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Editorial: The Reality of Games: Do Games Lead to Violence?
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posted by: Gary Wong
date posted: 12:00 AM Sun Mar 13th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Sun Mar 13th, 2005

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Columbine High School, Denver, Colorado (April, 1999) - Two students wearing trench coats set about on a shooting spree that leaves 12 students and one teacher dead and 21 others wounded.  It is considered to be the worst incident of school violence in the United States.

Fayette, Alabama (June, 2003): A teenager is brought to a police station under suspicion of having stolen a car.  While in custody, he grabs one of the officer's gun, shoots him, another officer, and a dispatcher.

London, England (July, 2004): A 17-year-old lures his 14-year-old friend into a park where he repeatedly batters him with a claw hammer and stabs him to death.

What do these three incidents have in common?
1. These were all tragic, senseless acts of unmitigated violence.
2. The perpetrators in all three occurrences were teenagers.
3. The perpetrators in question had no prior history of violence.

So if these teenagers had no prior history of violence, what could possibly have been the catalyst to their felonious behavior? Many experts would agree that this sort of aberrant behavior could be attributed to a whole host of factors including undetected psychological problems, difficulty fitting in at school, and less than idyllic home environments.  The aforementioned factors are reasonable and, yet, they are set aside for an explanation that is far less logical - video games.

In the London incident, 17-year-old Warren Leblanc lured 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah to a local park in Leicester.  He then proceeded to kill him with such viciousness that Britain's Daily Mail printed "Murder by Playstation" as the front-page headline.  LeBlanc is said to have been mimicking the "sado-masochistic" style of vicious killings found in the game, Manhunt.  The game rewards the player with extra points in direct correlation to the escalation in viciousness of their killings.  By all accounts, LeBlanc was a well-adjusted kid who wanted to go on to higher education - hardly the profile of a murderer.  It is believed the "murder simulator" nature of Manhunt was the driving force in his actions though robbery to pay off his drug debts may have been the primary motive.  The game had already been banned by censorships in New Zealand and the victim's mother has called for a similar ban in the UK.  A lawsuit against the developer, Rockstar, and Sony is possible.  Leblanc plead guilty to murder and is now awaiting sentencing, which is likely to be a life sentence.

Devin Thompson was brought to the Fayette police station on suspicion of driving a stolen car.  Thompson then grabbed an officer's gun, shot him and two other, then fled in a patrol car.  After he was apprehended, he allegedly said, "Life is a game.  You've got to die sometime."  The murders he committed were eerily similar to the kinds of violence prevalent in Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - games that Thompson reportedly spent countless hours playing.  The families of the victims have filed suit against Wal-Mart and Gamestop for selling the M-rated games, which require the buyer to be 17 and older, to Thompson, who at the time was under the age of 17.  The suit also names the publisher of the games, Take-Two, and the manufacturer of the console on which the games were played, Sony.  Thompson is awaiting trial on three counts of murder.

In April of 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold launch a violent attack on their high school, leaving 13 dead and 21 wounded.  They were identified as belonging to the "trench coat mafia" and had boasted about owning guns as well as feeling alienated from the other kids.  They fired automatic weapons, threw homemade bombs, and set bombs that were set to explode after the attack.   After they carried out their attack, Harris and Klebold killed themselves, adding their own bodies to the count.  The criminal element of the legal proceedings may have ended with their deaths but the civil part was just beginning.  A journal written by Harris a year before the attack made mention of the planned attack saying that the attack would be a mix of, among other influences such as the LA Riots and the Oklahoma bombing, Duke Nukem and Doom. Furthermore, a videotape was found that showed one of the killers with a sawed-off shotgun he calls "Arlene" after a character in Doom.  Armed with the journals, videotape, and other evidence, several victims' families filed a lawsuit naming Nintendo of America, Sega of America, Sony Computer Entertainment, ID Software Inc - creators and publishers of Doom - and Infogames.  The lawsuit sought $5 billion in punitive damages from a total of 25 entertainment companies.  Before there was ever a chance for a forum where First Amendment protections could be seriously debated, the suit was dismissed citing that there was no way that the makers of the games could have reasonably foreseen their products would lead to violent acts.  The ruling has since been appealed and the lawyer in the matter said that the case, at the very least, should force a fundamental rethinking of how the First Amendment is handled.

To better illustrate how victims' families and the government arrived at video games being the cause of teenage violent offenses, let's turn to an analogy that can be applied to everyday life.  Say you're late for work and your boss chews you a new one - blame the bus driver who ran late on his route for delaying you.  That's a fairly logical assessment since there's at least a direct correlation between a delay in transit and arriving at work late.  Now try extending the blame to the guy behind the counter who took an extra minute making the coffee for the bus driver who was late arriving to your stop causing you to be late for work. Does it make any sense to you to blame someone who had no direct effect on your commute?  Of course it doesn't.  Neither does blaming the makers of the video games killers play instead of stopping the buck with the killers themselves.

Why does the gaming industry constantly find itself at the receiving end of blame and scorn whenever a teenager foes out and does something violent? It seems like there's always a game that can be made into a scapegoat in these situations.  Steal a car, kill a cop - blame Grand Theft Auto. Mass murdering rampage - must be Doom's fault. And so on and so on in perpetuity.  Let us, for a moment, indulge those who blame video games for society's ills and say that video games were a factor in these tragedies.  If it's true then wouldn't it stand to reason that there should be more teenagers being brainwashed by the games they play running around and killing people?  No, the real problem is the person playing the video games, not the games themselves.  It may be true that a game triggered something within the offender's brain but there has to be something in his mental makeup that can be triggered to make it all possible - and that's something no developer can reasonably foresee when working on a game.

What can be done to prevent these tragedies from ever occurring? The en vogue remedy seems to be civil litigation against anything and everything associated with the gaming industry from the publishers to the developers down to the retailers.  In a way, there is a lot of sense to legal proceedings since it puts the onus on the courts to pass some sort of judgment to determine the culpability of video games in these cases.  The only obstacle to litigation is that these lawsuits are usually dismissed on First Amendment grounds and rightfully so.  Another idea that gets bandied about is that of censorship and outright bans.  Both ideas are rather extreme and also run afoul of the First Amendment.  There has to be a solution that isn't Draconian but, at the same time, won't be pathetically laughable.  The industry is on the right track with their ratings system for games but if stores still sell mature-rated games to minors then the industry needs to press further.  A model based on the restricted sales of tobacco and alcohol to minors would be a logical choice.  Retailers should be able to see a mature rating on the game and ask for proper identification from anyone who looks younger than 30.  A store that fails to comply with these measures should be levied fines that are progressively more severe with each violation until they reach a pre-determined point where it's excessive.  At that time, an appropriate measure would be to revoke the store's right to sell games rated higher than those appropriate for all ages.  If they repeatedly prove that they can't keep mature-rated games out of the hands of those who aren't mature enough to buy them, then they should never have the chance to do so again.

Now that we've dealt with the retailers' share of the responsibility, it's high time we got to the real difference maker - the authority figures for the teenage gamers.  As more and more children are raised in two-income families, it's become harder for parents to monitor their children's intake of visual stimuli.  As such, parents blindly buy their kids mature-rated games without the blink of an eye because they haven't the time to research what their kids play or they simply believe that the games they buy are innocuous enough.  Both reasons are too prevalent in our society and are inexcusable.  Parents should always play an active role in monitoring and deciding on the games their children play.  It's really simple - would a parent want their child to watch an NC-17 film?  Of course not and there should be no reason why a parent can't apply that same logic to video games.  No child should have carte blanche to play any video game, regardless of the content.  In most instances of teenage violence where the cause is attributed to a violent video game, the game in question should never have gotten into the hands of the offender.  Vigilant parenting will always be the best solution to prevent a child's lapse into crime.

I don't have the exact number of people who play Grand Theft Auto and manage not to be violent offenders but I would wager that it would be north of 99 percent.  Therein lies the rub - when something tragic happens that puts video games in the cross hairs of blame, the actions of a few paints a broad stroke over the overwhelming number of law-abiding gamers.  It doesn't really matter how stringent the restrictions on mature-rated game sales or how watchful parents are, there will always be those who slip through the cracks and commit violent crimes.  The government, media, and miscellaneous conservative groups would do well to keep in mind that it's the offender that's responsible for the crime and nothing else - especially the video games they play.  To put the blame on anything but the offender would only perpetuate the notion that we are a society that is completely and utterly unable to accept blame for our own actions.