Pixel Problems: How Video Game Violence Affects ou...

Pixel Problems: How Video Game Violence Affects our World

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Following the wake of the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 students dead and another 17 injured, the Trump administration hosted executives from some of the top video game companies in the United States to discuss the issue of violence in media and its possible connection to mass shootings. This is not the first time this issue has caught White House attention. Obama also expressed interest in exploring the topic after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, as did the Clinton administration following Columbine.

The connection between violent media and mass violence is often thought of as dubitable. But dismissing the impact of the shaping role of media on violent behavior in favor of easier paths, such as firearms legislation, is a mistake. No honest voice in the debate would say that violent imagery in media is entirely to blame, but some psychologists are not ready to abandon the possibility of its contributions to the issue of mass violence.

Studies conducted by psychologists at the University of Missouri have shown exposure to violent imagery in media such as video games can make players less responsive to violent stimuli, and this diminished response can predict an increase in aggression. The study was conducted by randomly assigning participants to play either a violent or non-violent video game for 25 minutes. Immediately after, participants were shown a series of images some of which were violent in nature and some of which were benign. Finally, the participants were pitted against an opponent in a competitive task that allowed them to give their opponent an audible blast of noise. This noise level was used to measure aggression levels.

The findings showed participants who played the popular violent titles such as Call of Duty, Hitman, Killzone, and Grand Theft Auto set substantially louder noise blast for their opponents- i.e. were more aggressive. Other studies have shown that violent media increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior both immediately and long-term. This is of importance because it may offer a window of opportunity to help explain and come to terms with one of the most prolific mass shootings in modern history, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Even glancing at the surface level of this crime, it is obvious that factors other than violent media played a role in shaping the mind of the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza. Lanza had mental issues, a broken family, and many other elements that shaped his life up until the crime. But Lanza’s obsession with violent media is not something to skim over without second thought. Lanza had fixation on violence, which was reflected in his interest in video games and other forms of media. In final months of his life, Lanza isolated himself and became a recluse in his own home. This isolation was so severe that in his final days Lanza would only communicate with his mother by email despite living in the same house.

As Lanza’s isolation increased, so did the time he spent invested in his games.

The games and the violent media became his only outlet to the world. While some are quick to point out that Lanza played a variety of games, many of which, such as Dance Dance Revolution, are not violent in nature, this fails to view Lanza’s life through the proper lens: the lens of a socially isolated and increasingly disturbed recluse. While Lanza’s sanity may have been waning, a resource he did have plenty of was time and while it may be true Lanza had an interest in many games, it is undoubtedly true that he had a particular fascination with violent ones.

Prior to committing the shootings, Lanza had racked up over 83,000 kills, including 22,000 headshots, in a popular first person shooter game called Combat Arms. Lanza had logged over 500 hours of game time in that title alone. The final report compiled by the Connecticut State Attorney’s office show that of 12 games recovered from Lanza’s room in his household, 8 of them were violent in nature. The report also notes investigators found a game titled “School Shooter” where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students and teachers.

As Lanza’s investment with violent video games intensified in his period of isolation, a fascination with real violence grew as well. The same report also shows in the same time Adam became withdrawn from the outside world, he had begun collecting various other forms of violent media with a pre-occupation towards mass shootings, going so far as to create an excel spreadsheet meticulously ranking mass shootings by victim count and weapon type. Other materials collected included videos of suicide, movies depicting mass shootings, pictures of dead bodies, dramatized videos of children being shot, and various other violent imagery.

How does this translate into action?

A telling detail of the tragedy that hints at the connection is how Lanza carried out the shooting. Lanza carried a small arsenal with him into Sandy Hook that day with an array of magazines for his weapons. A review of the State Attorney’s report shows that many of the magazines recovered at the crime scene still had ammunition inside. This should come as a surprise since Lanza was familiar with firearms and proper shooting technique after trips to the shooting range with his father. The notion of consistently expelling partially used magazine seems like a counter productive idea if the perpetrators goal is to be as “effective” as possible. This strategy, however, is nothing new to those familiar with first-person shooter games.

A common strategy in first person perspective shooting games such as Call of Duty and others is to follow a basic pattern: shoot a few rounds until the player kills an opponent, reload, shoot again at the next target, rinse and repeat. The methodology used by Lanza in his violent killing spree seems reminiscent of this common approach in the shooting games of which he was so fond.

All of these points and all of these details, big and small, lead us to the million dollar question: Where is the bridge between morbid fascination and horrific reality?

Research may help us with the answer. Works published by Dr. Tito Hartman of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam forwards a model of “Moral Disengagement” to help explain the connection between the two. The report states that “…the model refutes the view that users enjoy virtual violence primarily because they are constantly aware that “this game is not real.” Instead, the model follows experimental findings suggesting that videogame users are inclined to automatically feel present in virtual environments and (despite better knowledge) may intuitively feel like actually enacting violence against social beings. Second, if users feel as if virtual characters have a mind of their own, they may also assign a moral status to them. Third, this finding implies that enacted unjustified transgressions against virtual characters may trigger discomfort in users. Fourth, most violent video games are designed for entertainment purposes. Therefore, the games might frequently embed cues that effectively frame violence enacted against seemingly social beings as “okay.”

Using this model and the previous research on media desensitization and aggression, we can begin to fill the gaps in explaining how a disturbed individual with a fascination of violent stimuli and imagery can begin walking the psychological stepping stones from pastime to fantasy to reality. While skeptics argue that this connection is overblown, many of these voices come from industry publications with a vested interest in suppressing criticism of their trade. And while authorities say that there is little evidence to suggest that Adam Lanza viewed the attack as a “game”, as of the date of this writing,they have offered no alternative explanation for why Lanza operated his firearms in the fashion he did.  

Looking forward, mass shootings are a phenomenon our country has grown all too familiar with. It can be tempting to look for an easy answer, such as blaming firearms or poor parenting. And certainly, there is room in the debate for all possible factors. But we should not close the door on possible answers and insights because the idea of looking the cultural mirror may reveal things about our escapes and pastimes that are unsavory. If we truly desire to craft effective solutions to the issue of mass shootings, then perhaps we should look to the avenues of thought most neglected.


John Pfeifer is a conservative political commentator who writes on politics, culture, and international affairs. He is a senior at Saint Louis University where he double majors in Criminology and Criminal Justice with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. His interests include food, travel, and Cardinals baseball.