Videogame Blame Distracts From The Real Gun Debate

Before Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he smashed the hard drive on his computer.

That act may frustrate investigators trying figure out his motives, but it has proved to be no obstacle for amateur psychologists.

Indeed, the closest the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre came to coherence in his bizarre press conference last week was when he blamed “vicious, violent” games like Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and an obscure browser game called Kindergarten Killer.

There are now two competing lessons about the Sandy Hook school shooting. One focuses on Lanza’s access to guns, and one focuses on Lanza’s fondness for videogames.

A plumber who worked on his home says Lanza was “obsessed” by games. This psychological issue was apparently diagnosed in the time it took to work on the Lanza household’s pipes.

A high-school classmate says his preferred weapon in videogames was an assault rifle; a damning assessment only if you’ve never played any games at all. (Assault rifles tend to be best in-game weapons.)

Police investigators report there were “thousands of dollars” of games in the home: another tidbit which is superficially compelling if you don’t know a game can cost about $100 and most gamers acquire dozens of them.

Lanza “played videogames for hours” breathlessly reported the New York Daily News, which is not remarkable considering most games last around 10 hours.

Take these little factoids with a grain of salt. The Sandy Hook shooting was nearly two weeks ago but like all tragedies almost every piece of information is provisional. The world’s press has swept through Connecticut trying to find new angles and dig up tales about the killer.

Falsehoods become embedded in our mind when they tell a compelling story. At his press conference Wayne LaPierre listed the most violent sounding games his researchers could find, but – as far as we know – Lanza’s favourite game was StarCraft, a science fiction strategy game. This Washington Post story says he was particularly good at Dance Dance Revolution. Not many assault rifles in that game.

The charge that videogames cause violence is easy to refute. There is a large amount of research on the question and it’s compelling. To give just a taste: game sales have skyrocketed in the last decade in the United States but the rate of violent crime heading towards historic lows. There’s no obvious relationship between videogame usage and gun-related murder, as this ten country comparison demonstrates. A study published in August this year (PDF) found videogames don’t seem to have consequences – negative or positive – on adolescent aggression in the short or long term. Virtual violence doesn’t desensitise gamers to real-world violence.

On the more particular topic of school shootings, a joint report by the US Secret Service and Department of Education in 2002 found only 12 per cent of school shooters had expressed an interest in violent videogames.

Obviously, Wayne LaPierre mentioned videogames to muddy the policy waters. Far from the principled defenders of the American constitution, the gun lobby is happy to attack the First Amendment to protect the Second.

But targeting videogames allowed him to make this obscene claim: “does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?”

This is both logical and stupid: millions of people play videogames, so millions of people are potential mass murderers. But how LaPierre thought mass panic would serve the interests of gun owners is difficult to understand. (Although you can see why gun manufacturers might be pleased.)

In a way, it’s too late. The American education system descended into security paranoia long ago.

After the Columbine shootings in 1999, many states rigidly enforced zero-tolerance approaches to violent or threatening behaviour in schools. Zero-tolerance made sense at the time. One of the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold, had written violent essays, and it was tempting to think the massacre could have been averted if his teachers were on guard.

But in practice zero-tolerance was highly repressive. There are countless stories of children being expelled or suspended for simply drawing pictures of guns, for playing cops and robbers, for bringing a paring knife in their lunchbox to cut fruit. These tales would be laughable if they weren’t so cruel.

On top of unthinking zero-tolerance policies, we can add metal detectors at schools, massive arrays of CCTV cameras, random locker and car searches, and armed police. This recollection of education in Virginia on BoingBoing offers a glimpse of the security madness which now characterises the American public school system.

It will only get worse. In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, all 4,000 elementary schools in Ontario (yes, the Canadian province, that Ontario) will be implementing a “locked door” policy during school hours.

The NRA’s plan was to use fear – fear of videogames, of violent culture, of “the next Adam Lanza” – as a distraction from the gun debate. Perhaps they needn’t have bothered: that fear and paranoia was already there.