LOS ANGELES – The massacre of 26 people, mostly young children, at a U.S. school has revived the perennial debate about the impact of violent video games on the warped minds of gunmen behind such tragedies.
Experts are divided over whether games with names such as “Thrill Kill” or “Manhunt: Executions” are blueprints for real-life violent behavior or harmless fantasies that allow young men to vent testosterone.
Some politicians have highlighted the role of violence in television, movies and video games — including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, after 12 people were killed in a movie theater massacre near Denver in July.
“There might well be some direct connection between people who have some mental instability and when they go over the edge — they transport themselves, they become part of one of those video games,” he told CNN.
Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed himself after massacring 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was reportedly a fan of violent video games, including “Dynasty Warriors.”
California banned the sale of violent video games to minors, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in June 2011, saying it violated the right to free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Experts and game developers say the evidence about such games’ impact on players is mixed. “I’m rather tired of this argument. I’m sure you can find a study or two to support the claim that video games foster violence, but I’m sure you can also find studies that deny it,” said specialist and game designer Greg Costikyan.
“In general, my impression is that the idea that media of any sort cause anything other than short-term and minor changes in proclivities to violent behavior has been thoroughly debunked.”
But Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, said that players grow more aggressive the longer they play such games.
“It’s like global warming. Ninety-five percent of scientists say that global warming is occurring, but you can always find a few scientists saying it’s not occurring,” he said, referring to experts who disagree.
“The same is true. I would say 95 percent of scientists believe that violent media, TV programs, movies, video games, increase aggression, and only 5 percent or even less believes they have no effect,” he said. “They are outliers, they’re not the norm.”
Blood-drenched video games may well have a more harmful effect than violence in movies or TV shows, he said.
When you’re playing a video game, “you’re active. You’re not just sitting on a couch watching other people. You are actively involved and people learn when they’re actively involved.
“You’re directly rewarded in a video game for behaving aggressively. . . . And you get to advance in the game. If you kill people you get points,” he said.
But violent video games do not by themselves create crazed killers. “Shootings like the one in Connecticut are very rare and you cannot predict them,” he said.
“But violent video games increase behavior that’s not so rare, like yelling, hitting, pushing and being an aggressive driver,” he said. “Maybe if you play violent video games you won’t kill somebody, but how do you treat your friends, how do you treat strangers? There’s never one cause. Violent video games are maybe one factor.”
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said that the Newtown massacre must spark not just debate, but action.
“It would be a travesty if we only looked at Friday’s attack — as well as the many other senseless tragedies we’ve seen — in silence and refuse to act,” he said.