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 Banning violent video games would do little to avert the next mass murder

James Alan Fox

March 24, 2013

Reports that Adam Lanza was deeply immersed in violent video games have prompted questions about whether gamesmanship instilled in him the will and the skill to commit mass murder. This has given new and powerful ammunition to those who look to blame the gaming industry for Sandy Hook and similar atrocities.

It is not surprising that most schoolyard shooters and many adult mass murderers had played violent video games in their spare time. Violent people are often attracted to violent entertainment — on TV, in film or through game consoles. But the ability to document a causal link — that consuming violent entertainment leads to violent behavior — has eluded social scientists for years.

Preoccupation with video games, although hardly healthy, is more a symptom of personal problems than a cause of them. For Lanza, it was his social awkwardness and reclusiveness that impacted both his spending long hours playing games and his desire to strike back against a society that he perceived as unwelcoming.

This is not the first time that critics have implicated entertainment media — especially video games — for stunning episodes of extreme violence. The entertainment industry has often been used as a convenient scapegoat, and censorship as an easy solution. A Gallup Poll taken after the 1999 Columbine massacre found that 62% of adults felt that entertainment media were a major cause for school violence, and 83% supported restrictions on sales of violent media to children.

It is tempting to point fingers at this profitable industry, while ignoring some of the root causes of violence that are much more difficult to resolve. The extent that youngsters (and some adults) spend endless hours being entertained by violence says more about lack of supervision and control as well as disengagement.

It isn’t that the entertainment media are so powerful, but that other institutions — family, school, religion and community — have grown weaker. Banning violent entertainment seems like an easy fix, but would do little to avert the next mass murder.

James Alan Fox is hte Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University in Boston and authors of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.