Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A piece of the puzzle

I came across this fascinating blog post earlier today on  It's a worthy read on one piece of the puzzle of school shooters, written by someone who was a disaffected youth and now is a high school teacher. (And, until recently, a blogger for HuffPo, so I'm going to guess he and I don't agree on much politically.)

His opinion is an unpopular one, but one I happen to share.  Let me excerpt a little bit of it for you:

It’s scary now to think that I ever had anything in common with school shooters.  I don’t enjoy admitting that.  But I did have a lot in common with them. I was angry, had access to guns, felt ostracized, and didn’t make friends easily. I engaged in violence and wrote about killing people in my notes to peers.
But there is one significant difference between me at 16 and 17 years of age and most high school shooters: I didn’t play violent video games.
As a child, my mother taught me that all video games were “evil.”  That’s the word she used.  And although that word might be a little extreme, I grew up thinking that there was something very, very wrong with pretending on a video screen.  My mother  also called playing video games “wasting your life” and “dumbing yourself down.”  I thought my mother was ridiculous, but her opinions stuck with me anyway.

Now I am not anti-video game crusader Jack Thompson. I’m not suggesting that everyone who plays a video game will act out that video game in reality.  But I am saying that it is very dangerous to allow troubled, angry, teenage boys access to killing practice, even if that access is only virtual killing practice.  The military uses video games to train soldiers to kill, yet we don’t consider “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ training for addicted teenage players? A high school boy who plays that game 30 hours per week isn’t training to kill somebody?
I am not surprised that school shooters love violent video games.  As an angry, troubled teen, I would’ve probably loved to shoot hundreds of people on-screen. That might’ve felt nice.
(Emphasis, of course, is mine.)

Again, an unpopular opinion.

But here's the thing.  We know that kids are influenced by what they see on TV. You've heard of the Bobo Doll experiment, right?  Kids who watched a video on TV where they saw a person knocking around this doll did the same thing themselves.

But that's television. And generations of kids grew up watching Tom & Jerry cartoons and didn't ape the violence contained therein.

And then there is the simple fact that millions of people play video games, and only a handful of people go crazy and shoot everyone they can in a public place.  Hell, I've played hours and hours of Diablo (I and II), Dungeon Siege, Baldur's Gate (I & II), etc. and my gun stays calmly on the top shelf of my closet.  And the same can be said for the vast and overwhelming majority of video gamers out there.

But here's the piece of the puzzle you are missing if you dismiss out of hand the idea that playing these games can have an impact: you and I are relatively psychologically normal.  Maybe we deal with anxiety, maybe depression.  But that's run of the mill stuff.  We're run of the mill people.

It is wrong to dismiss the argument wholesale because they do not affect psychologically normal teenagers and adults.  We're not the ones we need to worry about.  The possibility, and it is scary and very real if you let go of your instinctive recoil for a minute, is that these games might just be one small piece of what pushes someone over into violent pathology.

Please note, I am not saying this is the whole thing. I don't even think it's a very large part of the picture.  I think it's a tiny little thing that wouldn't affect 99.9% of the population.  I don't think a depressed person will be driven to suicide by playing video games.  I don't think that a normally angry person will be driven to violence by playing video games (were that true, I'd have run over my ex-husband during our separation, with all the Dungeon Siege I was playing back then).

However, I do think that, for a tiny little subset of the population who are on that knife's edge, these games can help push them a little farther toward the dangerous side.

Does that mean I think there should be increased government regulation of video games? Hell no.  No more than I think that there should be increased government regulation of guns.  In neither case should the vast majority of people, who use these things peacefully and who will never ever ever ever be edged toward violence by them, should be made be even slightly inconvenienced out of fear of what that 0.1% of the population (if that large a number) might do.

What it does mean is that I think we need to sit down and truly consider that things which are innocuous for normal people aren't necessarily so for the pathological person out there (remember, pathology is defined by the Four Ds: deviance, danger, dysfunction, and distress).  And we need to make sure that parents know this, so that they are aware that if their kids present all these other problems (read what Peter Brown Hoffmeister has to say about the narrow profile), what was once a safe outlet maybe isn't safe anymore.

Now, Brown Hoffmeister does one up me in a great way. Usually I can't make that leap to what can help the issue. He does. But you're going to have to read it, but I bet if you stop to think about what your son (or the sons of people you know, if you don't have any or if like mine they're still in that puking and crying stage of life) does other than play video games, you'll get it.  It's one of those obvious and staring us in the face things and I for one am embarrassed that I missed it.


Borepatch said...

Here's why I skeptical: the homicide rate has been falling since around 1993. The first First Person Shooter of mass impact (Doom) was released in 1993 (can't remember when Wolfenstein was released, but Doom was the big breakout).

The data appear to be negatively correlated with the hypothesis.

Does this prove anything? Of course not. But I haven't seen any studies that seem to be scientifically robust that shows a positive correlation.

Sabra said...

Most murderers, though, are psychologically normal. It's not something we like to consider, simply because it's unpalatable to admit that these people are essentially the same as you or I.

To the psychologically normal person, hours of any FPS aren't going to have any effect.

Can we say the same for people who fit the very narrow pathology of a spree killer? I don't know the answer to that. Simply put, there's not enough of a sample size to really evaluate it. There is definitely a correlation, but evaluating whether there's a causative element there is another thing altogether.

There are studies, albeit small (and really, almost all psychological studies are small), that show a correlation between, for instance, viewing a violent movie and then being less empathetic toward an injured person immediately afterward. The effect, of course, is temporary. But might it be possible that 8 hours a day of a violent, immersive game has a more lasting negative effect on the empathy of someone who is otherwise susceptible to it? And how the hell do we even design a study to measure it without potentially causing serious harm to the at-risk population?

peter said...

I think it's interesting that people believe a passive Ten Commandments monument or a cross is horrible, but video games have no effect.

Dave said...

I'm not a gamer though admit, the first time I played Wolf 3D, I was briefly addicted. For me, it wasn;t the shooting (though that was cool) it was navigating the maze.

My skepticism comes from the fact that, even in Army training, the video simulators don't give you the balls to go out and kill people, they simply teach you some of the skills. You still have to do live-fire training and then actually get shot at to really understand it. I think the school-shooters have simply snapped and whatever their malfunction is, it has propelled them to act in a way that the video games can't prepare them for.

Where I do see a connection is this. 30 hours a week. If you spent 30 hours a week playing a Disney video game, your apt to lose the necessary skills communicate normally in society, especially at that troubled teenage time where everything is difficult enough anyway.

If all this video brainwashing worked, why can't we just indoctrinate kids with some good morals and skills needed to fit into society? I don't mean that in a progressive/communistic way, but in more of a "play nice and get along with the other kids" kind of way.

Final note: Have you ever noticed that when they show the pictures of these people after the fact, you just look at them and say, "Yep, that guy is nuts."

Sabra said...

I don't think I--or the guy I quoted--was saying that the video games are the cause. I, at least, am saying they might be a contributing factor.

And a key part of it may be playing for 6 or 8 hours a day...Or it may be a symptom of something else being wrong if you even want to play these games, on a daily basis, as much as you're at school. I don't know.

Again, though, I am not suggesting that you could take any teenage boy off the street and turn him into a killer by having him play hours of FPS games a day. I'm not even suggesting you could take an average bullied kid and turn him into a killer by having him play hours of video games a day. What I am suggesting is we'd be wise to look into the possibility that for kids who are contemplating this sort of thing anyway, the hours of gaming might give them the push over the edge they need.

skippy said...

Two issues I can see

1) Peter -The Ten Commandments vs video games are apples and oranges. Nobody says that the 10 commandments shouldn't be displayed because of violence. It's because government resources shouldn't go towards the promotion of any religion.

2) To an abnormal person video games can certainly be an unbalancing influence. But the key here is abnormal. Other unbalancing influences have been Catcher in the Rye & God (Mark Chapman), Jodie Foster (John Hinckley), and a failed theater production (Valerie Solanas). The problem with saying " could be the thing that unbalances a crazy person" is that we are talking about a crazy person. Anything could be a trigger to someone with the wrong mental health condition.