This video game image released by Bethesda Softworks shows a scene from "Dishonored." (AP)
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, pundits, parents and media have jumped on video game violence as a possible scapegoat.
Right after his tête-à-tête with gun rights advocates, Vice President Biden convened meetings with video game industry leaders. Then there was a “Videogames Return Program” run by a group called SouthingtonSOS, based in a community neighboring Newtown. The notion: On a designated day, anyone could redeem their old copies of “Thrill Kill,” “Postal 2” and “Call of Duty” for gift vouchers for more family-oriented, non-lethal entertainment. (In the end, that program was cancelled, likely due to fears of negative publicity.)
Now, even as President Obama announced Wednesday four major legislative proposals and 23 executive actions to curb gun violence, suspicion still clouds the gaming industry. Even the National Rifle Association blames violent video games for this nation’s blood lust.
Remember rock ‘n’ roll? Comic books? Heavy metal and rap music? Dungeons & Dragons? We’ve all been down this clichéd road before. For now, anyway, we will not see the repeat of what often happens when our well-meaning citizenry seeks to demonize the latest scourge on America’s youth. So erase the image of mountains of XBox and PS3 cartridges and discs set afire by angry mothers.
Still, the search for for cause and effect remains a noble pursuit. If only we could stop our troubled young men (and so often they are troubled, young and men) from being exposed to X, then we wouldn’t be asking ourselves, again and again, “Why?”
In the case of Newtown, gunman Adam Lanza was a gamer. But he didn’t fit the profile of the typical first-person shooter fan. He liked non-violent games such as Dance Dance Revolution. Yes, a game that teaches you how to dance, not how to blow apart the chest cavities of other dancers.
Amidst all the soul-searching and finger-pointing, video game industry spokespeople are quick to note that no credible study shows a direct relationship between TV, movie or video game violence, and aggression. And, as those opposed to restrictions or bans on video games frequently cite, the youth violent crime rate is at an all-time low.
Paradoxically, could it be that violent video games are an important outlet for aggression? That, on the whole, these games and “play violence” let us express anger and aggression in a safe way? Perhaps violent video games aren’t only “not so bad,” but actually help keep the real-world killings where they belong — in our imaginations, as harmless fantasies.
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest this. But in my experience, gaming — be it video games, or live-action role-playing, or D&D, or the greatest war game of all, American football — offer relatively safe, participatory narratives where we get to play good or evil, the aggressor or the defender, the killer or the killed. We engage in the fight. Our hearts race and our blood pumps. We have an emotional stake in the action, even if that action is largely make-believe. There are bangs and bruises from foam-rubber swords, and yes, concussions from errant tackles. But for men (and some women) who need to run and hunt and hit, I’ll take a broken rib or swollen ego over actual carnage on the battlefield or playground. The vast, vast majority of players don’t let their violent fantasies get the better of them, or others.
We have perhaps civilized ourselves more quickly than our psyches know what to do with. Not long ago in our nation’s Tame-the-Wild-West mythology, any trouble with the neighboring tribe was settled with tomahawks and shotguns. Centuries prior, in other eras, we settled scores with battle axes. Our species still craves action.
Our most violent video games are another expression, another evolution of this same phenomenon. They’re simply another way to feel the fear, scare away the zombies and save the day. They offer a hunt/shoot/kill scenario as a way to solve problems because, well, our psyches seem to need these visceral, adrenaline-rich experiences. That’s why they sell so well.
Vision quests, ropes courses, and roller coasters offer similar thrills. But we can’t very well go deer hunting or jump out of airplanes every weekend, can we?
In response to the Newtown deaths, a better question to ask might be this: Why does our culture continue to fail young, vulnerable men like Lanza — men often described as “intelligent but withdrawn,” who disengage from society so completely as to become mass killers?
In Lanza’s case, he was described as “smart but shy,” a “genius” and a “Goth.” A skinny kid estranged from his father. A nerd.
If some of these men are hopelessly mentally ill, then we need to do all we can to prevent their access to real guns. But sane or depressed, many men feel powerless. Many feel angry. Many feel disengaged. They just want a stake in the action.
Video games might be the best outlet they’ve got.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.