Influence of games, movies questioned in wake of rash of shootings in the nation

The triggers and buttons look complicated to use, and yet elegantly designed for their intended purposes.

But grasping a video game controller and operating a firearm remain two distinctly different operations, despite their similarity being called into question following mass shooting events across the nation.

“Games have been getting increasingly violent for a long time,” said Eric Charles, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Altoona. “There is an incredibly long history of people who believe that violent video games can lead to violent behavior.”

Last month, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., claimed the lives of 20 elementary school students and six teachers.

In the wake of confusion after the attack, the shooter was misidentified by major news networks as the suspected shooter’s brother. The brother – who had nothing to do with the shooting, police said – was discovered to be a fan of the role playing video game “Mass Effect.”

Subsequently, the public Facebook profile for the mature-rated video game was vandalized and largely blamed as an influential factor in the shooting.

On a national stage, representatives from the National Rifle Association have singled out video game and movie violence as influential factors in mass shootings across the nation.

Despite the call to curtail violence in games, researchers contend the link between violent games and violent behavior remains largely unknown – and proficiency with a video game controller does not equate to malicious intent or skill with a weapon.

Games under fire

In the National Rifle Association’s first public address in the wake of the Newtown shooting, Wayne LaPierre, NRA spokesman, proposed sweeping changes on the national level as counter-measures to increased gun violence.

LaPierre specifically depicted violent films and video games as a form of “violent pornography” influencing the nation’s youth.

“And here’s another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people,” LaPierre said. “Through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bulletstorm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Splatterhouse.'”

The games LaPierre referenced are all rated “M for Mature” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the video game industry’s independent rating authority.

The rating system was created in 1994 and uses age-based categories to explain “the product overall rather than quantifying every instance of potentially objectionable content.”

Video game console manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada require all gaming software published for their gaming devices to be rated by the ESRB.

Major retailers in the U.S. require a person to be 17 or older and show proof of age to purchase M-rated titles, according to information provided by the ESRB.

Existing regulations already limit an underage individual’s access to consume or ability to purchase certain video games, tickets to R-rated films and other forms of media, said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

Video games are similar to films in that the content depicted is an expression of freedom of speech, Madonna said.

“It’s a constitutionally-protected right, and we should be careful about putting limits on that,” Madonna said.

Discussing video game violence

A study conducted in early January surveyed more than 1,000 parents concerning video game violence and children.

Commissioned by advocacy group Common Sense Media and the Center for America Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, the study asked 1,050 parents from across the country the relationship between violence and movies and video games.

Of those questioned, 89 percent said violence in video games is a problem.

Results showed 75 percent of parents thought easy access to guns and violence in video games both contribute to increased violence and aggression in children.

Lack of parental supervision scored the highest in the survey, with 93 percent of respondents identifying it as the largest factor contributing to violence.

In Southington, Conn., only a half-hour drive from Sandy Hook Elementary, parents and community leaders decided to educate themselves about the games their children are playing.

Southington SOS, a community outreach group of business owners, clergy, town officials and parents, said the shooting had devastating effects in their nearby community.

The shooting “rocked the world,” Southington SOS Chairman John Myers said Wednesday.

“When it’s right down the road, you really feel it,” he said.

The group brainstormed ideas to help alleviate the suffering of their neighbors, Myers said.

What they settled on initially drew widespread attention – a voluntary “Violent Games Return” program. Officials planned to collect video games, music CDs and violent movies turned in voluntarily by concerned parents for public destruction and disposal.

“The group’s action is not intended to be construed as statement declaring that violent video games were the cause of the shocking violence in Newtown on December 14th,” a statement on the group’s website reads. “Rather, Southington SOS is saying … that there is ample evidence that violent video games, along with violent media of all kinds, including TV and movies portraying story after story showing a continuous stream of violence and killing, has contributed to increasing aggressiveness, fear, anxiety and is desensitizing our children to acts of violence including bullying.”

Myers said he fielded calls from across the nation on both sides of the issue – those in support of the program and others criticizing the group’s actions.

Critics on various video gaming websites decried the move as a “book burning” event.

But the group’s right to hold the demonstration – much like the games’ content – is protected by freedom of speech, Madonna said.

“It’s a symbolic moment,” similar to the many gun buy-back programs held across the nation, Madonna said.

“Once you do this, it’s fair game, it’s in the public venue,” Madonna said. “People can react the way they want.”

Charles said he had no problem personally with the collection program as a result of the shooting.

“They try very hard to create a rational explanation of what happened that makes them feel like they could try to do something about it,” Charles said. “It’s a very reasonable hypothesis – ‘maybe this had a causal relation.’ But it’s still just a hypothesis.”

Ultimately, Southington SOS canceled the event.

Myers said that wasn’t prompted by public pressure, but rather a decision to accomplish the goal they initially set out to achieve: facilitating discussion between parents and their children concerning violent video games.

“Do parents really know what their kids are watching?” Myers said. “As the [Southington] superintendent of schools said, if one parent and one child had the conversation, than we’ve succeeded.”

Respecting the ratings

One of the games cited by LaPierre, “Bulletstorm,” received widespread criticism for its depiction of violent and sexual behavior following the game’s release in February 2011.

In response, the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, defended the title and the appropriateness of its M-rating.

“The game and its marketing adhere to all guidelines set forth by the ESRB; both are designed for people 17-plus. Never is the game marketed to children,” Tammy Schachter, vice president of public relations for Electronic Arts, said in a 2011 interview with gaming magazine Game Informer. “Epic, People Can Fly and EA support the right of artists to create works of entertainment fiction for consumers of all ages, including adults who enjoy action adventures like ‘Bulletstorm.’ Much like Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ or Rodriguez’s ‘Sin City,’ this game is an expression of creative entertainment for adults.”

Many of the other games mentioned during the NRA’s press conference – specifically games in the long-running “Grand Theft Auto” series, have been criticized for allowing children to be “willing” participants of violence.

But parents need to take responsibility and limit the video game content their children have access to, said Chris Danella, owner of Chris’ Yard Sale store on Pleasant Valley Boulevard.

“Parents need to pay more attention to their kids, period,” Danella said.

The store sells video games ranging from “E for Everyone” to “M for Mature,” Danella said.

Often, a child will come into the store knowing what game he or she wants to purchase. And parents usually oblige without giving much thought to the rating, Danella said.

While the store has not fielded many complaints about violent video games from shoppers, Danella said it was not surprising to see national concern regarding children playing M-rated titles.

It is a good idea for parents to have some idea of what types of media their kids are exposed to, Charles said.

He recommended parents carefully review each game’s specific ESRB rating.

A cartoon-style game can have just as much, if not more, violence when compared to a realistic-looking game, Charles said. Sitting down and watching the child play the game is another way for adults to experience the media their children consume, he said.

Many of the blockbuster games on the market today have become much more cinematic, Charles said. Some games contain hours of cinematic cut scenes where the player is left passive, unable to control the action, he said.

Charles said he also envisions a future in which movies and television shift toward a more interactive approach for the viewer.

Still, Charles said, both are forms of entertainment. And while officials should question every motive behind actions such as the violent shooting in Connecticut, he said placing the blame solely on video games and other forms of media is misguided.

“It’s also the case that the extreme violence depicted in a very small number of video games is not easy to do, and most people understand very well that it’s fantasy,” Charles said.

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.