By now we’ve looked at the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., from every angle and the same question is repeated over and over again. How did this happen? Maybe we should look at what we call entertainment.
Let’s list some of the programs that I watch from time to time, “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Scared Straight,” “Beyond Scared Straight,” “Lock Down,” “Interventions,” “Basketball Wives,” and “Cops.” Being on these shows is now what some young people and some not so young aspire to. This is their 15 minutes of fame.
Did you see Man-Man on cops last night? It is a wonder the whole world isn’t on anti-depressants or packing a gun. Violence is a huge part of entertainment and the latest version of Grand Theft Auto is one of the hottest and most violent video games on the market. In 1972 the surgeon general put a warning on violent television shows. What about the video games? Games like paintball and laser tag, all with guns or simulated guns, both have a goal to shoot the other person, to take them down or wipe them out. For some people, some very young people, these games become reality.
First, video game play is active whereas watching TV is passive. People learn better when they are actively involved. Think about it, suppose you wanted to learn how to fly an airplane. What would be the best method to use: read a book, watch a TV program, or use a video game flight simulator?
Second, players of violent video games are more likely to identify with a violent character. If the game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer. If the game is third person, the player controls the actions of the violent character from a more distant visual perspective. In a violent TV program, viewers might or might not identify with a violent character. People are more likely to behave aggressively themselves when they identify with a violent character.
Third, violent games directly reward violent behavior, such as by awarding points or by allowing players to advance to the next game level. In some games, players are rewarded through verbal praise, such as hearing the words “Nice shot!” after killing an enemy. It is well known that rewarding behavior increases its frequency. (Would you go to work tomorrow if your boss said you would no longer be paid?) In TV programs, reward is not directly tied to the viewer’s behavior.
In summary, there are good theoretical reasons to believe that violent video games are even more harmful that violent TV programs or films. There is empirical data showing this (Polman et al., 2008). In this study, children were randomly assigned to play a violent video game or watch someone else play it. There was also a nonviolent video game control condition. The results showed that boys who played a violent video game were more aggressive afterwards than were boys who merely watched. When it comes to violence as entertainment something has to change. Where do we begin? Stop supporting the advertisers? Appeal to the government? Or stop raising our children on a steady diet of guns and violence.
(Email the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.)