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Defending violent video games: The ‘NRA is not your friend’ edition

I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre lay the blame for the disgusting, heart-wrenching tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, firmly at the feet of violent video games. I really shouldn’t have. 

A few years back, I wrote a lengthy op-ed piece about the then-current rage du jour against video games: the inclusion of the Taliban as playable characters in the freshly rebooted Medal of Honor. Those were the days. It was a simpler time, when 4,000-word diatribes were acceptable, and people could focus their rage at easily identifiable villains like former lawyer Jack Thompson, who has been disgraced so many times he should have a punch card that would give him the tenth disgrace for free. 

Then I came back once more and avoided the op-ed angle, but obsessively covered the case of Brown v. the Entertainment Merchants Association, which the Californian judicial system punted upwards until it landed in the lap of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld sanity, and ruled that video games were not the same as pornography and couldn’t be classified as such. They are works of art, thus they are protected.

The gaming industry breathed a sigh of relief and soldiered on, bolstered by years of surviving assaults from religious leaders, outraged stereotypical soccer moms, and the odd politician looking to score cheap points on the campaign trail. And yet here we are again, with the gaming industry being sized up as a scapegoat for all the ills of the world. Perhaps the creationists are right, because we sure don’t seem to evolve in our opinions, even when faced with overwhelming amounts of evidence stating the contrary.

A bit of personal background: I grew up in Kansas, surrounded by guns. I was taken hunting as a kid, and went to plenty of gun shows when I didn’t have anything better to do. I also was present at more than a few shootings, and watched as a a guy I hung out with a few times shot and killed one of our classmates. For the record, the gunman was not a big gamer.

I never equated guns directly to violence; I equated violence to violent people. I do support stronger gun laws, but not as a reaction to a tragedy. Having said that, Wayne LaPierre is a repugnant swine, and the NRA has shown itself to be what it is: a lobby group and nothing more.

The NRA wants you to believe that it is the shining beacon in the night of gun rights suppression. It wants you to think that its goal is to defend the Constitutional right to bear arms. It wants you to think it is a morally upright institution, there to defend American values. It’s not. It’s a lobby group, whose sole purpose is to sell more guns, no matter what.

When LaPierre took the stage on December 21, just one week after Adam Lanza became America’s nightmare, LaPierre was willing to say or do anything to make sure people were not talking about limiting his industry’s business. And hey, if you want a gun, that is your right. If you feel like the only way you can properly hunt is with an assault rifle, then Bambi is doomed. And if you are so gripped by fear that you think you are at risk of being attacked by a dozen or so thugs high on bath salts, looking to eat faces, then by all means equip yourself with enough firearms to invade a small, unsuspecting country – Luxembourg, maybe – and may God be with you. But LaPierre is not helping. He doesn’t give a damn about you. If you aren’t buying a gun, you are nothing to him. He is salesman that uses words like “freedom” and “patriotism” to ensure that his clients remain in business. He’ll say or do anything to that end, even if he himself doesn’t believe it.

LaPierre was quick to blame anyone and everything. Given time, he may have even blamed the sun, and its hippie-ish tendencies to give away its life-sustaining product for free, like a sucker. But the one industry that he did blame, and the one that has me back yet again shaking my head at the world, is video games, which LaPierre singled out repeatedly in the aftermath of our latest gun-fueled national tragedy.

“And here’s another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal,” LaPierre said during the NRA press conference following the Sandy Hook shootings. “There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bullet Storm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and Splatterhouse.”

It’s also worth noting that, less than a month later, the NRA released its own video game on iOS that allows you to shoot targets. That in itself may not have been damning, but it was originally released as acceptable for ages 4+ up, a rating the NRA apparently had no problem with. The age “restriction” has since been adjusted upwards following controversy surrounding the game. 

It’s easy to dismiss LaPierre as a nut, but that isn’t accurate. He knows what he is saying – he is a huckster for his employers, and if Phillip Morris hired him, he would be on TV talking about how smokers actually have stronger lungs because they don’t just breathe the pansy air that the rest of us do. They load it up with “soothing” chemicals that have helped conditioned them. He will say whatever it takes to make his employers, the gun retailers of America, a better profit. And there is no better guarantee of revenue than fear.

LaPierre and countless others just like him profit from fear. They want you scared because that makes it easier to manipulate the public discourse. It also makes it easier to sell firearms – fear of another Sandy Hook, fear of losing your rights, the fear of the world in general. 

Fear sells. And fear, when combined with simplistic arguments, makes a lasting impression. Blaming video games for Newtown makes sense. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense. The games convey violence, and they can be shocking if you don’t know what you are getting in to. It’s a simple answer for a massively complicated problem. It’s the kind of answer that desperate people are happy to accept because it gives them an answer to an unanswerable question.

LaPierre is far from alone in his condemnation of video games. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen several laws proposed that would directly affect the video game industry. One proposal from Representative Jim Matheson (D-Utah) requires that the ESRB ratings become legally binding. It is an interesting idea, but a reactionary one, and one that would again single out the video game industry with no real, empirical evidence to support doing so. But at least it’s better than the proposal from Missouri State Representative Diane Franklin, which would put a tax on any “violent video games.” The quotes are in there because the language of the proposed bill reveals a significant lack of care or understanding as it would tax any game with a rating of “Teen” or above. That would include such nightmarish titles as Guitar Hero III, The Simpsons Game, and the gore-filled Dance Central.

Following the news, it’s easy to think that we are all doomed. During this last election, there was a lot of discussion about bias in the media. And there is. Some more than others, but the majority of the media have a bias towards sensationalism, not ideology. So when something like Newtown happens, the media will dissect it. You’ll soon know everything there is to know about Adam Lanza. If there is any story to be told, the media will tell it, and spin it to make it as interesting as possible. The more dangerous the better.

In an attempt to combat that force, I’ll tell you something you probably didn’t know if you watch a lot of news: things aren’t that bad. Despite some truly awful events of late, and even with the growing sense of desperation nurtured by ideologically driven politics that force people to choose sides, thus instantly putting yourself at odds with anyone you disagree with, the world is not going to Hell in a hand basket. It just feels that way.

“The number of people killed in battle – calculated per 100,000 population – has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries as civilizations evolved,” Steve Pinker, professor of psychologist at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined wrote. “Before there were organized countries, battles killed on average more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In 19th century France, it was 70. In the 20th century with two world wars and a few genocides, it was 60. Now battlefield deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.”

Pinker further goes on to state that this is the most peaceful our species has ever been. And that is despite, apparently, video games warping our brains and turning children into mini-Pol Pots – who, by the way, probably wasn’t a big gamer, what with him having been born in 1925 and all.

Here’s another fact you don’t hear often enough: over the last few decades, the murder rate in America has dropped significantly. In fact, 2011 marks the lowest murder rate since stats have been kept, beginning in 1960. The highest murder rate was actually in 1980, a year not know for its gaming acumen. If violent video games were the horror that politicians and their ilk would like you to believe, shouldn’t that murder rate be spiking as games are growing more violent, and more kids are playing them than ever before?

I could also go on about the inaccuracies regarding the numerous studies involving violent video games. I could go on about the inconclusive results. I could even go on about the dozens of studies that actually say violent video games are good for kids, and can even act as relief for some, but what’s the point? There are no conclusive studies.

After playing video games for decades now, violent and otherwise, the only aggressive tendencies I’m feeling are for politicians and public figures who are connecting dots that just aren’t there. They are looking for a simple answer to a complex question. It would be nice if violent video games were responsible for tragedies like Newtown and Aurora, Colorado. It would be so reassuring to find that there was one quantifiable explanation, because that would mean we could fix it. We could get rid of violent video games and never fear these tragic shootings again. Huzzah! Let’s plan some game burning parties.

Violent video games are not a problem for society, they are a reflection of it. Which is worse: a game that allows you to play as a soldier and shoot terrorists, or CNN displaying live footage from a war zone? Is that not a more realistic source for people becoming desensitized to violence?

The world can be a dangerous place, without question. Newtown is just the most recent example, and it’s an example we’ve seen repeated too often. Sadly, these episodes are likely to continue regardless of what we do.

Grand Theft Auto didn’t exist when Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas and opened fire. Erica Menendez, the woman that recently pushed a stranger into an oncoming train in the New York subway is homeless, and probably didn’t spend her money on violent video games. She instead blamed her anger on the 9/11 attacks, which seems like a far more likely source of aggression for this generation than violent video games. 

So the war drums continue to pound. We need a scapegoat, so why not violent video games? They are an easy target. They simulate violence, so it makes it easy blame real life violent events on them. 

President Obama recently commissioned studies on the effect of violent media on aggressive tendencies, and while that is still a bit reactionary, at least it is the chance to see the research properly. Maybe it will say this is all a lot of nothing. Maybe it will show a correlation between violent games and violent actions. But at least we will have some science to back up such claims, and the distraction and misdirection can give way to the search for real answers.Because right now, we just don’t know.

So draw your own conclusions. (Might as well, since the politicians and lobbyists are.) Humanity has a history of being rotten to one another, and we didn’t need video games to justify bad behavior. In fact, Western society is in better shape now than it ever has been. Even with the games. Even with the R-rated movies. Even with the devil’s rock n’ roll that was supposed to lead us to disaster more than half a century ago.

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