Video Games and Violence: Every Generation Blames Newest Media, Expert Says

Violent video games have been the latest target since the Sandy Hook massacre.

December 18, 2012, 5:54 PM

Dec. 18, 2012— -- In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, America's love affair with violence is once again under the microscope.

The cable talk shows fueled the discussion in the days after police say Adam Lanza, 20, killed 26 people, including 20 children, in a shooting rampage at the Newtown, Connecticut school. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) took a stab at violent video games on Sunday.

"The violence in the entertainment culture, particularly with the extraordinary realism to video games and movies now, does cause vulnerable young men, particularly, to be more violent," the senator said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."

When a nighttime TV ad for the video game "Hitman Absolution," aired after Monday's night's NFL game broadcast, former senior Obama advisor David Axelrod tweeted, "In NFL post-game: an ad for shoot 'em up video game. All for curbing weapons of war. But shouldn't we also quit marketing murder as a game?"

But while the adults were asking questions, America's kids went on their daily -- virtual -- shooting sprees. "Call of Duty," which started out as a computer game and was later adapted for gaming consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PS3, is one of the most popular, profitable and most violent games on the market -- millions upon millions play every year.

It's a so-called "first-person shooter" because the player takes on a killer's point of view in high definition. Players can also taunt each other in real time through a console's headset.

"Some people just go crazy," said gamer Thomas Pantig. "Just yelling [at the TV], all the slurs come out. Every slur you can think of comes out of people's mouths."

While video games can be easy targets when seeking answers for why a mass shooting occurs, some experts believe they can be a scapegoat for larger underlying issues. And we have been stuck in this accusatory back-and-forth for generations.

Dr. Chris Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University, has conducted a series of multi-year studies of young people, 11 to 18 years old, to find out if violent video games affect their psyches. His conclusion: There is no evidence that exposure to violent video games leads to violent behavior.

"Violent video games and violent media exposure is not connected to mass shootings," Ferguson said. "There's a risk that, as a society, we focus on the wrong issue. We distract from the real issues like mental health and gun control."

He has a name for the outcry over violent video games that sometimes follow a mass shooting. He calls it "moral panic."

"Whenever new media comes out that last generation doesn't understand, it's always easy to blame them," Ferguson said.

In the 1950s, it was comic books. The U.S. Senate held hearings over the belief that comic books were making America's kids turn violent. By the 1980s, former Vice President Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore led a crusade against Twisted Sisters' Dee Snider over the issue of suggestive rock lyrics.

But Dr. Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said today's video games are an entirely different animal than comic books and music. Their visuals are more real and more intense than anything that has come before them.

Strasburger said he supports the American Academy of Pediatrics finding, which says "the evidence is now clear and convincing: Media violence is one of the casual factors of real-life violence and aggression."

Do Violent Video Games Lead to Other Violence?

So whose research to believe? The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled. In striking down California's attempt at a violent video game law, the court had this to say about studies linking games to violent behavior: "These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them and with good reason. They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively."

Bonnie Ross, a mother of two young children with her own concerns, also happens to run one of the most successful first-person shooter games on the market: "Halo 4."

While "Halo 4" is far tamer than the violent games many have pointed fingers at, Ross' advice is the same to parents who worry about their children playing it.

"We are rated 'M,' and I think that means 17-plus," she said. "What I recommend is -- your kids are going to play games, play it with them so that you can really be there to answer questions and help them through that. And you really have to make a decision, as a parent, what's right for you."