In the hours and days that followed Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s deadly spree at Columbine High the nation, stunned by the seeming randomness of the massacre, sought answers. Why had two boys gone from geeks to gunmen? Could this happen at my kid’s school? What drove their violent impulses? Could the shocking music of Marilyn Manson or the ultra-bloody first person shooters the boys enjoyed have been the catalyst of their rage?
“Everyone can point their finger to violent images that they’ve seen in some form of media, and so it seems to be the answer,” says Dr. Karen Sternheimer, a professor of Sociology at USC and the author of “It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children.” Her research centers on trends in youth behavior as it relates to popular culture. She’s seen that the impulse to scapegoat violence in video games hasn’t faded in the ten years since Columbine.
“Two years ago when the Virginia Tech situation happened,” she recalls, “before they even had a name or an identity on the shooter there were already people on cable news shows talking about video games. Which was amazing, and of course it turned out that this guy didn’t play video games much.”
It is a scenario similar to the one John Davison-- founder of What They Play, the family guide to video games-- remembers playing out after the tragedy in Littleton. In the case of Klebold and Harris, “there was a lot of attention on the fact that they played a lot of Duke Nukem. Which at the time was really big, and for some people it was an easy thing to blame.”
Davison, whose work centers on helping parents understand the content of the games their kids crave, knows the impulse to link children’s behavior with what they see is “an easy argue to make with video games. Even though it’s not particularly credible that it’s a direct causality thing, it’s ‘Well you’re doing things in a video game that are violent so therefore it’s going to make you have more of a propensity to be violent.’”
Bonus Video: John Davison on one of the other lessons of Columbine.
Brooks Brown, mentioned by John in the video, is the student at Columbine High who was warned away by Eric Harris on the day of the shootings.
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
Yet conventional wisdom is often demolished by raw data.
“What we’ve found is that violent crime has decreased dramatically starting in 1996 while video games sales have soared. More than doubling last year,” said Dan Hewitt, a spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association the trade association for the video game industry. He cites a report that contrasts the Department of Justice numbers on violent crime and sales figures for games. Hewitt contends that “if there was some type of causal connection between video games and real life violence that the rate of real life violence would actually be going up, but actually the opposite is true.”
Dr. Sternheimer, like Davison, says that because a game is “interactive it seems like logically that it could cause some kind of casual effect.” She notes that the decline in the rate of violence “is most notable in youth, especially juveniles.” While the data and the perceived connection don’t agree, the perception remains “compelling because it’s really easy for us to understand.” The professor points to Dave Cullen’s recent book on Columbine that paints a picture of Klebold and Harris as “not just everyday kids who played video games, and just kind of became crazy from too many video games. These were seriously disturbed individuals. We make a really big mistake when we overlook issues like that.”
In many ways what happened at Columbine High is a kind of prologue to the wave of violence that has shocked the country in recent weeks. A wave that adds weight to Professor Sternheimer’s assertion that “we don’t just have a health care crisis-- we have a mental health care crisis in this country.”
MEDIA SCAPEGOATS AND THE NEW FACE OF GAMES
“When a tragedy occurs it touches off an understandable wave of soul searching as we try and comprehend how such horrific events could occur,” says Hewitt of the ESA. “Unfortunately that search also touches off a wave of finger pointing and scapegoating, and what we’ve seen in the past is that people point to comic books and to movies and to music and it's really generational. The generations that don’t understand the contemporary entertainment medium blaming [the new medium]. Today it's computer and video games, but 10 or 20 years from now we’re not going to be having these conversations.”
Yet the shift in perception may come sooner than that. John Davison points to the broadening market for games: “Honestly a big part of the rationalization of thought about video games, I think we can thank Nintendo over the last couple of years. Getting a Wii into so many homes that previously didn’t have a video game system in them. Or getting a Wii or a DS into the living room or kitchen or the back of the car or whatever.
“Previously it was always in the boy's bedroom and mom and dad knew nothing about it. The Wii has become kinda the friendly face of video games.”
As the generation that grew up playing games comes into adulthood (according to the ESA the average age of video game players is 35) and are becoming parents themselves the rush to link games and real life violence is likely to fade.
“We’ve seen kind of a few years into people coming of age playing video games and again we’re seeing crime decline,” says Dr. Sternheimer. “So there is, I think, definitely a greater realization that ‘Huh, maybe video games are not exactly the magic bullet that if we can just get rid of those we can deal with these crime problems.’"