such individuals.

Another study, conducted by Lillian Bensley and Juliet Van Eenwyck, studies all of the research undertaken to that point by other researchers, and analyzes the findings to come to a collective conclusion. That conclusion? “Current research evidence is not supportive of a major concern that violent video games lead to real-life violence.”

They found that in some studies, subjects were recorded as being “more aggressive” immediately after concluding a gaming session, but the word “aggressive” is unclearly defined. Researcher and author Cheryl Olson, who published the book Grand Theft Childhood (with husband Lawrence Kutner) after conducting her own study of game violence, said that “There is no widely agreed-upon definition of aggression.” She said that often, questionable or abstract measurements, such as pushing a button to emit blasts of static at imaginary individuals in “other rooms” are used to measure it.

Olson wrote in an Op-Ed for “Gamasutra” after the Sandy Hook shooting, “Given that playing violent video games is a statistically normal behavior for 13-year-old boys (and many girls), and that youth violence has been declining since the mid-1990s, it’s hard to argue that the typical teen is harmed by them in any significant or lasting way.”

In addition to youth violence decreasing since the mid-1990s, youth arrests overall have also declined. Only 4,857 juveniles out of every 100,000 were arrested in 2010, versus roughly 8,500 per 100,000 in 1996. Overall, youth arrests have seen a decrease of 24 percent since 1980. If video games were directly causing violence, then it would have surely become most evident in these intervening years since their introduction and sudden proliferation in the U.S. However, the data shows exactly the opposite.

Olson, in the study that led to the publication of Grand Theft Childhood, found that young people that don’t play video games at all are at a higher risk for getting into fights and delinquency at school or at home. While she notes that the lack of playing games did not necessarily cause the higher risk, it could be seen as a marker for this type of behavior as a possibility.

Gaming, Olson says, is a normal habit for young teens today. According to Olson’s examination of all previously existing studies on video games and violence before her own, “There is no good evidence that violent media exposure causes real-world violence or crime.”

You Can’t Believe Everything You See on TV

So why, then, do video games get such a bad reputation? Where does this conclusion come from, if it has no basis in the research itself?

            “It's much easier to talk about protecting children from video games than from child abuse, violent neighborhoods, access to guns or other more relevant issues,” Olson said.

“[Gaming] is a misunderstood medium,” said Tina Amini, a Contributing Editor at Kotaku.com. “The fact that it takes violence and makes it an interactive act, seen often through the first person perspective, scares people.”

Many people, Amini said, don’t have much experience with games besides what they see and hear about them in the news and on TV. “And if that's the only thing you knew about games, you might feel that way too.”

Much of the public has limited exposure to games; while more people are playing them than ever, the games that are getting played are still separated a great deal by age. Less 40-year-old gamers, for example, are likely to be playing “Battlefield” or “Call of Duty” than 20-year-olds.

However, part of this problem rests with the media and with politicians; their job is to keep the public informed, and it should be their goal to discover what they can about these games, and the research that has already been done, rather than insisting that there either is a link or not yet enough evidence to come to a conclusion about the effects of games. They should go out of their way to find every bit of information they can, rather than relying on one-off screenshots of violent scenes in games, or taking the word of individuals like Wayne LaPierre, who are paid to twist the truth and find a scapegoat for violence.

When asked whether she believes game contribute to violence, Amini had a short, definitive answer to give: “Absolutely not. I think mental conditions and upbringing and many, many other factors play a role in that.”

This is the logical conclusion to be made, in fact. Millions upon millions of people play video games; if video games had a direct, causal link to real life violence, the proportions of gamers who committed violent acts would be much higher. Games are blamed because they are a new, and as Amini called them, “misunderstood” medium. In reality, studies such as that of Bensley and Van Eenwyck found that there’s no difference in the effects of movies and video games. In essence, if violence in games were causing these killings, then movies should have the same effect, yet this clearly is not the case.

Games are a scapegoat, and an identifiable one that can be easily dealt with and shamed. Mental health screening, complex gun control legislation and other measures are costly, in-depth, and take a long time to put together. Rallying public support for such a polarizing set of issues is much harder than convincing NRA members, of which the stereotype is essentially the anti-thesis of the stereotypical gamer, and other public officials to attack a medium which they do not participate in creating or distributing. They do not understand it, therefore, their views on the subject are more malleable.

Olson feels that in time, focus will shift to newer, more trendy mediums. “In maybe a decade, the politicians who have never played video games will have retired, and unreasonable fears will move on to whatever new entertainment medium comes next.”

An Inalienable Right

            The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that video games are a protected medium under the First Amendment, and therefore their content is a form of free speech, free from threats of censorship or redaction. Their creators have the inalienable protection of the Constitution to place whatever kinds of content they wish into their games, unregulated and uncensored by the government.

“Developers should be able to create content that speaks to and for them and others,” Amini said. “I won't necessarily agree with all of it or find it in good taste, and I think that controversial topics are likely to be passed over by publishers, but that doesn't mean a developer should be restricted from creating something.”

However, while this view is held by many involved in the gaming world, developers have recognized that it would be unfair to put out games with no system of warning consumers of the subject matter, or of indicating their target audiences. And so, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was born.

The ESRB is an organization, formed of former workers in the gaming industry, who are presented with content from each game slated to be released in the U.S., a summary of the plot and setting of the game, and review the contents before the game’s distribution to retailers. The ESRB then collectively affixes a rating to the game, drawn from a very precise, particular scale.

Video games like “Grand Theft Auto,” “Call of Duty,” and “Battlefield” are regularly rated “M for Mature,” especially in the age of high-powered graphics and heightened realism. The game cases bear these warnings much like movie cases, in the corner, with short lists of the contents that earned them the ratings. Common lists include phrases like “Blood and Gore,” “Strong Language,” and so on.

In most retail locations nationwide, you must be over the age of 17 to purchase one of these games, which is the recommended age for playing that is shown on each “M” rating image. These age recommendations of each ESRB rating mirror those of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings; “E” is equivalent to “G,” “E 10+” to “PG,” “T” to “PG-13,” and “M” to “R.”

Access to this content is limited, and the game consoles themselves have parental controls built in to allow parents to prevent their children from accessing content that is too mature for them to see. This is all undertaken voluntarily, by companies which the government has deemed free from censorship or intervention on the basis of a right to free speech.

The Messages of the Medium

Perhaps the most important argument to be made is that games don’t simply drop gamers into a room with a gun, and tell them to shoot everything that moves. They tell stories, especially in this age of high-performance technology and intensely political stories trending in the news every single day.

“Grand Theft Auto IV,” as it was initially released, is the story of an immigrant to America who wants to leave behind his troubled criminal past but finds that America is not as open and welcoming as he believes. The later expansions on the title give new perspectives on stories that intersect with the original’s, such as “The Ballad of Gay Tony.”

“The Ballad of Gay Tony” follows the bodyguard of an anxious, over-stressed and drug-addicted gay man who owns a nightclub and gets drawn into the criminal underworld despite every effort to avoid it when he can. It was one of the first narratives in a major game release to prominently feature an openly gay character, and to depict not only the “sex” portion of his sexuality, but his whole personality and being.

Video games are more than the violence that some of them contain. In today’s age, they deal with contemporary topics of political, cultural and societal value. They criticize governments, and don’t shy away from issues that matter.

Foes of the industry, like Wayne LaPierre, work to blame games for violence because they’ve never picked up a game and been shown what it really is. They say more research needs to be done because the research that has been done doesn’t support what they believed when they first asked for it.

Video games don’t cause violence in real life. Troubled, bullied, unstable, outcast and exiled people do. Video games are just easier to blame than troubled people are to find and help.

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Sources and Contact Information

Tina Amini, Contributing Editor at Kotaku.com: tina@kotaku.com

Cheryl Olson, Author of Grand Theft Childhood: colson@ckolson.com