It is not often that a small-time, light-hearted website such as System Wars Magazine would risk its head by sticking it into the hornets’ nest that is the gun crime debate, but when American President Barack Obama introduced new measures to fight gun-related violence, a response was warranted. Among a wide array of new measures, Obama called for the US Congress to invest 10 million dollars into researching a possible link between gun violence and the depiction of violence in media, such as video games. Unsurprisingly, the suggestion sparked outrage among gamers. The implication that their favourite pastime might be related to the recent bloodbaths is a tough pill to swallow for the millions that grew up on games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom without ever having hurt a fly. Though the vast majority of the gamers will have rejected the president’s words immediately, a more thorough analysis makes his proposal seem even more bizarre.
It would be sensible to save the 10 million dollars for more fruitful scientific endeavours.
Should Congress heed Obama’s call for more research, the subsequent study would not be the first attempt to establish a link between virtual and real-world violence. Those who witnessed the media coverage of the Columbine shooting will surely remember how the shooters’ affinity for Doom was presented as a possible cause of their violent actions. Even more recently, the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik owned a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (along with 22 million other people) spawned the rumour that he used the game to practice before he went out to kill 69 people. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, these and similar claims have never been substantiated, likely because they were motivated by the necessity of a clear scapegoat rather than factual information.
Still, Obama’s main argument in favour of more research – “we don’t benefit from ignorance” – implies that a link between violent behaviour and violent games has never been taken into consideration before. Given that there have in fact been numerous studies on violent video games, it would be sensible to save the 10 million dollars for more fruitful scientific endeavours. Out of the countless studies that have been conducted on the subject, some found basis to speculate on (temporarily) augmented levels of aggression in gamers, whereas others saw no reason to further explore the hypothesis that violent games cause violent behaviour. At any rate, the ‘ignorance’ mentioned by the President says more about his own obliviousness to decades of research than the existence of a scientific niche.
One would think that there is no better time than now to stop beating around the bush.
Curiously, it is still unclear how serious the suggestion of Obama will turn out to be. The 10 million dollar research was but one of many ideas, and it could well be that it was solely intended as an attempt to appease vociferous opponents of gun control by offering a broad range of measures, as to demonstrate that the White House is taking everything into consideration. After all, in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, the National Rifle Association was quick to point its trigger-fingers at films and video games. Moreover, the President’s desire for more research does not explicitly mean that he believes there is indeed a link, let alone that the conclusions of the research will lead to censorship. After all, the idea that virtual violence could be a decisive factor in America’s current gun crime epidemic seems far-fetched when you realise that the same games are being played all over the world without necessarily causing similar patterns of violence. As such, it is to be expected that the President of the United States is wise enough to realise that restricting the depiction of violence in video games is unlikely to contribute to a drop in gun-related crime.
However, even if Obama’s plans turn out empty shells, he has insulted not only gamers, but also the academic community. It is not without reason that Dutch video game researcher and journalist dr. David Nieborg described the words of the President as “a slap in the face”. For to suggest that decades of thorough scientific research have resulted in ‘ignorance’ displays a lack of either knowledge of or respect for the many academics who have dedicated their careers to investigating the possibility of a link between virtual and real-world violence. Moreover, now that gun violence is sweeping across America, one would think that there is no better time than now to stop beating around the bush and address the problem with measures that will harvest results rather than votes. A red herring may temporarily boost approval rates, but it will surely not prevent more lives being lost.
Links and sources:
 “Barack Obama begrijpt niets van game-onderzoek”, nrc.next 7, no. 216, p. 16. 18-01-13