Their Call of Duty – Their Cold, Dead Hands

A chart produced by Max Fisher at the Washington Post and re-produced in other media shows no apparent correlation between gun murders and video game consumption:


So, violent video games do not seem by themselves to be causes of gun violence, but who is arguing that they are? Some of us, like David Axelrod tweeting about TV ads, might question “marketing murder as a game,” but that video games are the problem or even a major part of the problem is not the argument coming from those who discern a link between virtual and real world violence – or in any event it should not be.

Defenders of the society of the first-person shooter ridicule those who note the prevalence of gaming in the background of mass murderers, since everyone else plays those games, too, but the psychological literature backs up the common sense supposition about exposure to violent media. Reviewing relevant studies on “Violent Video Games” in 2006, Iowa State researchers Dr. Douglas A. Gentile and Dr. Craig A. Anderson declared the question settled: “As the medical, public health, and psychological scientific communities have repeatedly stated, the scientific debate about whether there are harmful effects of media violence is over.”

Gentile and Anderson urged a careful consideration of policy responses, not an outright ban on games, and we should note that the linkages described are not to gun violence, but rather to broader indices of aggressive or anti-social orientation and conduct. The two researchers as well as the rest of us understand that video games are not the problem. We understand that it takes a disturbed village to raise a disturbed child and provide him weapons.

It’s just that our village clearly seems to be more disturbed than others. In this context, the fact that the growth in America’s stunningly high numbers of gun deaths seems to result from suicides by gun may also be telling us something – and not just that the truly realistic shoot-’em-up video game would be playable only once. The correlation that tells us something is the exceedingly strong one between production of violent video games and death rates.

First-person shooters were an American invention (I’ll happily confess that I’ve at times found them to be an enjoyable one). The top sellers all-time and currently are American-produced. The country of mutually supportive consumerism and militarism is the country that sells (or did sell until last week) Bushmaster rifles at Wal-Mart for the gun-loving consumer. That country is the same country that spends and makes billions producing and promoting the eternal arsenal of democracy; is the same country that is called upon or calls upon itself to provide globe-spanning security for itself and imitators; is the country that via nuclear weapons held the entire world hostage on behalf of its “way of life”; and is the same country that also invests and returns billions producing and promoting the likes of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed – and two, three, many more sequels each. Maybe it is all coincidence, or maybe we Americans kill with guns at obscenely high rates because, for complex reasons, we have become or remain highly proficient killers, possibly the world’s  experts on killing or at least on certain means and methods.

Even in a universe where first-person shooters of both types – real and virtual – were regulated out of existence, the violent potential of an omnicidal culture might simply be displaced and transferred, socialized via oppressive policing and escalated warfare. Yet precisely because gun violence must be understood within a total social, cultural, political, and economic system, it remains difficult to imagine Americans finally becoming revolted enough by gun violence to do something about it, and not also turning away from first-person shooter games and other luridly violent media.

Put in antiseptic public policy terms, if we care about gun violence, then, in addition to working on gun safety and gun control in our at this point very well-armed and violence-addicted society, we would be well-advised to reduce other risk factors to which, say, Japanese or Italian fans of American first-person shooters are not as abundantly exposed. Put somewhat more philosophically, violent interactive media as well as guns themselves are already ways of relating to other people, an aggressively anti-social social orientation; though it is quite possible for any given individual to embrace contradictory orientations, a fuller and more effective embrace of alternative, non-reductive, pro-social, and empathetic modes of interaction implies a proportionate displacement of their diametrical opposites. Put more simply: If you don’t want a sociopathic culture, stop being such sociopaths.

Video games, their evolution, and the way that we promote, market, and defend them are all leading symptoms of a syndrome. When 20 children are killed at an elementary school, we find that the syndrome says something disturbing about us. Maybe the feeling will go away, or be set aside. We may even, once emotions over the latest outrage have settled, confront the death culture – i.e., our culture – and decide that we simply cannot and in the final analysis do not want to change it. Not really, not yet.

If so, then we can answer the President’s two key questions from last Sunday. They were:

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Yep. You got it. Now leave us alone, we’re busy…


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