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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Tags: Barack Obama, Guns, Newtown, Security

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.

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  • Andrew Holleman

    We neither need nor should avoid violent video games. Normal adults know how to separate real life from imagination, and should be able to enjoy ENTERTAINMENT if it suits them. If people “need” violence in games to be “normal”, they’re not normal. Thankfully, most of us are grounded enough in reality to be able to avoid idiotic surveys like this. The idea that gun ownership should be tied to this at all is insane. Really, Ethan Gilsdorf?! Really!?

    I’m a supporter of gun ownership after a background check. I’m also a supporter of people believing that mental illness is real and treatable. High capacity magazines are irrelevant. Gun ownership is irrelevant. Let’s treat mental illness without stigma, and do better screening of people that have the right to keep and bear those arms.

    • Rafael

      Why should violence(harming) be a form of Entertainment or our Imaginations?

      It shouldn’t, for example I can understand people liking WWE, we like it because of the maneuvers and athleticism and storylines(good overcomes evil).

      However shooting someone isn’t a spectacle like performing a moonsault, the only intent is to harm/kill the other.

      You can’t separate Entertainment/Imagination from Reality, because if sadness, death and suffering entertain someone, they are dangerous and if they imagine it they already intend it.

      • alasia min

        Why do humans lust after other humans?
        Why do people imagine choking others that piss them off?
        Because people are just naturally violent. You can try to separate them from animals all you want but even sports are violent. I mean boxing is just punching the other guy in the face. But does that mean that person probably goes home and punches their kids or spouse? No.

        • Rafael

          There’s nothing wrong with lust, it’s Natural, not learned, whereas Violence is not, it is learned, we are taught that when we get mad we should hurt others,

          Anger is to relieve stress, not harm, YHWH(The Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit) didn’t make us harmful

          Matthew 7:12

          • alasia min

            Violence is natural. Animals have to kill other animals to eat them in nature. Millions of animals are killed for people consumption which is violent. People play sports like football and boxing which is violent. And what do you mean anger is to relieve stress? Anger is an emotion not an activity. Are you crazy? And god didn’t make us harmful? People have to harm animals to get food.

          • Rafael

            “Violence is natural.”


            “Animals have to kill other animals to eat them in nature.”

            That has nothing to do with violence, as a matter of fact they die painless, as the Dominant animal eats the less dominant, meaning quicker death, meaning painless

            Violence out of animal anger however is learned.

            “Millions of animals are killed for people consumption which is violent.”

            Farm animals are killed painlessly, so this still is not proof for violence being natural.

            “And what do you mean anger is to relieve stress? Anger is an emotion not an activity.”

            An emotion which relieves stress, like getting mad at injustice, anger is a good thing used the wrong way, for example it is Learned that when anger we should hurt

            Children when angry however do not harm, the harm is learned. you seem to confuse Anger for Aggressive behavior,


            “Are you crazy? And god didn’t make us harmful? People have to harm animals to get food.”

            If animals are not beings then there is no harm, we however do not Know if animals are conscious, Why? because even if they had a mind we wouldn’t be able to read them, we are not mind readers.

            Also the death is painless by farms, which is what YHWH commands us in Old Testament, stuff like stoning was painless, the reason it existed is so other painful methods wouldn’t be used,

            Don’t believe me? Read,

            Anger is like sadness, a discomfort to signal a perceived injustice, sadness doesn’t cause someone to kill themselves, nor does anger cause violence, these are learned behaviors

            What the Bible calls the flesh, Flesh isn’t pleasure, “carnal” as in Actual flesh but a Metaphor for Learned behavior that we got from the World(Society)

            As a matter of fact Pleasure is not a sin, Sin is Harm

            Sin is Lawlessness(1 John 3:4)

            And The Law is Matthew 7:12 ““In everything, therefore, [a]treat people the same way you want [b]them to treat you, for this Is the Law and the Prophets.” – Jesus Christ(YHWH/God)

            So to break the Law means to Harm another

            I could understand liking wrestling for it’s spots, excitement etc, but to enjoy Harm? most don’t watch for that

            When someone plays call of duty do you think they enjoy the harm? No, they buy it for online, for the same reason kids play tag your it,

            just like the joy one gets when you tag someone as a kid, same as an adult with call of duty, shooting someone, it’s not fun because they harmed, that is wrong, but because of the excitement factor, same as tag your it or hide and seek. except this is with guns, and confusing the fun aspect of the tag your it like excitement for killing, it can makes others think the killing is fun

            What Bible calls Knowledge, 1 Corinthians 8:7 “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

            8 But food will not [c]commend us to God; we are neither [d]the worse if we do not eat, nor [e]the better if we do eat.

            9 But take care that this [f]liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

            10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?

            11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.

            12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

            13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.”

            Anyone who plays these games and thinks the Harm is fun should stop, evaluate and see what the real fun is, the fact that there playing, just like tag your it isn’t fun because you touched someone but because you got them and had fun with your friends.

          • alasia min

            I never said that kids enjoy harming others in call of duty(since it’s not real. I’m defending video games. Anyways your argument is poor as anyone’s argument would be when they refer to one single source to defend it.

          • Avid gamer

            “Anyways your argument is poor as anyone’s argument would be when they refer to one single source to defend it.”

            Almost as bad as an arguement with no claims whatsoever. Oh wait…

    • alasia min

      Okay clearly you’re taking the term “need” too literally. I hate when people do that. Focus on a word instead of the actually meaning. Clearly the article was just saying violent video games aren’t harmful, they’re helpful

  • TJtruthandjustice

    Gilsdorf should seriously consider doing PR for the cigarette industry and promoting the idea that smoking helps you lose weight. I’m disappointed in WBUR for letting this one slip through good fact checking.

    One of Gildorf’s central premises is that Adam Lanza didn’t play violent video games, and that’s not the case at all. In fact, it’s been widely reported that Adam Lanza spent hours upon hours playing “Call of Duty,” an extremely realistic, extremely violent video game that provides the user with the graphic sensation of slaughtering people in cold blood. A player can even sneak up on somebody, slit their throat with a knife and watch the victim collapse in a heap as blood gushing out the open wound. The Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Kleybold were known to spend hours upon hours playing games like “Quake,” an earlier violent video game in which the objective is to kill as many targets as possible in the hallways of a creepy matrix. Once the victim is killed, flies appear to circle around the corpse.

    The fact is that many of the school shootings in recent years have been committed by boys who play extremely violent video games on a daily basis for hours at a time.
    Obviously, most people who play these games do not turn into killers. But many, many people who play them are desensitized to violence, so when violence does happen – in our city streets, in Iraq or Afghanistan, in our homes, instead of feeling shock and outrage, they want to watch the YouTube video of the bloodshed. I think that’s the most disturbing thing of all.

    • Cai Phillips-Jones

      You assume that the line between reality and fantasy is blurred by violent media. In my opinion, it is made more clear.

      When people play video games or watch movies, they get to create their own system of ethics and develop an internal locus of control. Turning the exploration of violence into a taboo makes it more difficult for people to understand perfectly natural aggression, and distorts a basic human trait (aggression) into something much more sinister than it is.

      If you tell someone that what they feel is bad, that they are wrong to feel it, they will deny that they felt it at all and repress it until it builds to truly dangerous proportions. Better to acknowledge that humans have violent feelings sometimes, and that everyone needs to find their own ways of dealing with them.

    • Jesse

      Your post is almost overflowing with rich, sensationalist language damning scenes from video games, while you relegate your caveat at the end that “most people who play these games do not turn into killers” to just a single sentence. You even bring up the Columbine shooters by name, something that happened almost 14 years ago, because hey, they’re probably the most recognizable mass shooters in American history.

      Call of Duty: Black Ops II sold 7.5 million copies in it’s first month on the shelves. That number is short, even, because it doesn’t include PC sales, only Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But it’s a hard number, so we can work with it.

      The President, in his address yesterday, specifically mentioned 4 mass shootings. Assuming each one was “caused” by violent video games, not socioeconomic issues, and not mental health disorders, that gives us a rate of incidence of 0.00000053 percent.

      0.00000053 percent of users. I’m pretty sure violent video games aren’t the problem.

      • TJtruthandjustice

        Jesse, I’d argue that the fact-free contribution to this discussion is the original post, which is based purely on anecdote. My primary point is that violent video games desensitize the general population to violence, and there is plenty of research to back this up. Here’s just one example:

        “New research has found exposure to violent video games can
        desensitize individuals to real-life violence. According to the
        investigators, this is first documented finding that video-games can
        alter physiological responses typically aroused by real violence.

        Past research revealed that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviors, and decreases helpful behaviors. Previous studies also found that more than 85 percent of video games contain some violence, and approximately half of video games include serious violent actions.

        Nicholas Carnagey, an Iowa State psychology instructor and research assistant, and ISU Distinguished Professor of Psychology Craig Anderson collaborated on the study with Brad Bushman, a former Iowa State psychology professor now at the University of Michigan, and Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

        They authored a paper titled “The Effects of Video Game Violence on Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life Violence,” which was
        published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

        In this paper, the authors define desensitization to violence as “a
        reduction in emotion-related physiological reactivity to real violence.”

        Their paper reports that past research — including their own studies — documents that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviors, and decreases helpful behaviors. Previous studies also found that more than 85 percent of video games contain some violence, and approximately half of video games include serious violent actions.”

        Why is it that the youth generation during Vietnam fought tooth and nail to end that war, whereas with the Iraq War, most young people couldn’t care less? What’s a death mean, anyway, when you kill a few dozen people in your head each and every day?

        To shrug off the impact of hyper-realistic, hyper-violent games is, in a word, irresponsible.

        • Cinnamon267

          Linking to studies would be meaningful is the Supreme Court didn’t rule in favour of games being protected under the first amendment due to the evidence being “weak”. How many studies have there been? And how many say one thing and within 6 months another study says another thing? The first thing you’ll learn reading studies is how inconclusive they are.

          • shamrock22

            That’s why people continue to run studies, and that’s why researchers perform meta-analyses, because truth accrues and error cancels. Try typing “meta-analysis violent video-games” into a search engine and then read the articles that pop up. There are mixed findings, but those often point to moderators (e.g. one study looked only at men versus both women and men, one asked people to self-report how many hours they spent playing (prone to memory or self-presentation biases) versus controlling how many hours, one lumps together all TV and video games versus only looking at FPS). Yes, it is a complex issue but it’s worth taking the time to understand.

        • Folwart

          Perhaps people shouldn’t have been desensitized to violence at all. Violence is part of reality whether we like it or not.

          These “experts” and these “papers” they write are written by people just like you and I. We make mistakes, we have biases, and some of us are just plain lazy or ignorant. Case studies alone don’t provide enough evidence to prove anything. Statistics, especially those involved in this particular scenario, do not prove anything. Correlation is not causation, and the correlation in this scenario is almost nonexistent anyway.

          Some people just want to believe what they believe so much, or they can’t stand the thought of their belief being wrong that they’ll do anything, tell themselves anything, to continue to believe they are right. When some legitimate evidence surfaces to this end, I’ll worry about changing my stance. Until then, to blame a slew of our society’s problems on the impact of hyper-realistic, hyper-violent video games is, in two words, both irresponsible and unfounded.

        • alasia min

          No they don’t I’m sure that if every gamer saw someone’s head blow off right in front of them they’d be traumatized for life. I actually have a problem with really violent movies and have too look away sometimes because that involves real people, not actors. Video games are just being used as a scapegoat plain and simple. I wonder what the next one will be

      • Dan D

        There is so much research that connects violent media to increases in violent behavior. Many Intro to Psych classes in college still mention Bandura’s 1961 experiments on exactly this topic though it dealt with violent TV rather than video games.

        To your point that potentially .00000053 of users commit mass shootings, the President’s list was not exhaustive. Furthermore, mass shootings are not the only negative outcomes. You should other types of behavior. Single or double homocides, bar fights, robberies, domestic violence, etc. They are all bad and all normalized by one video game or another.

        • Cinnamon267

          All the acts you mentioned have been committed by people for thousands of years. Normalized? What game has a bar fight in it? Same with domestic violence? Robberies? Or are you just giving examples of bad things to make a point?

        • Futo Buddy

          yeah barfight 3d is such a popular game these days and of course people only started domestic violence when these games were invented. just look at all the kids out dodging traffic because they played frogger

        • Folwart

          How do we know it’s simply violent video games causing this behavior? Perhaps it’s a deeper issue in society as a whole. The world is not in a healthy state. The world is in a greedy, corrupt state that emphasizes profit at any cost. Think about some of these other major issues that are threatening societies and you will see what a minute part video games may or may not play. The real danger of video games and digital entertainment is the distraction from life.

          The human race has the potential to be so much more than it is but we are suppressed, intentionally or unintentionally, through these distractions. We play out the fantasies in games or in our minds instead of working towards living them. With the latest technology we are fast approaching a major change in the way we live our lives. 3d printing/scanning, the open source movement and a superior means of generating and storing power are just around the corner. Two of these things can’t be suppressed, it’s too late for that. Power has been, but when the first two mature that too will fail to be suppressed. Like it or not, capitalism and the greed farm are on their way out. Life is going to be far more exciting than any video game or fantastical story/movie. The future, ladies and gentlemen, is now.

    • Cinnamon267

      Slaughtering people in cold blood? Are you even familiar with the games at all? Extremely realistic? You really have no experience with games at all do you? There is no open wound either. They don’t model that. Don’t make things up. Come on.

      You are right most people are fine. Although, that is rarely part of the discussion. Same with what is happening in the peoples lives who are, supposedly, affected. You can link to as many studies as you like, I can link to just as many saying the exact opposite. Showing the “evidence” is inconclusive. It always will be. It is true school killings have been committed by young people. Don’t hold gun killings exclusive to schools or young people. What’s the % of people killed in schools via guns and the overall gun death rate in the US? What is it I keep reading about crime being down over the past 10 years? I suppose that’s made up, though.

      Oh, you mean people like violent imagery? That isn’t a surprise. Human’s have for a long time. Go to the Louvre and you’ll see enormous paintings depicting imagery of violent events that, supposedly happened. But, with those we stroke our beards and say “that’s fantastic”.

      Long before games have existed people have done and looked at horrifying things. And it will continue to happen. With or without games.

  • Wolfie

    It’s nice to see an article in defense of gaming with how many are attacking it lately.

    Games, violent or otherwise, are simply this generation’s entertainment medium. Most people would recognize the ricidulousness of blaming Shakespeare for a teenage suicide, yet blaming games for a troubled kid’s killing spree is somehow logical?

    Where is the uproar from parents when a Bible-reader does something horrendous? Couldn’t he be inspired by the many old testament tales of God smiting the wicked?

    Trying to place blame on stories (video games being simply interactive movies) is silly, and I worry for our society that people can be so easily misled into participating in these witch hunts. People who commit random violent acts are suffering from mental issues, end of story.

  • Reaesonable?

    I just read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.

    My prespective after that read is that violence is a part of humanity.

    Instead of banning it we shoud allow it be expressed in controlled ways.

    Video games, and sports are part of that expression.

    It sound counterintuitive, but many could benefit from participation in games/sports tha involve physical contact so they gain greater respect for controlled physicality.

  • worried

    We can debate this issue forever, and hopefully with studies we can know for sure. Until then, I think the real question lies in what important things are these kids missing when they play hour upon hour of video games. What real experiences could they be having, or are we destined to live our lives transfixed in front of a screen. I worry. We have real problems confronting us and I don’t think we will solve them if our children are playing Call of Duty.

    Speaking of screens, I think I should get off this one.

    • Cinnamon267

      Assuming they are missing anything. As someone who has played games his entire life I haven’t missed much, to be honest. Experiences are subjective. “Real experiences” make it sound as if a game can’t have an emotional affect on someone. Which they absolutely can. In profound and extremely entertaining ways.

      • worried

        Your television will not cry though when you’re not there anymore. People will. This is a fact, and a very important one.

        • Cinnamon267

          …. Games don’t kill people. I’ll still be here even after an hour of game time. I won’t die. Unless it’s a really intense horror game and I have a heart attack.

          • worried

            I really wasn’t speaking about whether or not games influence peoples’ behavior and cause individuals to commit awful crimes. I was actually just speaking about how we spend our time. If we spend our time with people, it forms bonds that are deep and binding. Even if they may not be perfect bonds. A TV does not bond with you. That is what I was speaking of.
            So…if you have that heart attack you were just speaking of, the TV won’t care, it will stay on until the power company shuts your power off due to none payment. So I guess the power company wouldn’t care either! Oh yea, and the cable company!

          • Cinnamon267

            Assuming people do nothing and have no bonds with anyone ever. Which is an exaggeration. Just because someone plays games or watches a lot of movies and whatnot, doesn’t mean they don’t have bonds with people.

  • BeadedGreenLizard

    RESPAWN 3….2…..1

  • POintpanic

    ,”A stake in the action” ,Ethan? That’s your justification for the “need” of violent video games? Maybe powerless men should try surfing, Baseball basketball hiking,sailing, swimming. I don’t think violent video games are going to “empower them in a healthy way.

  • Martin Dagoberto

    may I suggest meditation? or how about going outside into the woods? working out? There are healthier ways to deal with aggression/testosterone, etc… And did you know that when you watch someone commit a violent act (even a simulation) that the same parts of your brain light up as if you were in fact committing that same act? I consider that harm, in my book…

  • Jesse1
  • Rafael

    “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.”

    And right there you prove why we shouldn’t have them, why should we want to kill people, EVEN in our imaginations? why intend or want(whether real or fake) to do such a thing?

    Why would someone want to harm another? you shouldn’t, it’s immoral.

    Golden Rule by YHWH(The Father and The Son(Jesus Christ) and The Holy Spirit) – “In everything, therefore, [a]treat people the same way you want [b]them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12

  • YR aka Sabastien main

    i think we should have violent video games becasue most people know from real life and a video game just becasue you kill or stab someone in a game dosent mean you do it in real life i think violent games are just fun to play like GTA 5 i think its fun to play online with your friends and goin around and killing poeople only the ones that are Ill and have a sick mind would copy a killing from a video game and do it in real life

  • YR aka Sabastien main

    I agree with this author because most video
    games now a days teach you how to rob stores and banks and killing people
    running them over stabbing them like in gta 5 In the first mission your robbing
    a bank with some guys and killing cops and pedestrians. I do think violent
    videos do cause more crime in the city’s because some killings are based off of
    video games although I do not think video games should be banned because I still
    think there fun to play and so does a lot of other adults and kids. I think it’s
    up to the parent to decide if they want their children playing violent video
    games because for rated M you have to be 18 to buy them just because the law is
    saying they don’t want kids playing rated M games a bunch of kids are still
    going to play them. The ones that have killed and kill there self because of a
    video game are the ones that have a mental illness or they have been bullied no
    one normal would just go kill someone.