When you sit back and think about it, April is a pretty terrible month for well-known tragedies. The world just finished commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking on the 15th, President Lincoln was assassinated on the eve of the 15th as well, and the Oklahoma City Bombings happened 17 years ago on the 19th. The Virginia Tech Shootings also took place on a fateful April morning.
Today, Colorado also remembers one of their worst tragedies. One that arguably impacted our schooling and how we view bullying, gun control and teenage counter-culture. April 20th marks the 13th year anniversary since the Columbine School Shootings occurred. And now, with the trial of Anders Behring Breivik — the man allegedly responsible for the 2011 Norway Attacks — a common argument is starting to appear again very closely related to Columbine. That argument is — just how responsible are video games for the violence terrorists inflict upon others?
You can ask any Coloradoan, the day Columbine happened was the day the world changed. On the morning of April 20, 1999, two young men by the name of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris entered their high school campus armed to the teeth in weapons and ammunition and opened fire on their fellow students. The result was 12 dead students and 1 teacher, along with 21 students injured. The two gunmen then took their own lives. The stories from the survivors are horrifying and left many Americans absolutely puzzled as to what would have caused such a devastating act of violence towards children — especially by other children.
The boys’ lives were then put on display for all to examine, especially by the mass media. Journals and websites written by the boys were discovered that detailed very violent acts and fantasies of terrorism and grandeur. It was shocking for most to read about, but not necessarily because it was merely disturbing. It was the possibility that “well adjusted” people could still be capable of violence. More specifically white, middle class, suburban teenagers were capable of violence on such a scale. Many living comfortably in their suburbs were suddenly threatened, if a “common” teenager could be capable of such violence and have a callous disregard for life, what could stop any other suburban high school from having the same violence?
As a result, every single excuse was placed under a microscope and torn apart. Bullying, social isolation, music choice, even the burgeoning internet became a possible responsible party for the childrens’ attack. But there was also a newly evolving aspect to teenage life that became a very popular scapegoat. Video games.
Way back when, video games were just becoming a part of the typical suburban lifestyle. The Nintendo 64 was already out for about 3 years before the Columbine massacre and PCs were slowly showing up in most suburban homes. It was a time of creativity for video game developers, and there was very little regulation and control of what was reaching the populace. Video games were in their growing pains and most adults had little to no understanding of what video games were. This made video games ripe for blame. That which we do not know or understand, sometimes becomes our biggest fear.
Suddenly, psychologists and pundits were making comments about the violence of video games and how they were so popular with children those days. News stations showed flashing images of blood, guts and terrifying creatures that children were laughing at and shooting with guns. For someone that didn’t understand this new type of media and entertainment, I’m sure it wasn’t a very hard jump from seeing such images and immediately fixating blame on video games for white teenage violence.
If we had to identify a time when video games suddenly became “negative” and “violent”, most people would identify the Columbine shootings as the catalyst. Since then, many gamers have had to struggle to reassert the fact that not all video games are violent and that even violent video games aren’t necessarily the sole reason for violence in the world today.
Many years ago, when I was about 13 or 14, my mother went to a religion-focused parenting class for an evening. I had spent that night doing what I normally did when I didn’t have homework, playing Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64. It was the very first game I ever played that had the “M for Mature” ESRB rating. I loved that game. Later that evening, my mother comes down to the basement where I was playing and asked me to turn off the game. She then gave me a long lecture about how she learned that video games are violent and impact children in a very negative way. She said she was worried about me because I was playing the game too much and was making poor decisions specifically because of the game.
Do you know what happened to me when I grew up? I became a social worker. I am possibly the most gentle and soft-spoken individual in the entire world. I sit and hold patient’s hands as they are dying from a terminal illness. I don’t own a gun, I have never even shot one. But, I still love to play my violent video games. In fact, my video game choices these days are probably even more violent than what Perfect Dark had to offer.
So why bring all of this up right now? Once again, video games have come under the spotlight of public scrutiny. After the 2011 Norway Attacks, in which one individual allegedly planned multiple terrorist attacks to occur on July 22, 2011, resulting in the death of 78 Norwegian civilians and hundreds more injured. The alleged mastermind of the attacks is a 32-year-old political extremist by the name of Anders Behring Breivik, who has admitted to the attacks but states he committed them out of necessity. His trial began on April 16th of this year.
On the fourth day of his hearing, Breivik openly stated to the judge that he practiced his shooting using a modification to the popular first-person shooter game Call of Duty. The mod was a “holographic aiming device” that according to Breivik, many armed forces around the world use to train. Needless to say, this has again brought the media to a frenzy on discussing the impact of violence and realism in video games. It doesn’t help that this is a video game title that even the most uneducated individual might actually know about.
The most frustrating aspect about this to gamers is that it places the view of video games back to square one. Once again, gamers will be forced to defend their love of video games and re-educate the masses that not all video game players are going to develop into national terrorists or high school shooters.
Let’s get some things straight. Yes, there is psychological studies that do support the idea that watching violence does make us more prone to violence. But this is true of all medias. Television, movies, video games, even watching our loved ones engage in violence can make us more susceptible to act violently if placed in the right situation.
But there it is a huge step to go from a basic psychological study to applying that to complex human beings that have done very heinous acts. These are isolated incidents — both Columbine and the Norway attacks were premeditated prior to the events that many lost their lives. This is not a sign of someone acting out merely because they see too much violence in their video games. These are signs of people with severe mental health problems. It’s easy to scapegoat something new that we don’t quite understand yet, but mental health issues have been around for ages and the most common solution is to ignore it. There are signs and symptoms that a person might be mentally unstable prior to them committing crimes of any sort. Perhaps if our society focused ensuring the physical and mental health of both our children and adults, we might see a lot less violence in the world. But that might be social worker in me talking.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where distracting images of violence and catchy 10-second blurbs draw in more viewers than engaging dialogue and discussions of difficult topics. The best we can do is continue to be advocates for our own pastimes and show the world that for every person that is lambasted on the media circus, there are thousands — if not millions — that are well-adjusted and happy individuals who would never lift a finger to hurt or destroy anyone.
And to those reading this that might be suffering from depression and feelings of aggression, please seek some help. There are many online communities as well as resources in your physical community to help you. Many mental health services are willing to use a “sliding scale” payment system to help you — meaning you can set a reasonable price to start paying for your services and increase your payments as you get your finances in order. Use a mental health hotline to speak to someone 24/7 if you are encountering a crisis. You are never alone.
In the meantime gamers, keep fighting the good fight. There are more and more of us out there every year. Soon, gaming will become as common as being a television viewer. Then the media will find a new and confusing trend to blame for inexplicable acts of violence. I can only imagine what it might be.