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Games and Violence Revisited

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January 15 2013

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the U.S., it's no surprise that the debate over gun control has once again reached a fevered pitch. A task force led by Vice President Joe Biden has been hastily thrown together to address the issue of gun violence, and that might be a good idea if it's not just political posturing. What does strike me as odd, perhaps even offensive, is that "video game leaders" have been asked to participate, implying that there is a significant correlation between playing games and gun violence.

When the issue of gun control comes up, it's remarkable how quickly some people (notably the NRA) arrive at the conclusion that, "Guns don't kill people, video games kill people." As a favorite scapegoat for so many of societies ills, we've come to expect this. And in the same breath, they will inevitably propose that the best way to reduce gun violence is, you guessed it, more guns. Armed guards, armed teachers, and presumably someday, armed children, just in case the teacher gets shot first.

The rhetoric surrounding this issue might lead one to believe that we live in very violent times, but it's worth emphasizing that violent crime in the U.S. has dropped considerably in the last two decades, despite both the proliferation of violent games and higher rates of gun ownership. Clearly part of the problem here is the public perception that crime is reaching epidemic proportions while it is actually declining. Crime is news and it will always be news, but it does need to be kept in perspective.

Of course, violence is always a concern regardless of how often it happens, and it's evident that the U.S. has a relatively high rate of gun violence for a developed nation. The key difference between the U.S. and countries like Japan, Korea, and Canada is not the availability of violent video games, but the availability of guns. After all, American culture and Canadian culture are not worlds apart; we play the same games often on the same servers, watch the same movies, and even eat the same food at the same fast food chains. We can't blame it all on culture, and even if we could, culture is not something that is easily fixed.

At some point Americans are going to have to decide what level of weaponry an ordinary citizen should have access to. It's a complicated matter made more complicated by the Second Ammendment, as well as the absurd notion that handguns and hunting rifles are going to play a significant role in next revolution. Should we all have access to rocket-propelled grenades and laser-guided missiles because they might come in handy during an armed uprising?

Surely some discussion of mental health care is also warranted, or at least some discussion of how to keep the guns from getting into the hands of people with serious mental disorders. If the availability of firearms can't be reduced, we need better ways to ensure that they are properly secured when not in use. There's a lot of relevant ground to cover before we get to video games, which are, at most, peripheral to the entire issue.

That's why Kris Graft over at Gamasutra was absolutely right when he argued that game industry representatives do not belong on this task force. As he says, attendance is really an admission that you're part of the problem. It makes little sense to show up merely to explain why you shouldn't be there.

At any rate, I don't expect much to come out of the task force. We all know there will be more shootings, and when there are, we all know the finger will once again get pointed at video games. Who knows, maybe the next task force will be different.

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