Videogames do not turn people into murderers

March 12, 2009

Another tragic high school shooting spree, this time in Germany. And yet again, the media cannot cover it without having to shoehorn in a mention of the fact that the killer played videogames.

This from The Guardian 12 March 2009: “Testimonies of friends and acquaintances today portray the table tennis champion as a lonely and frustrated person who felt rejected by society. A 17-year-old who gave his name as Aki said he had been studying alongside Kretschmer at a private business school in the region and described him as a quiet and reserved boy who enjoyed playing a multiplayer video game called Counter-Strike that involves carrying out assassinations to complete missions. ‘He was good,’ he said.”

The full story in the paper is a reasonably standard piece of reporting but this mention of Counter-Strike seems entirely without context, crudely chucked is as a aside because, for some reason, news reporters seem to feel obliged to mention videogames whenever a young man goes on a tragic killing spree  or particular violent crime. It’s knee-jerk nonsense, not proper journalism. I’d expect it from a tabloid or a right-wing paper, but The Guardian?

The point is that millions of people worldwide play videogames, indeed as many people probably play games as watch movies, or read books – or newspapers. Videogames are just another culture medium, they’re not training grounds for killers. So if the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre played Doom, or another young American killer played Grand Theft Auto, and now this unfortunate young man is known to have played Counter-Stike. So, that means of all the videogames in the world, some infitessimally tiny number of them are also killers, if you were to look at it in terms of a Venn diagram. Well, of all the killers in the world, some of them probably watch movies, read books and watch TV too, yet whenever a young murderer is reported in the news, it’s very unlikely their television viewing or reading habits will be mentioned.

We’ve been here before so many times – 19th century penny dreadfuls were accused of corrupting the youth, as were comics in the mid-20th century, as were so-called “video-nasties” in the 1980s. Well, I’ve read a lot of comics, enjoy horror movies, and play first person shooter videogames, but my mind hasn’t been shaped into that of a desperate killer.

I’ve written about this before and here. I do wish the media wouldn’t keep casually throwing in ill-considered, implied connections between violent cultural items and acts of violence. I’m not saying that culture doesn’t nurture, and it’s possible this young man’s sensibilities were in part shaped by what he consumed culturally, as well as how he was brought up, his relationship with his parents and peers, his education, etc.  What I am saying is that nurture and the formation of personality and self are incredibly complicated. Journalism that insists of mentioning “videogames” in the same story as “school killing spree”, without  more in-depth, considered, research and evidence, is just misleading, mob-baiting, irresponsible, and plain lazy.

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